When most people think of charcoal, they picture summer grills and smoky meat. But there’s another kind of charcoal – a natural treatment that traps the toxins and chemicals in your body and sends them down your toilet.
These two charcoals are completely different. The kind used in your barbecue is loaded with toxins and chemicals and should NOT be consumed. It’s made by heating wood or other organic materials together, in an oxygen-free environment.
The finished product is mostly comprised of carbon, and for cooking or heating it’s better than burning wood because it burns at higher temperatures and gives off very little smoke – perfect for the barbecue. It also takes up a lot less storage space than wood does.
The charcoal that you eat is something else. . .
Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon, is taken by mouth to eliminate toxins from the body. It’s black, but is usually found as a fine, odorless powder.
As a medication, it’s used to treat poisoning that happens when you eat things you shouldn’t, such as certain medications, though it won’t help if someone ingests the more serious stuff, like arsenic or acids. It is sometimes used in cases of overdose, in situations where stomach pumping isn’t ideal.
But choosing the right antidotes for poisons is a complicated subject and not what we’re going to focus on today. I’m talking about using activated charcoal for the everyday poisons that kill you over a period of twenty or thirty years.
Activated charcoal is a natural way to clean out your body and rid it of these toxins and chemicals that build up over time. And that’s exactly the kind of useful thing you need to know if preventing or treating cancer is at the top of your agenda…
The world is already on board
Activated charcoal has been around since the 1900s. In early 19th century England, it was sold in the form of “charcoal biscuits” to help with flatulence and stomach problems.
Today, activated charcoal is found on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, which comprises the most effective and safest medicines needed in a functioning health system. Medicinal charcoal is cheap, too – between 46 and 85 cents per dose.
Making it involves heating carbon-heavy materials, like coconut shells, sawdust, wood, or peat to extremely high temperatures. This process strips the raw material of previously absorbed molecules and frees up bonding sites so there’s room for toxins to attach.
The heating process also shrinks the size of the pores found in charcoal and makes more holes in each molecule. This increases the surface area of those molecules, again leaving more room for toxins to attach.
Most countries sell activated charcoal as an over-the-counter remedy, mainly recommended to treat gastrointestinal issues such as flatulence, diarrhea, and indigestion.
But more and more, activated charcoal is being recommended as a resource for people who are at risk of cancer or already have it. It’s been shown to help prevent diarrhea in cancer patients who’ve been prescribed irinotecan, a chemotherapy drug given by IV to treat small cell lung cancer and colon cancer. Diarrhea and vomiting are common side effects, which is where the activated charcoal helps.
Like sticky-fly paper for your stomach
Most people think activated charcoal absorbs the toxins in your body. In fact it uses a different process altogether, called adsorption. Here’s the difference:
Absorption occurs where things get soaked up and assimilated into the bloodstream.
Adsorption, in contrast, is a chemical reaction in which things bind to a surface.
And because activated charcoal has a negative electric charge, it attracts and bonds with positive-charged toxins and gas. The binding process generates heat, which is what gives rise to the “activation” step in activated charcoal.
The result is toxins in your body end up getting trapped – bonded to – these little nooks and crannies that exist throughout the activated charcoal. Then you eliminate the whole bundle when you go to the bathroom (warning: your stool will be black).
This appears to be what took place in a study that used activated charcoal together with with anticancer agents to treat 180 patients with stomach cancer. Detoxification wasn’t the main object of the study. Instead, the mixture of medicine and activated charcoal was used to selectively deliver anticancer agents to participants’ lymphatic systems, to see if the charcoal could act as a carrier material for the task. It did, and the results were excellent.
In another study, this one published in Integrative Cancer Therapies, activated charcoal was examined as a treatment for chemoradiotherapy-associated mucositis (inflammation of the mucous membranes of the digestive tract). It appeared to help significantly with chemotherapy-induced diarrhea.
Black ice cream is a no-go, but these other ideas are good
If you take activated charcoal, you need to drink plenty of water – ideally 12-16 glasses per day (phew!) That gets the charcoal and the toxins flushed out of your body quicker and helps prevent constipation.
Activated charcoal has several other uses as well. For starters, it’s growing in popularity as a natural teeth whitener. No doubt black toothpaste is a little unsettling at first, but from we’ve been able to learn it works well.
Activated charcoal also helps to filter water by trapping toxins like pesticides, industrial waste, and other chemicals. (Note that it won’t trap viruses or bacteria.)
It’s even said to be a great treatment for acne or insect bites because – the same way it does inside your body — activated charcoal binds with poisons and toxins that cause skin problems and bite reactions.
You can find the product in capsule or powder form pretty much wherever supplements are sold. I don’t have any opinion about the various brands.
The major side effects to worry about are constipation, or in extremely rare cases, a blockage in your intestinal tract. But that’s not likely to happen if you stick to the recommended dosage. You also need to note any potential reactions with other drugs you might be taking, so ask your doctor about that.
Like almost anything, this health remedy is occasionally taken too far. Some folks swear that putting activated charcoal in your cocktails will save you from the next morning’s hangover. Not true. It also doesn’t sound like an appetizing drink.
There’s even a trend toward activated charcoal ice cream (color: black) or eating bamboo-charcoal buns with your burgers. I think it’s more sensible to stick to the capsules, take them as directed, and see what it does for you.
- “8 Healthy Uses for Activated Charcoal — And 3 You Can Skip.” By Erin Levi Sep 19, 2018.
- “Activated Charcoal.” By WebMD, referenced 24 July 2019.
- “Adjunctive Treatments for the Prevention of Chemotherapy- and Radiotherapy-Induced Mucositis.” By Thomsen M., Vitetta L. et al. Integr Cancer Ther. 2018 Dec;17(4):1027-1047.
- “Emulsion and activated carbon in cancer chemotherapy.” By Takahashi T. Crit Rev Ther Drug Carrier Syst. 1986;2(3):245-74.
- “Top 10 Activated Charcoal Uses, Plus Potential Side Effects.” By Dr. Josh Axe, July 5, 2019.
- “What are the benefits of activated charcoal?” By Jennifer Huizen, Fri 27 July 2018.