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Activated Charcoal: Universal Antidote and Detoxifier

By Richard C. Kaufman, Ph.D.

Activated charcoal is a highly absorbent gritty black material commonly found in air and water filters. Activated charcoal is created by carbonizing organic matter in a kiln under anaerobic conditions and activating the material with oxidizing gases like steam or air at high temperatures. This oxidative process erodes the charcoals internal surfaces and increases its adsorption capacity by creating an internal network of very fine pores. Usually bone char, coconut shells, peat, coal, petroleum coke, and sawdust are the starting materials for making activated charcoal.

Early Uses Of Charcoal

The medical uses for charcoal date back to the Egyptian Papyrus of 1550 B.C. During the time of Hippocrates (400 B.C.) physicians treated epilepsy and anthrax with charcoal. In the 1700s charcoal was often prescribed for bilious problems (excessive bile excretion). After the development of the charcoal activation process (1870 to 1920), many reports appeared in medical journals about activated charcoal as an antidote for poisons and a cure for intestinal disorders.

Contemporary Charcoal Use

Modern research has validated most of the early uses for charcoal and discovered exciting new applications. This article will discuss the many important therapeutic uses for activated charcoal;1,6

  • Universal antidote for drugs, chemicals and poisons.
  • Systemic clearance of drugs and intoxicants.
  • General detoxification.
  • Anti-aging and life extension.
  • Reducing cholesterol, coronary disease and arteriosclerosis.
  • Counteracting pathogens.
  • Intestinal complaints.

Antidote For Drugs, Chemicals and Poisons

Activated charcoal has the well-earned reputation of being a universal antidote. It can adsorb most organic chemicals, many inorganic chemicals and countless poisonous substances before they can cause harm. How well activated charcoal really works in practical situations depends on several different factors:8

  • The type of toxicant (its chemical structure and physical properties)
  • The amount and type of charcoal ingested.
  • The length of time from toxin ingestion to activated charcoal ingestion.
  • The contents of your intestinal fluids and intestinal transport efficiency.

As a general rule, a single large dose of activated charcoal should be taken as soon as possible after ingesting a poison. The amount of activated charcoal should exceed the toxic substance by a factor of eight (a ratio of 8:1). In other words, if youre poisoned with 5 grams of a chemical, you need to take at least 40 grams of activated charcoal. Other researchers recommend different dosages. Some experts believe a 10 to 1 ratio is correct. Still other experts recommend a fixed amount of 50 to 100 grams. I recommend ingesting a minimum of 50 grams of activated charcoal as a counterpoison, because ingesting large amounts of activated charcoal is harmless, and taking too little is ineffective. Besides, how often in the case of an emergency can you precisely determine the amount of the poison?

The actual effectiveness of the activated charcoal will vary, so take more than you think you require. Activated charcoal should be taken within 30 minutes of ingesting the poison. The longer the delay, the less effective activated charcoal will be. On some poisons delaying more than 30 minutes decreases the effectiveness of the activated charcoal as an antidote by up to 60%. The bottom line is plain and simple. Keeping activated charcoal in your medicine cabinet and taking it if you are poisoned could save your life and your money too. It has been estimated that use of activated charcoal for treating poisonings could reduce the stay in intensive care from 3 or 4 days to one, saving over $100,000,000 in health care costs and preventing unnecessary disability and death.11

Systemic Clearance of Drugs and Intoxicants

Nowadays, activated charcoal is often used to clear drugs and intoxicants that can enter the body through the intestinal tract, and even by injection and other routes. The systemic clearance of toxic substances or detoxification by activated charcoal is accomplished by taking multiple daily doses. Activated charcoal detoxifies the body in several manners:4

  • Purifies the 6-8 liters of digestive fluids that are secreted daily which in turn helps remove foreign substances from the blood.
  • Absorbs the intoxicant substance and its metabolites that are excreted into the small intestine from the biliary (bile) tract, preventing their reabsorption.
  • Absorbs drugs that diffuse back into the stomach and intestines.
  • Decreases the detoxification work load of the liver.

Activated charcoal shortens the time it takes an intoxicant to leave the system and decreases the duration and intensity of symptoms.15 People who take activated charcoal after drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs such as cocaine or amphetamines recover quicker. I recommend activated charcoal as part of a drug recovery program to ease withdrawal symptoms and reduce drug craving. Other nutrients that help are the neurotransmitter precursors L-Tyrosine, L-Tryptophan, L-Phenylalanine, Choline and DMAE (Dimethylaminoethanol).

Even experts disagree on the best way of using multiple doses of activated charcoal to remove intoxicants. Most protocols are based on experience with drug overdosages. In actual clinical situations, the activated charcoal regimen is optimized to the patient. The doctor considers the type of toxic substance, severity of intoxification, digestive functions and electrolyte balance. For mild overdoses and intoxification, I suggest up to 80-100 grams divided into 4-6 daily doses of powdered activated charcoal until the symptoms are eliminated. Consult an expert who can optimize your regimen. For a dangerous overdosage call your physician or hospital immediately.

General Detoxification

Very few health practitioners realize that activated charcoal is the best single supplement for enhancing detoxification. Detoxification is an on-going biological process that prevents toxins (from infectious agents, food, air, water, and substances that contact the skin) from destroying health. Chronic exposure to toxins produces cellular damage, diverse diseases, allergic like reactions, compromised immunity and premature aging.14

To use activated charcoal in a detoxification plan, I recommend about 20 grams a day of powdered activated charcoal be taken in divided daily doses for several months or the duration of the detoxification program.

In addition to activated charcoal, the ideal detoxification prescription includes sauna baths, exercise, a special diet, and supplements (unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin C, niacin, proteolytic (protein digesting) enzymes, liver support phytonutrients and a comprehensive multiple nutrient formula.9

Anti-Aging and Life Extension

Dr. V. V. Frolkis, a famous Russian Gerontologist, and his colleagues have discovered that activated charcoal is a potent life-extending agent. Activated charcoal has been found to increase the mean lifespan of older test animals by approximately 40% and their maximum lifespan by approximately 34%.2

  • Activated charcoal decreases the age-related increase in the brain's sensitivity to drugs and toxins.
  • Activated charcoal normalizes cholesterol and lipid metabolism.
  • The regular use of activated charcoal improves the adaptive functioning of essential organs (the liver, kidneys, and adrenals). That translates into better defense mechanisms.

Microscopic tissue analysis shows that activated charcoal prevents many cellular changes associated with aging-decreased protein synthesis, lower RNA activity, arteriosclerosis, and organ fibrosis. So the cumulative effects from activated charcoal are longer life and improved overall health.19

A recommended protocol for anti-aging and life extension benefits is as follows: On two consecutive days each week, take about 30 grams each day of powdered activated charcoal in divided daily doses. Take charcoal in the morning, at midday and before bed on an empty stomach. Avoid excessive calories or unhealthy foods on those days.

Reducing Cholesterol and Coronary Artery Disease

You can help your heart and circulatory system by taking activated charcoal. Activated charcoal lowers the concentration of total lipids, cholesterol, and triglycerides in the blood serum, liver, heart and brain. In one study that was reported in the British journal, Lancet, on patients with high cholesterol, 8 gm of activated charcoal taken three times a day lowered total cholesterol 25%, lowered LDL cholesterol 41% and doubled their HDL/LDL (high-density lipoprotein/low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol ratio. Microscopic tissue examination studies have shown that a daily dose of activated charcoal may prevent sclerotic changes in the heart and coronary blood vessels. To help your heart and blood vessels, I suggest the following: 12-17 grams of activated charcoal twice a day for one month under the guidance of a physician who can measure cardiovascular improvements and cholesterol levels.5,15

Counteracting Pathogens

Activated charcoal reduces the activity of some viruses. So if you catch a cold or the flu, try activated charcoal. You may suffer less and heal faster. Activated charcoal also prevents the poisonous activity of many harmful bacteria in the human body by adsorbing the toxins and enzymes that they generate. Studies have shown that activated charcoal is an effective treatment for dysentery, cholera, and many infectious conditions of the digestive tract.16,17

Systemic Candidiasis

Activated charcoal can be an effective adjunct to any regimen for the treatment of systemic Candida albicans infections. Activated charcoal adsorbs much of the toxins that Candida produces that otherwise would be absorbed by the blood and carried throughout the body. These toxins produce pathological changes in tissues and organs and interfere with proper immune function. Candida toxins cause allergic reactions and are responsible for the debilitating symptoms of Candidiasis.

Activated charcoal also suppresses the growth of intestinal-based yeasts.3 Activated charcoal counteracts the Herxheimer reaction—a severe, short-term exacerbation of Candida symptoms caused by the copious amount of toxins produced by dying yeast cells. The Herxheimer reaction is often so unpleasant that patients abandon treatment before completion. Activated charcoal is one method for alleviating the symptoms of yeast die-off so people can continue their treatment and not suffer.

I suggest 20-30 grams of powdered activated charcoal a day in divided dosages on an empty stomach until the problem is eliminated. The larger amount is taken for more severe situations. Again, a reminder: do not take required medications within 2 hours of taking activated charcoal.

Intestinal Complaints

Activated charcoal has been used by physicians since the last century to treat various intestinal complaints. Abdominal distension (bloating) and flatulence respond favorably to treatment with activated charcoal. Diarrhea caused by food poisoning, bacteria, nervousness and other factors is usually alleviated by taking activated charcoal.10 Some physicians have used activated charcoal to stop bleeding from ulcerative colitis and calm spastic colons.12 Activated charcoal is the best intestinal deodorant available. Taking activated charcoal counteracts decomposition products from food (such as beans) that cause flatulence and diarrhea. Individuals with malodorous stools should reach for activated charcoal. Travelers to foreign countries would be wise to pack activated charcoal. In my opinion, activated charcoal is the most practical way to effectively counteract food poisoning. To alleviate intestinal disorders with activated charcoal, I recommend the following. As an antidote for food poisoning, take 20 grams of activated charcoal two to three times daily. For other intestinal complaints, 5 to 10 grams of powdered activated charcoal twice daily.

Charcoal Is Safe

Toxicology studies have proven that activated charcoal is basically harmless. Ingesting high dosages does not interfere with sleep, appetite or well being—or cause major problems. There are several undesirable effects of using activated charcoal that can be avoided by complying with the following directions. Activated charcoal is highly adsorbent; when it is ingested at the same time as medication, supplements and foods it may decrease their absorption and utilization. Therefore, always allow 2 hours before and wait 2 hours after using activated charcoal to eat, take supplements or swallow medication. Activated charcoal has a natural tendency to cause constipation. That can be counteracted by taking a mild herbal laxative with the activated charcoal. Finally activated charcoal harmlessly blackens your stools. Although black-gray stools look strange, they can be used to calculate your bowel transit time. Just measure the length of time from taking activated charcoal to the appearance of darkened stools.

Not All Charcoal is Alike

Numerous companies manufacture activated charcoals, each of which can have different adsorptive capacities. Different source materials and manufacturing procedures give each brand of activated charcoal its own pore diameters and internal volume that determine its adsorption capacity. The U.S.P. (United States Pharmacopoeia) standard for activated charcoal specifies an internal surface area of 1000 m2/g (square meters per gram). Recently, several companies have begun manufacturing Super activated charcoals, with up to 3 times the internal surface area per gram and far greater adsorption power than standard activated charcoal.3

Powders, Capsules, or Tablets?

Because of the large volume of chacoal that is needed, it is easiest to take liquid preparation of charcoal powder. For example, to take 30 grams of charcoal a day in capsules would require that you swallow about 60 capsules. Furthermore, activated charcoal tablets are not effective. They take too long to disintegrate and release the activated charcoal.

Ideal Charcoal Preparation

Unfortunately, a simple water and charcoal mixture is unpalatable and messy. It tastes like a charcoal briquette, and blackens your teeth, gums and tongue. These problems can be avoided by ingesting a powdered activated charcoal complex that contains a thickening agent like bentonite, with added flavors and mild sweeteners.

Research studies showed that that the addition of bentonite significantly improved the palatability of an activated charcoal and water slurry. Bentonite acts as thickening agent that reduces powdery mouth-feel and improves the taste without reducing the efficacy of activated charcoal. In fact, bentonite is an enterosorption agent and a poison antidote in its own right. For example, bentonite has been shown to bind and reduce the poison paraquat. The addition of chocolate further enhances the palatability of activated charcoal in research studies and practical experience.12,13

Reprinted with permission of Journal Of The Megahealth Society, Vol. 5, No. 3, Issue #23 ISSN 0891-5334. Copyright 1989 by MegaHealth Society, now Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute (CERI), publishers of Smart Life News. CERI explores the latest research and treatment for Alzheimerss, Parkinsons, Downs syndrome and age-associated mental impairment in normal, healthy adults.

References

  • D.O. Cooney, Activated Charcoal Antidotal and other Medical Uses. Marcel Dekker, New York and Basel, 1983.

  • V. Frolkis, et al., Enterosorption in prolonging old animal life. Exp. Gerontol. 19; 217-25, 1984.

  • E.P. Krenzelok and M. B. Heller, In vivo comparative effectiveness of five commercial activated charcoal products. Vet. Hum. Toxicol, 28; 498, 1986.

  • K. Kulig, et al., Management of acutely poisoned patients without gastric emptying. Ann. Emerg. Med. 114:562-67, 1985.

  • P. Kuusisto, et al., Effect of activated charcoal on hypercholesterolemia. Lancet 16: 366-67, August 1986.

  • J. Mattson and H. J. Mark, Activated Carbon. Marcel Dekker, New York and Basel, 1971.

  • G. Park, et al., Expanded role of charcoal in the poisoned and overdosed patient. Arch. Int. Med. 146: 969-73, 1986.

  • Reduction of Human Organchalide Burdens, Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, California, 1983.

  • J. A. Riese and F. Damrac, Use of activated charcoal in gastroenterology: value for flatulence and nervous diarrhea. J. Am. Ger. Soc. 12: 500, 1964.

  • W. Watson, Factors influencing the clinical efficacy of activated charcoal. Drug Intelligence and Clinical Pharmacy 21: 160-66, 1987.

  • Navarro RP; Navarro KR; Krenzelok EP Relative efficacy and palatability of three activated charcoal mixtures. Vet Hum Toxicol, 19(8):6-9 1980 Feb.

  • Gwilt PR; Perrier D Influence of thickening agents on the antidotal efficacy of activated charcoal. Clin Toxicol, 19(8):89-92 1976.

  • Topuzov EG; Beliakov NA; Malachev MM; Umerov AK; Solomennikov AV; Gritsenko IV; Kokaia AA Use of enterosorption in biliary tract cancers complicated with mechanical jaundice. Vopr Onkol, 42(2):100-3 1996.

  • Beloshitski(r)i VV A clinico-biochemical basis for the use of enterosorption in severe craniocerebral trauma Lik Sprava, 42(5):145-8 1997 Sep-Oct.

  • Krylov AA; Beliakov NA; Sapego AV; Stolov SV Enterosorption in ulcerative lesions of the gastrointestinal tract with concomitant intestinal dysbacteriosis Ter Arkh, 68(2):24-7 1996.

  • Riechkina OO A clinical assessment of the detoxifying effect of enterosorption in treating tuberculosis of the respiratory organs in children Lik Sprava, 5(5):62-4 1998 Aug.

  • Andreichyn MA; Lutsuk OS; Andreichyn SM; Kopcha VS [The enterosorption treatment of patients with acute intestinal infections and chronic colitis with diarrhea Lik Sprava, EA-(7-9):147-51 1996 Jul-Sep.

  • Andreichyn MA; Lutsuk OS; Andreichyn SM; Kopcha VS Enterosorption as a method for prolonging life. Fiziol Cheloveka, 22(7-9):131-5 1996 May-Jun.
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