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What They Don’t Tell You About Swallowing Activated Charcoal

You see millions of photos of charcoal-based items from influencers when you go on Instagram. In fact, it has become a star in the foodie scene as many tout its health benefits and revere its photogenic aesthetic. However, here is what they don’t tell you.

Charcoal Is Used in Hospitals

The Japanese have used it for thousands of years to purify their drinking water and hospitals use medical grade charcoal to save people from poisoning or overdoses. The carbon in charcoal acts as a natural binder, which attracts other substances it comes into contact with in the gastrointestinal tract. In other words, activated charcoal is able to bind to some toxic poisons in your stomach before your body does to prevent toxic chemicals from entering your bloodstream. It is especially successful when it is administered up to 4 hours after a poison is ingested. 

Using It as a Hangover Cure?

We all want that quick fix after a hard night of drinking. There are many products on the market that claim to do just that, particularly using activated charcoal. However, studies have shown that alcohol doesn’t bind to activated charcoal at all.

According to Dr. Ziad Kazzi, “activated charcoal cannot bind to molecular compounds such as ethanol, so popping a charcoal pill will not suck out the alcohol you consumed”. Ethanol is absorbed quickly in the stomach too, so by the time you take a charcoal pill in the morning, any alcohol that was in your stomach would be gone. Charcoal is not the miracle worker we hope it would be when it comes to hangovers.

What about Charcoal in Food?

Charcoal in food is such a trend and you probably want to get in on the action too. The problem is that charcoal can bind to other substances in your stomach. It can bind to foods or medications you have consumed, which could prevent you from absorbing any necessary nutrients and reduce the effectiveness of your medications. In fact, the New York Department of Health has banned the use of charcoal in food as it can be harmful when ingested in large amounts.

Charcoal for Gas & Bloating

We have all experienced this at some point after a large meal or simply from eating the wrong thing. Charcoal is often recommended as a solution, but the research for this particular usage is limited at best. The studies that do exist for this issue claim that extra spaces in charcoal trap molecules and reduce gas that causes bloating. It is particularly effective when combined with simethicone, which is a medication that breaks apart gas bubbles and make them easier to absorb or pass but the side effects of constipation might outweigh the benefits of not feeling bloated.

The Dire Side Effects No One Talks About

Despite all the hype about ingesting charcoal, people don’t mention the constipation it causes. It also comes at a cost of also binding to nutrients in your digestive track and could eliminate their effectiveness, here are some of the other symptoms that ingesting charcoal can cause:

  • Tongue discoloration
  • Black stools
  • Interactions with acetaminophen (Tylenol) and other similar drugs

However, Charcoal Still Works like a Dream for Topical Applications

Here’s the thing, no one loves activated charcoal more than I do when it is used topically. I use it for our deodorants and a water filter. But after reading all this research, I can’t recommend it for ingestion. Between the side effects of constipation and its interactions with nutrients and medication, I believe the only time you should be consuming charcoal is under the supervision of a medical professional during an emergency situation.

If you have any stories about active charcoal consumption, please let us know below!

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