Activated charcoal has many claims behind it, including its ability to ‘detoxify’ your gut and help with excess wind and bloating.
This article will look at the science behind these claims to provide you with unbiased dietitian advice on whether you should be taking the supplement.
What is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal comes from charcoal which has been processed and reheated with oxidising gas or other chemicals to increase how absorbent it is (1).
Different types of activated charcoal are used for different purposes. Depending on that specific products surface area and pore size it may be used in industry or medicine.
You can buy activated charcoal in different forms such as liquid, powder, granules and in tablets or capsules. In some shops, you can even buy products which have used activated charcoal as an ingredient.
What is Activated Charcoal Used For?
A single dose of activated charcoal is routinely use in emergency situations by doctors when a patient has overdosed. Activated charcoal works by absorbing some of the drug or poison in the gut, before it is absorbed into the body (6).
What Does The Research Say?
Studies looking at using this supplement and its’ affect on wind were done in the 1980’s. BUT, they contradict each other and have many flaws.
In one double-blinded randomised trial, 90 individuals across the US and India were trialled on both a placebo and an activated charcoal capsule (260mg /day) (4).
In comparison to a placebo, activated charcoal significantly reduced breath hydrogen as well as digestive symptoms.
Another study from 1986 which used 260mg capsules of activated charcoal also showed a reduction in peak hydrogen production in comparison to placebo (5).
Although these studies seem promising, there are just as many which show that activated charcoal is of no benefit.
One study from 1999 looked at 5 healthy individuals. They were each given 0.52g of activated charcoal 4 x a day for 1 week. This resulted in no significant change in sulphur gas production in the gut (the smelly gas!) (2).
Another study looked at 10 healthy individuals (3). After an overnight fast, participants were given a portion of baked beans. They then have their ‘flatus’ recorded for 9 hours.
Participants did these each 4 times, taking 4 x capsules of activated charcoal or a placebo with their meal and then every 30 minutes until 16 capsules had been taken. Again, no significant difference was seen with taking the activated charcoal or not.
Not only is the research contraindicating, there are also many other limitations. Such as, not using validated symptom questionnaires, only using healthy individuals instead of those with digestive problems, using different doses of activated charcoal and using different methods for measurements of gas.
Other Digestive Symptoms
There is no scientific research to support the use of activated charcoal for other digestive symptoms.
Is it Dangerous to Take Activated Charcoal?
As it has not be extensively studied, it is hard to give an answer as to whether it is safe or not.
We know that it absorbs medications, so if you take regular medications then it may reduce how effective they are (6). So please speak to a pharmacist before starting on activated charcoal.
There is also a risk that activated charcoal will absorb some of the nutrients in your food. But we don’t know how much it absorbs, how long you need to leave it between taking the supplement and eating or what the long-term impact of this would be.
How Does It Work?
It is thought that activated charcoal works by absorbing the excess gas which has accumulated in the colon (1).
So, Should I Take Activated Charcoal?
If you suffer from excess gas, then activated charcoal MAY help. The EFSA recommend taking 1g of activated charcoal at least 30 minutes before a meal and 1g after a meal to reduce excess gas (1).
As a registered dietitian, I would not recommend taking activated charcoal for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we do not know what the long-term impact is and secondly, taking pills all day is not a nice way to have to control your symptoms.
Instead, it is important that someone with excess gas gets checked by their doctor for digestive diseases such as coeliac disease. They then need to work with a registered dietitian to
There is only a small body of research to support the claim that activated charcoal may help with excess gas. However, we do not know what impact taking a regular supplement could have on nutrition as it may reduce how many nutrients reach your body.
Ideally those who have excess gas will work with a doctor and registered dietitian to solve their excess gas without activated charcoal supplements.
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