When most people hear the word "charcoal," they probably think of summer barbecues and steaks sizzling on the grill. However, in the health world, charcoal serves a very different purpose. The substance known as activated charcoal is usually found in a liquid or powdered form, and it is sold over the counter as a remedy for various maladies. The most common use for the carbon-based substance is for the absorption of toxins in the body, most notably in the digestive tract. In cases of accidental poisoning, activated charcoal is administered to a patient to absorb and stop the harmful substance from being processed by the body. Then the toxin can pass harmlessly from the system.
In addition to the emergency medical field, charcoal supplements are often prescribed by alternative and holistic healthcare providers as a digestive aid. It is believed, although not yet conclusively proven, that activated charcoal helps keep diarrhea in check. Charcoal supplements also are believed to eliminate unpleasant, painful and embarrassing gas and flatulence, and to calm indigestion. While charcoal supplements have been lauded in the past as a folk remedy, little evidence of their actual benefits had been documented.
In a 2002 study, new evidence emerged about charcoal supplements' effectiveness with regard to patients who have irritable bowel syndrome. More than 60 percent of patients who had been administered the supplement showed improvement in their symptoms. About 22 percent experienced mild side effects.
Later, charcoal supplements also showed promising results for cancer patients who had been administered the drug Irinotecan. Those who had taken the chemotherapy drug often developed severe cases of diarrhea. Such incidents can be deadly to those who are otherwise unable to keep down fluids, as is the case with some chemotherapy patients. Frequently, the treatment for this stomach upset is a heavy dose of anti-diarrheal medications, which come with their own side effects and leave many reluctant to use them repeatedly. Activated charcoal circumvents this situation and is being used more and more commonly.
Patients who are interested in taking charcoal supplements should speak with their doctors about whether the supplements are appropriate for them. Dosage varies greatly from person to person. Those interested in taking charcoal supplements should tell their doctor if they are taking any medications, either prescribed or over the counter. Because of the highly absorbent nature of charcoal, it may cause some medications to not enter the bloodstream as they should.
Charcoal also is not recommended for individuals who are nursing or pregnant, as the supplement may have adverse effects on children and fetuses. Known side effects of charcoal supplements include, but are not limited to, vomiting, dark stools and upset stomach. Indications of an allergic reaction include trouble breathing, chest pain and skin irritation. Those experiencing side effects should call or speak to a doctor as soon as possible.