Most of us hear the word charcoal and immediately think of the well-loved BBQ grill sitting out on the back porch, but the new darling of the wellness world is much more than the charcoal briquettes and campfire leftovers you’re used to. Indeed, activated charcoal is making the rounds as a bona fide superstar ingredient in everything from water filters and detox recipes to beauty products and toothpaste. But, when it comes to your health, activated charcoal may truly be your new best friend.
How activated charcoal (actually) works.
Made by burning a carbon-containing material (like bamboo, wood, coal, or coconut shells) without oxygen into a carbon "char" and then processing it at high temperatures, activated charcoal is a pitch-black powder with a highly porous surface that enables it to bind very effectively with a variety of substances.
In fact, all the tiny holes in activated charcoal make for a huge exterior—just 1 gram can have a surface area of more than 32,000 square feet! Hard to picture? Imagine this: 1 teaspoon of activated charcoal powder has nearly the same surface area as a football field! The expansive surface area makes activated charcoal perfect for the process of adsorption (note, this isn’t the same as absorption), whereby contaminants, chemicals, poisons, and other elements adhere to the surface of the charcoal. This ability to bind to and "carry out" toxins solidifies activated charcoal’s reputation as an excellent purifier.
Although Native Americans likely used it as a treatment for stomach upset even earlier, the first recorded use of activated charcoal for health dates back to around 1500 B.C., when Egyptians reportedly utilized it to adsorb odors from infections in wounds and the intestinal tract. Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder also wrote about activated charcoal’s beneficial health effects, but it wasn’t until the 1800s when it became commonly employed as a well-known remedy for various conditions. It’s clear that activated charcoal has a rich history dating back to ancient times, but what do we use this amazing powder for today?
7 ways to use charcoal to be a healthier, happier you.
Activated charcoal has come into its own over the last several centuries and now is making its way into all sorts of wellness potions and lotions. Here are seven ways activated charcoal can benefit your overall health:
1. As a poison antidote.
Often used in cases of poisoning and drug overdose, activated charcoal is a staple in hospitals and medical centers all over the world. Due to its porous nature and negative electrical charge, activated charcoal can bind to a vast variety of drugs and toxins in the digestive tract, preventing them from absorbing into the bloodstream and safely escorting them out of the body.
In the same vein, activated charcoal can help in cases of food poisoning by adsorbing bad bacteria and the toxins they create before they have a chance to make you even sicker, making it the perfect international travel companion. Although anecdotal, many people also swear by activated charcoal as a potent remedy for nausea and vomiting due to stomach bugs.
2. For detoxification.
Activated charcoal supplements, or charcoal-infused drinks and food (hello, activated charcoal ice cream!), can detoxify and cleanse your body by removing toxins, chemicals, and pesticides that can keep you from feeling your best. Studies also show that activated charcoal can improve kidney function by taking on the burden of urinary urea removal, and it can lower cholesterol levels by absorbing bile salts.
And when it comes to overconsumption of alcohol, although activated charcoal taken after the fact won’t adsorb the alcohol, it will adsorb other chemicals that can make you feel sick and hung over. However, research shows that taking activated charcoal at the same time as drinking can significantly reduce blood alcohol concentration.
3. As a natural deodorizer.
No one likes to smell less than fresh, but people who deal with trimethylaminuria (also called "fish odor syndrome") have an especially hard time staying odor-free due to an inability to convert fishy-smelling trimethylamine (TMA) to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), leading to a buildup of TMA in sweat, urine, and breath. Fortunately, intake of activated charcoal for just 10 days reduces the compound (and the smell) to normal levels. Activated charcoal’s powerful deodorizing properties also make it perfect for neutralizing stinky smells in shoes, gym bags, and refrigerators—look for inserts or pouches made specifically for your intended purpose, or make your own!
4. To soothe intestinal pain.
Gas and bloating can really put a damper on mealtime enjoyment, but activated charcoal has been shown to significantly reduce bloating, gas, and abdominal cramps by binding gas-producing food by-products in the gut. Taken an hour or so before a typical gas-producing meal, activated charcoal can work to alleviate digestive discomfort.
Bonus? When you do experience gas after a particularly decadent meal, activated charcoal can adsorb hydrogen sulfide, the compound responsible for that embarrassing rotten-egg smell.
5. To beautify the skin and hair.
Using activated charcoal as an internal detoxifying agent can certainly get rid of some of the toxins that can contribute to acne and other skin issues, but topical use (it’s a popular ingredient in face masks) can also quell inflammation, soothe irritation, and draw bacteria, impurities, and other unwanted substances out of pores to reveal radiant skin.
Similarly, activated charcoal can help to remove chemicals and product buildup that can leave hair looking dull and lifeless and can soothe itchy and irritated scalps. To use as a periodic deep-cleaning treatment, just add a teaspoon of powder to your regular shampoo, wash, and rinse thoroughly.
6. To protect the gut microbiome from antibiotics.
Sometimes antibiotics are necessary, but they indiscriminately wipe out all the beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract, leaving your gut environment decimated. In fact, just one course of antibiotics can mess up the microbial balance of your microbiome for up to an entire year!
However, preliminary research shows that special time-release forms of activated charcoal (that get delivered directly to the colon so they don’t interfere with antibiotic absorption) can "soak up" extra antibiotics in the large intestine before they can wipe out delicate gut bacteria. In fact, in one study, taking activated charcoal in addition to antibiotics protected more than 90 percent of the bacterial species that were negatively affected in subjects who consumed only antibiotics.
7. To supercharge oral health.
Activated charcoal powder can do in the mouth what it does in the rest of the body—adsorb bad bacteria, plaque, chemicals, and toxins that could be contributing to microbial imbalance, decay, staining, bad breath, gum irritation, and sensitivity. What’s more, activated charcoal promotes an alkaline oral environment, which counteracts the acidity that can erode enamel. Over several uses, activated charcoal will begin to clean and lift stains from teeth, revealing a whiter, brighter, healthier smile.
Although you can brush your teeth with the loose powder, it’s a very messy affair! Charcoal will stain grout and clothes, and the very fine powder tends to get everywhere. For easier application, look for an activated-charcoal-based natural toothpaste with the powder already incorporated within, then just squeeze onto your toothbrush as normal, brush (don’t forget to check out your pirate teeth in the mirror!), and rinse well.
With so many incredible uses, you can see why every well-stocked medicine cabinet and toiletry shelf should include activated charcoal. When it comes to supporting your overall health, few substances have as many wide-ranging applications as this powerful powder. Whether you’re looking for an effective detoxifier, are wanting to smooth and tone your skin, are searching for some bloating relief, or are simply hoping to up the wattage of your beautiful smile, activated charcoal is one ingredient that can’t be beat!
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