Activated Charcoal: The Stomach Sponge

Activated Charcoal: The Stomach Sponge

The Spartan Guide to Activated Charcoal

The Claim Typically made from wood or coal, black charcoal (also known as activated carbon) becomes “activated” in a chemical reaction involving heat and an activating agent, like gas. The resulting structure is covered with pores that help it absorb compounds and usher them out of the body.

The Evidence Activated charcoal works well for removing compounds that are still in you GI tract, says Janelle Louis, a functional medicine practitioner at Focus Integrative Healthcare in Overland Park, Kansas. “I typically prescribe activated charcoal internally for food poisoning, diarrhea, and any other case of gastrointestinal upset,” she says. It's used often in the case of drug overdoses, and people frequently use it to ease gas and prevent and treat hangovers. But don't assume it will let you drink all the booze you want; its role as a hangover cure is poorly studied.

How to Use It Capsules are available, but they can be expensive. “I typically recommend that [my patients] purchase the powder, mix it in water, and drink it,” Louis says. Because charcoal soaks up whatever it can and ushers it out of the body, she recommends you refrain from using charcoal for at least 90 minutes before and after taking pharmaceutical medication.

Louis also prescribes it as a homemade topical spread (just mix it into water), which allows the activated charcoal's pores to help draw out irritants. “I recommend it in a poultice alone or with ground flaxseed to help soothe insect bites or stings and for highly inflamed joints and tissues,” she says. “I typically use one or two parts ground flaxseed and one part activated charcoal, because ground flax has a similar drawing ability to activated charcoal and makes the mixture easier to spread."

If you're taking the activated charcoal orally, start with a small dose to see how your body handles it. When taken by mouth, it can turn your tongue or stool black, and occasionally it leads to vomiting or constipation.