Charcoal: It’s not only for the Grill

Did you know that one of the best safeguards you’d have in a poisoning situation is charcoal? It may sound quacky, but it has been proven time and time again. In fact, if you were to bring someone who was poisoned to the hospital, chances are high that they would administer some form of charcoal. It may sound strange, but it works.While the Native Americans were known to use charcoal medicinally, a French professor named Touery was the first to prove charcoal’s protective effects. In 1831, he famously ingested 10 times the lethal dose of strychnine in front of the French Academy of Medicine. He survived by mixing the poison with charcoal. That’s powerful stuff! If charcoal can protect you from strychnine, what else can it do?

Well, over the last hundred years, the use of charcoal as a medicine has been gaining a lot of momentum. Besides cases of poisoning, people have used it to treat hundreds of different ailments. Depending on the situation, charcoal can be taken internally or applied externally as a poultice or with gauze. A short list of charcoal’s uses includes the treatment of:

• Poisoning (of many different causes and severities)
• nausea
• vomiting
• diarrhea
• intestinal gasses
• chest or head colds
• neonatal jaundice
• inflammation
• insect bites or stings
• snakebites
• and poison ivy.

From the Barbecue?

Now, before you think, “Great, I already have some of that in the garage.” The charcoal used for medicine or consumption is called ‘activated charcoal’. It is different from the standard charcoal people use to grill—Although it is made from the same stuff, activated charcoal is specially processed for medicinal use.

Essentially, manufacturers heat common charcoal and expose it to oxygen. This process causes the charcoal to develop countless tiny pores (holes). These pores cause the surface area of the charcoal to increase dramatically. In fact, a gram of activated charcoal tends to have a surface area greater than 500 m 2. That equates to 5382 square feet—which is larger than most peoples houses! That’s a lot of surface area for a small spoonful of black powder.

The deceptively large surface area is what makes activated charcoal so effective. The charcoal works because it is great at adsorbing various toxins (different from absorb, adsorb means to “chemically attach”). Because it has such a large surface area, the charcoal has no shortage of bonding points.

When taken internally, charcoal traps toxins and thereby prevents the body from absorbing them. Then, the charcoal simply makes its way through the digestive system and exits, taking the toxins with it. Charcoal doesn’t adsorb every kind of substance, but it does work for a long list.

Charcoal in Action

I can personally attest to the effectiveness of charcoal in several of these applications. But, I’ll admit it, the first time I heard about it I was very skeptical—both of its effectiveness and the fact that I would effectively be putting ash in my mouth. It probably didn’t help that it wasn’t the first… odd… health remedy that my parents had told me about. However, it is definitely one of the most effective.

Unlike some other remedies, I could clearly see and feel the results of charcoal. A few months ago, about two hours after eating a meal, I began to feel terrible. Really terrible. My stomach began to cramp; I was nauseous and felt like vomiting. I realized that I had gotten some type of food poisoning.

It took me several minutes just to work up the energy to get out of bed. When I did, I took a spoonful of charcoal and lay back down. For the next half hour, I lay in bed, still feeling terrible and praying that the charcoal would help. It did. Two hours later, all of the ill effects of whatever I had caught were gone. An hour later, I left home and went about the remainder of my day as normal.

In future articles (and videos), we will be highlighting some of the other benefits and uses for charcoal. We hope we’ve piqued your interest. Now do yourself a favor and pick up some activated charcoal. It’s inexpensive and is readily available online and in many stores. It is also available in powered form, in capsules, and in pellets. Pick some up, you never know when you may need it.

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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

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