ACTIVATED charcoal is a substance often used to treat drug overdose or poisoning.
Also known as activated carbon, activated charcoal is a form of carbon processed to have small, low-volume pores that increase the surface area available for absorption or chemical reactions.
Charcoal is made from coal, wood and other substances, and becomes activated when high temperatures combine with a gas or activating agent to expand its surface area.
According to Dr Alfred Dawes, how it works is that drugs and toxins attach to activated charcoal and it helps rid the body of unwanted substances – often in the case of poisoning.
“We use activated charcoal in medicine, if you have ingested any poison or toxic substance. It helps to soak it up so it doesn't get absorbed by the body that easily,” he explained, adding that the activated charcoal is mixed with a liquid and is usually given as a drink or through a tube that has been placed through the nose into the stomach.
Dr Dawes explained that when used along with other treatments it may be effective for acute poisoning, but cases of poisoning from lithium cyanide may not resolve with activated charcoal.
He added that though not much research surrounds the use of activated charcoal for other conditions, some people use it to treat cholestasis, prevent gas, hangovers and to lower high cholesterol.
Dr Dawes, however, said it is best to take activated charcoal only if administered by a health care facility.
Further, he explained that if used as a supplement, it may prevent the absorption of certain medications as well as nutrients, hence the need to get advice from a health professional.
Where side effects are concerned, he said when taken over a prolonged period of time it may cause black stool, black tongue, vomiting or diarrhoea, constipation and possibly gastrointestinal blockages.
Moreover, he reiterated that it is best to have a medical doctor administer activated charcoal in order to assess potential side effects and interactions with other supplements, herbal medicines or any medication you may be taking.
He added that using activated charcoal as a detoxifying agent is not recommended; it will not rid the body of toxins, but will only expose it to side effects with no health benefits.