Think of charcoal and you might a barbecue or the product many artists use when sketching. But there is a medicinal form of charcoal, known as activated charcoal, that is used to treat a number of ailments, including heartburn, stomach bloating and flatulence. It is also used in cases of poisoning.
What It Is
Activated charcoal is a fine black powder that is very absorbent. It is created, or activated, by carbonizing organic matter -- such as coconut shells, peat, coal, petroleum coke and sawdust -- to increase its surface area and absorption capacity. It is used to soak up harmful or toxic substances that your body can't digest. Activated charcoal can only absorb toxins or chemicals that are still in your stomach and intestines. The charcoal and toxin are then removed from your system when you have a bowel movement. The most common way to take activated charcoal is in the form of a tasteless and odorless tablet. But it is also available in liquid and powder forms, which are most commonly used in the case of poisoning.
Gastroesophageal reflux is a digestive disorder that occurs when stomach acid travels back up your esophagus. This can cause a burning sensation in your chest, known as heartburn, that tends to get worse after eating or when lying down and can be quite painful. Activated charcoal can help treat both conditions by soaking up the excess acid in your stomach.
Activated charcoal is most effective in treating cases of poisoning if it is taken immediately after the toxin is ingested or within 30 minutes. While there are differing views on how much activated charcoal you should take, the substance is harmless as a one-off dose, and you should therefore take a minimum of 50 g to ensure maximum absorption of the toxin.
With its ability to absorb most poisons, charcoal can also be very effective in soaking up the gases and bacteria that accumulate in your gut and intestines. These substances are much less harmful than ingesting a poison, but they can cause uncomfortable bloating and flatulence. If you are suffering from either of these conditions, taking two charcoal tablets three times a day can help absorb the offending gases and help give your stomach a flatter appearance.
Anti-Aging and Detoxification
Activated charcoal’s ability to absorb toxins means that some believe it is an effective detoxification agent and anti-aging treatment. The theory is that by absorbing chemicals, activated charcoal can reduce allergies and diseases they may cause as well as they damage they can do to your skin.
Check with your doctor before using activated charcoal on a regular basis – especially if you have a food allergy or vitamin/mineral deficiency. It is also recommended you wait a few hours between taking any other medication and taking charcoal to allow your medications time to absorb into your system. If you experience constipation, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea as a result of taking activated charcoal – or your heartburn gets worse – stop taking it and seek medical advice.
Jessica began her writing career in 1995 and is Senior Editor at a London communications agency, where she writes and edits corporate publications covering health, I.T., banking and finance. Jessica has also written for consumer magazines including "Cosmopolitan" and travel, home/lifestyle and bridal titles. Jessica holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and journalism from the University of Queensland.