When You Should and Shouldn’t Use Activated Charcoal for Indigestion

By Kara Reynolds | Aug 30, 2018

Is your gut the engine that couldn’t poot, but definitely feels the pain? Stomach discomfort makes you want to hug your pillow close, fold yourself into a blanket burrito and hide away from the world. Bloating, indigestion and pain — the triple threat of all stomach woes plagues your existence. Indigestion takes the cake, but one little black tablet might save the day. Activated charcoal comes in pill, powder and liquid form, and people often use it to absorb toxins after ingestion — and now, indigestion. The pill is an easy home remedy, but should you take it before you pop, or will it make matters worse?

What Does Activated Charcoal Help Soothe?

Researchers have found activated charcoal relieves symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, ulcers and other stomach ailments. Many people include it in their travel first-aid kit. Activated charcoal attacks toxins by binding to the ones in fats and along the digestive tract, assisting with food processing without forcing their bodies to put in extra work. It’s been used orally for decades to treat for poisoning and reduce phenytoin levels. Activated charcoal isn’t helpful against all poisons, so if you’ve ingested poison, get to a healthcare professional for treatment. For example, it does nothing for cyanide, lithium, alcohol or iron overdoses. It’s often used in conjunction with the cancer drug irinotecan to help prevent the side effect of diarrhea. Swallowing one little black pill helps relieve gas in the lower intestine. Activated charcoal also reduces bloating, since it attaches to acids which cause indigestion, bloating and reflux. No more “food baby!” Ha!

What’s Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal comes from natural materials such as peat, wood, bamboo and coconut shells heated up until they become porous, which enables the substances to soak up toxins like a sponge. Also called “activated carbon,” the pill is produced so it has low-volume pores, which increases absorption. Always buy activated charcoal from health food stores and pharmacies, since activated charcoal isn’t the same kind you grill with — no, you can’t take a nail file to a piece of charcoal and swallow it. That’s a very, very bad idea. You can, however, take food-grade activated charcoal internally to remove toxins that slipped into your digestive tract, such as pesticides and chemicals. You cannot find activated charcoal in nature or get it from food. You must take a manufactured form of the product.

How Do You Take Activated Charcoal?

Don’t treat activated charcoal like another daily vitamin. Only use the supplement as you need it, since researchers still need time to study how the human body’s internal systems that perform cleaning actions respond to taking activated charcoal — however, one study found a significant reduction in abdominal cramps and bloating. The most common form of activated charcoal for home use is the pill form, but it also comes in a powder form, which is mixed with water, and in liquid forms. Hospitals sometimes administer a charcoal sludge when someone ingests too much of a substance, but this only works on some vitamins and medications and not with every type of substance, so a medical professional should decide if it is truly helpful or not for each individual circumstance. Take the pill two hours before for optimal benefits, or two hours after eating a large meal to calm bloating with positive effects. You shouldn’t take it too close to mealtime, since the activated charcoal could also absorb nutrients you want to keep in your body. Drink eight ounces of water along with the dose and be sure to continue drinking water. If you don’t hydrate enough, charcoal can result in constipation.

Activated Charcoal Helps Digestive Health in Many Ways

Activated charcoal does more than soothe your stomach. It also benefits your digestive health. Digestion begins in the mouth, where saliva breaks down the food as you chew. Your teeth may endure damage from sugars and acids, and develop stains from the foods you eat. You may end up getting gingivitis or periodontitis, a gum disease that affects your bone health and potentially leads to serious cardiovascular health concerns. Besides brushing and flossing regularly, introducing active charcoal into your oral care routine helps keep you healthy overall. Since you can’t take activated charcoal all the time, use it to keep your teeth clean. Wet your toothbrush and place the activated charcoal powder on the bristles. You can also coat the pea-sized toothpaste on your brush with the activated charcoal. Brush three to five minutes for whitening action as the absorbency of the activated charcoal cleans your teeth. Spit every so often into the sink. Your mouth will look a little ashy — perfect for scaring the family, but effective for teeth cleaning. So, wash well with water.

Other Health Benefits of Activated Charcoal

Folk medicine and anecdotal evidence also point to activated charcoal having a host of other health benefits. While the research isn’t yet available to prove its usefulness in these areas, you may want to chat with your healthcare provider about whether adding it to your other supplements would help:

  • Hangover: Taking charcoal may help alleviate the symptoms of a hangover. Studies show the supplement reduced blood alcohol when tested in canines when served at the same time as the drink, but didn’t work when given 30 minutes after drinking. One reason for this may be the rapid absorption rate of alcohol in the stomach. If you’re concerned about a hangover, try drinking the supplement prior to having an alcoholic beverage and see if it helps reduce the effect.
  • Food Poisoning: Activated charcoal may help bind the toxins in food poisoning and reduce the symptoms. The sooner you take the charcoal once realizing you have food poisoning, the better.
  • Kidney Detox: Studies show some positive effects due to filtering out toxins. Animal studies show improved overall kidney function in lab rats induced with chronic kidney disease. The supplement reduced inflammation and damage in the renal system.

Activated Charcoal’s Other Potential Uses

Activated charcoal also works as a natural water filtration system. If you spend a lot of time outdoors or are a survivalist, knowing the benefits of filtering water through charcoal may come in handy at some point in your adventures. After all, water is at the core of a healthy lifestyle. Investing in an at-home water filtration system that utilizes charcoal removes as much as 100 percent of fluoride found in water samples. People also use activated charcoal for cosmetic purposes, such as to deep clean and whiten their teeth and for skin care. Products with activated charcoal draw out toxins and bacteria to the surface of the skin. Charcoal may help with minor skin infections as well.

Pay Attention to the Label

Activated charcoal possesses many health merits for the body, but like any substance, you should use it safely. Pay attention to the label, and follow instructions regarding dosage. Too much causes diarrhea, similar to getting the espresso runs, but darker and more powdery. Avoid activated charcoal if you have kidney or liver conditions or if pregnant. Don’t rely on activated charcoal solely for poison control. Contact your poison control center or doctor. If you take other medications, consult your doctor, since the absorbency of activated charcoal can siphon out other medications’ active ingredients and render them ineffective. In particular, be aware of the impact on drugs such as digoxin, acetaminophen, theophylline and some antidepressants. If your doctor gives you the OK to take activated charcoal, take it at a different time from your other meds. Keep your digestive system happy and healthy by including activated charcoal in your detox regimen occasionally. Everybody gets a little buildup in the gut from time to time — just remember not to use the kind of charcoal from the grill. That could go very wrong.

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