Lots of people are raving about activated charcoal. This supplement is said to help with detox, gut health, teeth whitening, and more.
Those are the alleged benefits of taking charcoal supplements. But what does the science say?
For starters, it says that large doses of activated charcoal may mitigate drug-induced toxicity[*].
What about the other benefits? Less clear.
In this article, you’ll get the inside scoop on activated charcoal: potential benefits, risks, and whether or not this supplement is part of a healthy keto diet. Happy learning.
Charcoal is a black, carbon-based substance left behind after burning coconut shells, peat, or a variety of other materials[*]. The charcoal powder is then “activated” via exposure to high temperature gases.
Now you have activated charcoal—a smaller, more porous version of regular charcoal. Due to its enhanced porousness, activated charcoal easily binds to other compounds[*].
This binding action—called adsorption—is why activated charcoal is commonly used for clearing poison, drugs, and other toxins from the gastrointestinal tract.
The medicinal history of activated charcoal dates back to 1811, when French chemist Michel Bertrand took activated charcoal to prevent arsenic toxicity. Some 40 years later, in 1852, another French scientist allegedly staved off strychnine poison with charcoal[*].
Today, single-dose activated charcoal (SDAC) remains a common treatment for drug overdose and poisoning. However, from 1999 to 2014: SDAC usage at poison control centers fell from 136,000 to 50,000[*].
Why this decline? Probably because:
- Activated charcoal therapy carries risks
- SDAC is still not proven effective
You’ll learn more about the risks of charcoal in a bit. But first, a bit more science on how activated charcoal works.
Activated charcoal’s special power is the power of adsorption. Not absorption, mind you. Adsorption.
Adsorption refers to the sticking of molecules—liquid, gas, or dissolved solid—to a surface. Activated charcoal, porous as it is, has a large surface area for substances to stick to.
When you ingest activated charcoal, it adsorbs foreign substances (called xenobiotics) in your gut. Activated charcoal binds to certain xenobiotics much better than others[*].
These compounds include acetaminophen, aspirin, barbiturates, tricyclic antidepressants, and a slew of other pharmaceuticals. Activated charcoal does not, however, effectively bind to alcohol, electrolytes, acids, or alkaline substances[*].
Since it binds to foreign substances in the gut, activated charcoal is commonly used to treat drug toxicity or poisoning. Many poison control centers keep this supplement on hand as a first-line therapy.
In case you were wondering, charcoal isn’t absorbed into your body. In other words, it simply passes through your gut, binding to substances along the way[*].
Because of this, there isn’t a risk of toxicity, per se, from taking activated charcoal. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks or side effects.
These will be covered later. Next up are potential benefits.
Recall that poison control centers use activated charcoal thousands of times each year. They use charcoal for its ability to decontaminate the body of harmful substances.
According to observational data, these substances include carbamazepine, dapsone, phenobarbital, quinidine, theophylline, amitriptyline, dextropropoxyphene, digitoxin, digoxin, disopyramide, nadolol, phenylbutazone, phenytoin piroxicam, sotalol, amiodarone, dosulepin, duloxetine, lamotrigine, valproic acid, and verapamil[*].
Still here? Okay, good.
According to current guidelines, activated charcoal should be administered within one hour following ingestion of the undesirable substance. The doses are rather large — up to 100 grams for an adult, with a starter dose of 25 grams[*].
The evidence for its efficacy, however, isn’t exactly grade A. Rather, the case for activated charcoal is mostly based on observational data and case reports.
More robust clinical trials — double-blind, placebo-controlled studies — are needed before recommending activated charcoal as an antidote for serious toxicity.
Other Potential Benefits of Activated Charcoal
The evidence for activated charcoal gets weaker from here, but it’s still worth mentioning. After all, many people take this vegan supplement for reasons other than emergency detoxification.
Here are some other health benefits charcoal may offer:
- Kidney health: Activated charcoal may bind to urea and other toxins to improve chronic kidney disease. There’s a smattering of human evidence for this benefit, but no solid clinical trials[*].
- Lower cholesterol: Two small studies from the 1980s suggest that taking large doses of activated charcoal (16 to 24 grams) can lower LDL and total cholesterol[*][*]. But since both studies only had seven subjects each: take these findings with a grain of charcoal.
- Banish fishy smell: A small percentage of people can’t convert trimethylamine (TMA) to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) and — unfortunately — end up smelling like fish. In one study, giving seven Japanese people with this condition (called TMAU) 1.5 grams of activated charcoal per day for 10 days “reduced the urinary free TMA concentration and increased the concentration of TMAO to normal values during charcoal administration”[*]. Simply put: less TMA, less fish smell.
- Tooth whitening: Though charcoal may bind to compounds on teeth and cause a whitening effect — there isn’t any rigorous evidence supporting this claim.
- Water filtration: Many water filtration systems use activated charcoal because it binds to heavy metals like lead, cadmium, nickel, and chromium — effectively cleaning the water[*]. Whether charcoal-induced heavy metal detox happens in the human body, however, is unclear.
Couple more quick notes. Some claim activated charcoal as a “hangover cure” — but since charcoal doesn’t adsorb alcohol, this claim can be safely dismissed[*].
What about blood sugar reduction? That claim can be dismissed as well.
Activated charcoal, it was shown, did not significantly impact blood sugar levels in 57 patients with type 2 diabetes[*]. And in case you were wondering: there’s no evidence that activated charcoal binds to — or reduces the absorption of — sugar in your gut.
Now for the dark side of activated charcoal. It may not be toxic, but it does come with risks.
For instance, activated charcoal has potential drug interactions with a host of pharmaceuticals[*].That’s because charcoal binds to these drugs, and may suppress their intended effects.
Activated charcoal should also be avoided in semi-conscious patients. This helps mitigate the risk of aspiration, or choking on one’s own vomit[*].
Finally, those with intestinal obstruction are advised to avoid charcoal, as taking this supplement may increase the risk of gut damage[*].
In addition to these risks, here are some common side effects from ingesting activated charcoal:
- Black stools
Most people don’t experience these side effects, but those that do should table this supplement.
If you’ve read this far, you probably know the answer to this question already.
No, activated charcoal need not be part of your health-conscious lifestyle.
Although activated charcoal may alleviate serious drug overdoses, there simply isn’t good science recommending this supplement for everyday use.
Say, for instance, you’re on a whole food ketogenic diet. You eat lots of healthy fats, pasture-raised meats, and organic vegetables — and you avoid processed junk and refined sugar like its your job.
Nice going. You’re doing better than 99% of the population.
Supplements aren’t the secret to your good health. It’s your diet, exercise, and sleep routine.
But let’s say you want to try activated charcoal anyway. When might it be appropriate?
Well, you might take activated charcoal to clear heavy metals — if you think you just ingested them — from your gut.
Imagine you just ate a massive fillet of swordfish, a fish infamous for having high levels of neurotoxic mercury[*]. After the meal, you might consider popping a few activated charcoal capsules or drinking this detoxifying charcoal lemonade to “mop up” some of that mercury in your gut.
To be clear, this is your own little experiment, and there isn’t good data supporting this use of activated charcoal. But theoretically, it could work.
Nonetheless, activated charcoal should be viewed as an ad hoc supplement, not an everyday pill.
There are better options to consider for your daily supplement regimen.
After you handle your diet, exercise, and sleep — you may want to kick it up a notch by taking a few supplements.
Some dietary supplements, it’s true, have a lot more evidence behind them than activated charcoal does.
Here are some recommended supplements, along with brief descriptions of their health benefits:
#1: Fish oil or Krill Oil
Of the two oils, krill oil may have the edge. That’s because krill oil contains molecules called phospholipids, which appear to enhance the bioavailability of the omega 3s. More phospholipids, better absorption[*].
When it comes to gut health, probiotics are the first supplement that comes to mind.
The most studied of these beneficial bacteria come from the lactobacillus and bifidobacterium genera—and within these genera are a variety of helpful strains.
- Reduce inflammation in the gut
- Improve mood
- Combat gut infections
- Boost immune function
Worth a shot, especially if you have existing gut issues.
Whether you’re an athlete or simply sweat a lot, you should consider adding electrolytes to your routine.
When you sweat, you lose sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride—essential minerals for regulating fluid balance, muscle contraction, and brain function in every waking moment of your life.
Putting them back is a good idea. Fortunately, a well-formulated electrolyte supplement makes this easy.
Even if you’re not super active, electrolytes can be helpful as you adapt to the keto diet. In fact, many cases of the keto flu are likely cases of electrolyte deficiency!
The Takeaway: Don’t Expect Much From Activated Charcoal
So. Should you take activated charcoal?
You could try it, but don’t expect much. There isn’t good science on this supplement.
Charcoal may help in cases of severe toxicity, but beyond that: the jury is out.
Instead focus on your diet, exercise, and sleep. And if you want to take supplements, reach for krill oil, probiotics, or electrolytes before reaching for charcoal.