Activated charcoal is a natural remedy growing in popularity with chemical processes taking place in your gut when consumed that may be beneficial and may not be beneficial depending on the reasons it is taken and the current status of an individuals health.

I love to apply my chemistry knowledge when talking about natural remedies (Read my chemical analysis on Zinc Oxide in natural sunscreen) especially when consuming a chemical such as activated carbon to determine what it could do to the body.

Here I have analyzed what activated charcoal is, why people are consuming it, and the health warnings to heed before consuming it. My goal is to encourage natural healing but not when it could cause more harm than good.

Natural remedies should be understood as a medical practice that takes a deeper level of education. Even more so when mixed with conventional medical practices. The growing number of hospital visits from home remedy experimentation leads me to dig deeper into the natural world mixing with our modern world and offer health warnings to help keep us safe in our natural healing journey.

See also: Do NOT wrap your feet in aluminum foil and 7 deadly essential oils health warnings.

What Is Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal is carbon processed at very high temperatures in order to increase its surface area becoming more porous.

It is made from bone char, coconut shells, peat, petroleum coke, coal, olive pits or sawdust then ground down to a fine powder.

The carbon molecule is negatively charged with a high internal surface area ideal for adsorption of certain positively charged molecules.

Why Are People Consuming Activated Charcoal

Now that you know activated charcoal efficiently adsorbs other molecules, people are consuming it to adsorb molecules they don’t want in their gut to eliminate it from their bodies naturally.

Here are the most common reasons people are consuming activated charcoal:

  • Detox
  • Prevent gas
  • Reduce cholesterol
  • Natural hangover remedy
  • Reduce upset stomach
  • Treat medication overdose

As with most natural remedies, there is not enough scientific research to prove or disprove the efficacy of activated charcoal with most of these reasons. The most well known reason is to naturally treat medication overdose or chemical toxicity. A word from poison control, the emergency room is the best place to treat and monitor medication overdose and chemical toxicity as the proper dose of activated charcoal is not known at home nor is the effect on the medication or toxin in question.

What People Don’t Know Before Consuming Activated Charcoal

The biggest concern when taking activated charcoal as a supplement is that it only reacts with positively charged molecules and is not picky which ones. If a person eats something that upsets their stomach and takes activated charcoal to relieve symptoms, the activated charcoal may adsorb other vital nutrients or not adsorb the intended substance causing the symptoms at all.

As stated earlier, it is a negatively charged molecule. It can easily adsorb other positively charged molecules. Most heavy metals are positively charged providing a promising detox effect. But, only in the stomach and intestines when consumed close to the same time as the activated charcoal. Typically within an hour.

Once toxic heavy metals are already in the blood and rest of the body, the charcoal remedy is useless since it’s not absorbed by our bodies and just eliminated. If you are concerned about heavy metal toxicity, this article may be of more use than experimenting and possibly causing more harm than good.

So chances of an actual detox is slim. What is more likely to happen is the adsorption of the good electrolytes, vitamins and minerals that our bodies do need.

Positively charged electrolytes include:

  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium

As far as vitamin and mineral absorption in the body goes, these are only absorbed in the charged state meaning either negative or positively charged according to Precision Nutrition.

Even certain foods as simple as spinach and grains can interrupt the absorption of vitamins and minerals. So when you add a negatively charged molecule like activated charcoal, you can count on the positively charged vitamins and minerals not absorbing in your gut when you need it.

Your guts are chemical soup with a lot of chemical reactions going on. Hydrogen alone can disrupt the pH also disrupting nutrient absorption. Adding more chemicals that are negatively charged is a bit risky to say the least.

When You Should Not Ingest Activated Charcoal

You now have an idea about the risks involved when ingesting activated charcoal. So when exactly shouldn’t you ingest it?

  1. Taking other medications for health reasons
  2. Trying to rid a hangover
  3. Taking medication containing estrogen
  4. Need to do a heavy metal detox
  5. Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  6. Malnourished

Taking other medications for health reasons

There are 2 MAJOR drug interactions associated with activated charcoal ingestion and 76 MODERATE drug interactions (drugs.com). The list of drugs are very common and can lead to inactivating your medication causing problems with your current health condition.

Trying to rid a hangover

A reason people are taking activated charcoal is in hopes to remedy a hangover when this is actually when you should not ingest activated charcoal. Your body needs those essential electrolytes to stay hydrated. The charcoal will just prevent absorbing those positively charged electrolytes. If you also plan to take Aspirin or Tylenol for your hangover headache, activated charcoal will also prevent absorption of that too as it is on the list of drug interactions.

The charcoal will do more harm than good in this case. So if you’re looking for a more effective natural remedy for hangovers, try this method instead.

Taking medication containing estrogen

Activated carbon is used in the treatment of water to remove estrogens and does so very efficiently (NCBI). Medications for menopause and even some forms of birth control can become inactive when ingesting activated charcoal. This is especially concerning in the prevention of pregnancy. Antibiotics are another concern with inactivating birth control. 

Need to do a heavy metal detox

Your body is very efficient at natural detox when your liver and kidneys are working appropriately. After time, heavy metals can accumulate in the body usually in soft tissues. Activated charcoal does not work throughout the whole body. There are other ways to detox that work more efficiently specifically for heavy metal detox and toxicity may require monitoring.  The first step in identifying the true NEED for heavy metal detox is to test your blood for heavy metal levels.

Are pregnant or breastfeeding

You and your baby need all the nutrients your body can get to support both of you. Knowing activated charcoal can inhibit the absorption of vital nutrients, taking activated charcoal may not be the best idea. Just like natural hangover cures and heavy metal detoxes, there are most likely other natural remedies to try for your problems during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Ginger was my best friend for morning sickness. Peppermint was a heartburn savior and yoga helped keep my intestines moving as it should.

Malnourished

Magnesium deficiency is becoming extremely common in the United States. It is a deficiency not widely talked about and can explain common problems with muscle aches and fatigue. Taking activated charcoal can worsen a case of malnutrition especially magnesium deficiency you may not realize you already have. Magnesium deficiency is not tested as often as vitamin D or Iron deficiencies. Your nutrition is something to think about before experimenting with any natural detox recommended by friends.

Summary

Activated charcoal is being used as a natural remedy for a variety of reasons, but when ingested, it might not be the natural remedy of choice as there this molecule can adsorb vital nutrients the body needs and can interact with many medications.

The interactions are caused by activated charcoal having a negative charge adsorbing positively charged molecules. The adsorptions occurs only in the gut and is eliminated in the stool.

Those with previous health conditions should err on the safe side and think twice about ingesting activated charcoal as a home remedy for any ailment.

There is much to learn about natural remedies especially when used with conventional medical practices. These natural resources may be very useful on the proper use of natural substances.

Be safe out there and be sure to research any natural advise given for common ailments.