I travel a lot, including to undeveloped counties where there’s a high risk of food poisoning, diarrhea and stomach bugs.
One thing that I always have in my travel first aid kit (as well as my at-home first aid kit) is activated charcoal.
What is Activated Charcoal?
Also known as activated carbon, activated charcoal is a black powder which is made by charring a high-carbon material. Typically charred coconut shells are used but activated carbon can also be made from charred peat, bone, bamboo, wood, or any other number of ingredients.
What makes activated charcoal different than normal charcoal? The difference is that the charcoal is “activated” by further processing it to increase porousness, purity, and surface area. It’s actually possible to make activated charcoal at home from charcoal briquettes.
How Does Activated Charcoal Work?
Activated charcoal works through adsorbtion (no, that’s not the same as absorption). Adsorption means that the activated charcoal binds to toxins in the digestive tract. Once bound, the activated charcoal passes through the body and exits. Thus, less of the harmful substance is able to enter the body and recovery is faster.
Hospitals regularly use activated charcoal as a “universal antidote” to treat certain types of overdoses and poisonings. However, it’s worth noting that hospital-grade activated charcoal has a very fine grain. The grain size is important because a finer grain will have more surface area so can bind to more toxins. How much surface area? Just 50 grams of activated charcoal can have 17.5 times the surface area of a football field!
Activated Charcoal for Gastroenteritis
Gastroenteritis is the medical term for upset stomach. It can be broken down into further types:
- Viral gastroenteritis: Also called a stomach bug or stomach flu, this is caused by an infection with a virus, usually rotavirus or norovirus. Antibiotics will not work on stomach bugs.
- Food poisoning: When the stomach symptoms are caused by something you ate or drank, it is called food poisoning. Food poisoning can be caused by any number of viruses, bacteria, or parasites.
- Montezuma’s revenge: Also known as traveler’s diarrhea, this type of gastroenteritis is usually caused by bacteria in food or water. Traveler’s get it because their bodies haven’t adapted to the local bacteria populations.
Activated charcoal can be used to treat any of these types of gastroenteritis. However, it’s worth noting that bacterial stomach bugs may require antibiotics. If your symptoms are severe or don’t get better after a day or two, see a doctor!
Does Activated Charcoal Really Work?
Most of the research which has been done on activated charcoal is to see how it adsorbs chemical toxins, such as in drug or medicine overdoses. There hasn’t been much research on human subjects.
However, the research which does exist shows that activated charcoal can be helpful for stomach bugs and GI symptoms. There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence from people (like myself) who turn to activated charcoal for naturally treating stomach bugs.
Just like how activated charcoal binds to toxic chemicals, studies have found that it can also adsorb viruses, bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, and parasites like Cryptosporidium.
Activated charcoal is actually often used by farmers to control diarrhea in calves. Human studies also have found that activated charcoal can be effective in controlling diarrhea.
One study concluded that, AC in combination with rehydration fluids was effective in treating nonspecific diarrhea in adult humans.
Another study found that AC was effective in preventing diarrhea caused by the anti-cancer drug irinotecan which disrupts gut flora
See here for more natural diarrhea remedies.
Gas and Bloating:
A cool thing about activated carbon is that it can also bind to gases. As is pointed out by researchers here, this is why AC is often used in pollution face masks.
Activated charcoal won’t directly help with vomiting. However, by adsorbing the virus causing the stomach bug, it can help you get over vomiting faster. Note that your vomit may be black after using AC. If you vomit out all of the activated charcoal, you may need to repeat the dose.
Activated Charcoal Dosage
There is no set dosage for activated charcoal. Recommendations can also vary drastically depending on the product. Below are the most common dosage recommendations. If unsure, check with your doctor.
- Stomach bugs: 500 to 1,200mg, two to three times per day
- Gas and bloating: 1,000mg taken 30 minutes before and after eating meals
- Diarrhea: 500 to 1,200mg, three to four times per day
Can Children Take Activated Charcoal?
It is generally considered safe for older children to take activated charcoal. However, activated charcoal is generally not recommended for children under three.
Important: Always check with your pediatrician first – especially before using for diarrhea or dehydration. In some cases, activated charcoal can result in dehydration. It can also mask the severity of fluid loss.
The dosage of activated charcoal for children is usually 200mg per day, no more than twice per day. Other sources say that children should take half of the recommended adult dosage. Check with your pediatrician.
Risks of Taking Activated Charcoal
Large doses of activated charcoal are used to treat poisoning and few side effects occur. So, it is unlikely that you will experience any side effects from taking activated charcoal for a stomach bug. Side effects which do occur tend to be mild. They may include:
- Black tongue
- Black stools
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Nausea and vomiting
Interfering with Medications and Supplements
Activated charcoal binds to substances in your digestive tract, including substances you might want to be there (such as medications or supplements). Never take activated charcoal if you take medications without first checking with your doctor.
When I’m treating stomach bugs at home, I space out my dosage of activated charcoal and other natural treatments. For example, I’ll take the activated charcoal 4 hours after taking remedies like ginger or wild oregano. This is just what I personally do and is not meant to be taken as medical advice.
Don’t take activated charcoal along with any medication for constipation. This can result in electrolyte imbalances or worsen constipation.
Best Activated Charcoal for Stomach Bugs
When looking for a brand of activated charcoal for stomach bugs, make sure it doesn’t contain any sweeteners or laxatives. These can worsen your stomach bug or symptoms.
I personally find it easier to take activated charcoal in capsules, especially if I’m already nauseous. However, powdered activated charcoal is usually cheaper and can be found in bulk. It doesn’t taste great but you can mix it into applesauce to take it.
Here are some reputable activated charcoal products which could work well for stomach bugs.
Gaia Activated Charcoal Tablets with Herbs
I like this product because it also contains fennel and other herbs for helping with GI symptoms like gas. The activated charcoal content isn’t as high so it might be a better option if you have children.
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NaturaLife Pure Activated Charcoal Capsules
These capsules contain nothing but pure activated charcoal made from coconut shells. They are made in the USA. Each capsule contains 600mg of activated charcoal. The bottle has 100 capsules total.
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Charcoal House Activated Charcoal Powder
Here is a powdered form of activated charcoal available in 5oz, 10oz, 20oz and 40oz sizes. It is made from hardwood. It is finely ground for a high surface area.
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