Charcoal Uses: A New Look at an Old Medicinal
Charcoal Remedies Treat Everything From Cold and Flu to Vomiting and Diarrhea
By Rene Ammundsen – Charcoal uses are nothing new. In fact, charcoal has been around so long that many of us have forgotten just how useful it can be. For centuries, this simple substance was commonly used to alleviate an array of human and beastly ills that ranged in diversity from bad breath to infection and dysentery. It wasn’t until the phenomenal growth of the drug industry in the 1950’s that the use of charcoal declined in general medical practice.
As with any medication, do your homework and ask around for other opinions before embarking on a medication course you are not familiar with.—Ed
Charcoal is one of those uncomplicated substances that attract believers in self-care and prevention. It is simple to use, inexpensive, non-allergenic and doesn’t have harmful side effects.
Both bone and vegetable matter are made into charcoal but due to chemical composition, charcoals from vegetable sources are best for medicinal applications. Commercially, charcoal is often made from coconut shells, fruit pits, eucalyptus, willow, pine and oak. At home, it can be made from any solid wood.
Making Commercial Charcoal
The process of making charcoal requires high heat and a nearly airless atmosphere. When the temperature reaches about 600 degrees, carbonization will occur. At this point, the gases, resins, proteins, and fats are burned out of the wood leaving behind a pure carbon that has the ability to readily adsorb thousands of times its own weight in harmful substances.
(The ability to attract other substances to its surface and hold them there is known as adsorption.)
In the late 19th century, manufacturers began to “activate” charcoal by subjecting it to an oxidizing gas like steam at elevated temperatures. This process dramatically enhanced charcoal’s adsorptive powers by further expanding its thousands of crevices, pits, grooves, and holes.
(An odorless, tasteless powder, one teaspoon of activated charcoal has a surface area of more than 10,000 square feet.)
Making Charcoal at Home
If you wish to make your own charcoal at home, it can be done quite easily. Begin by debarking and cutting your selected wood to uniform size. Discard anything that shows signs of deterioration. Stack the remaining pieces of wood tightly in a hole in the ground leaving as little air space as possible between or around the pieces of wood. Start a fire on top of the stacked wood. (Do not use any chemicals to start the fire.) When the fire is going well, cover it with dirt or a piece of metal. Be sure to leave a vent or opening for a small amount of air to get into the fire so that it will continue to burn slowly. If you have used a metal cover, heap it well with dirt.
Let the fire burn until there is no detectable warmth left. Uncovering the charcoal before it has cooled will provide oxygen and the charcoal may burst into flame. The greater the amount of wood in the pit, the longer burning will take, perhaps days.
If you wish to do a small batch of charcoal, this can be done in a small outdoor fire, your wood stove, or a fireplace. Begin by preparing a generous bed of coals. While you are waiting for coals, select a sturdy tin can that will barely hold your prepared wood. Cram the wood into the can as tightly as you can, leaving as little air space as possible. Cover the opening of the can with several layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Then completely wrap the can with another layer of foil to hold the top cover in place.
Go to your wood-burning cooking stove and scrape the live coals to one side leaving a deep bed of ash. Place the can on the ash and bury it with more ash. Pull the coals back over the ash-covered can. A bit at a time, add just enough wood to keep a good coal bed for several hours then either let the fire go out, or pull the can to one side so that it will begin to cool. With tongs or fireproof gloves, lift the can away from the fire to cool completely. Don’t open the can until it has completely cooled or the charcoal may ignite and your charcoal will burn to ash.
Charred wood, or charcoal, is the result of your controlled burning. It can be placed into tough bags and pounded until it becomes coarse granules. A blender will change these granules to a fine powder. (Don’t take the lid off before the dust settles.) If you don’t have a blender, pound the charcoal as fine as you can or for a small amount use a mortar and pestle.
Any charcoal that you plan to use for medicinal purposes can be put in a covered pot and sterilized in the oven at 200-250°F for 20-30 minutes. Larger quantities may require more time. Do keep in mind that charcoal is flammable at high temperatures so don’t leave it unattended or forget about it while it is in the oven.
Store your sterile charcoal powder in a tightly covered container so it won’t adsorb moisture or impurities from the air.
Because homemade charcoal is not activated, you will need to use three to four times as much as would be needed of an activated charcoal. For example, if a recipe calls for one tablespoon activated charcoal, you will need to use three to four table- spoons of homemade (non-activated) charcoal.
Charcoal Uses at Home – Internal
Charcoal use at home is easy, finding application for both man and beast.
Because it has no toxicity of its own, there is no danger of overdosing or causing side effects. With its ability to adsorb most organic chemicals, many inorganic chemicals and countless poisonous substances before they can cause harm, charcoal is useful as a general purifier for internal illness or as an antidote in accidental poisonings.
It is good to remember that with an incidence of poisoning, quick action can sometimes make the difference between life and death. This is reason enough to have charcoal on hand. (An emergency is not the time to be chopping the wood for making charcoal.)
Charcoal Use – Treat Poisoning
Should you suspect poisoning of any kind, in human or creature, immediately contact your poison control center. Tell them what was ingested or what you suspect was ingested. Let them know you have charcoal on hand and then follow their instructions exactly. This is especially important if the use of ipecac is required. Giving charcoal at the wrong time can render other treatments ineffective.
Should you have absolutely no way to contact a medical professional, general advice is that unless you are dealing with a caustic substance or one of the few substances that charcoal won’t bind with, it is best to take eight to 10 times as much activated charcoal as the total amount of poison that was ingested. Remember, charcoal is not toxic in any amount so it is better to dose on the side of excess than to take too little.
Charcoal use is not recommended as an antidote for ingestion of:
• Mineral acids
• Corrosive products such as lye or other strong acids
• Petroleum products such as gasoline, kerosene, or cleaning fluids
• Boric acid
Other antidotes are more effective.
In addition, charcoal use is not effective if the poison is lithium, cyanide, iron, ethanol or methanol.
Do not take with other medications. Charcoal may adsorb and inactivate other medications. If you are taking prescription drugs, check with your doctor before beginning treatment with charcoal.
Determining the Right Dosage
Charcoal use is not a precise science and dosage recommendations vary. If you are using a commercial product follow the advice on the label.
If you don’t have a dosage recommendation to follow you may wish to use the following:
Take 1 teaspoon activated charcoal powder per 8-ounce glass of pure water:
1-3 times/day for general health 4-7 times/day for general illness such as flu and cold;
8-12 times/day for serious illness.
• For charcoal use, remember that extremely large doses taken with insufficient water may cause constipation.
• Charcoal is best taken between meals unless food is the cause of the discomfort.
• For some, drinking a charcoal slurry is done most easily through a straw.
Charcoal Use – General Illness
Intestinal gas: Because of its ability to adsorb gases, charcoal taken in water, will effectively relieve incidence of gas and bloating resulting from ingestion of foods.
Cold or flu: Activated charcoal reduces the activity of some viruses. If you wish to avoid the worst of the symptoms, at first sign of illness take two tablespoons activated charcoal powder in eight ounces of pure water. If you should vomit, simply repeat. Even if the charcoal is held in your stomach for only a few minutes it will have adsorbed some of the toxins. If you vomit again, repeat the same procedure. Many will keep the first or second glassful down. Rarely does one go beyond three glasses.
Vomiting or diarrhea: As soon as you feel the least sick, treat as for cold and flu. This works for vomiting and diarrhea that result from food poisoning as well.
Infection: When treating external bacterial infections with poultices, it is well to take a mild internal dose as well. This will help to clear the toxins that have entered the blood.
Candida: Activated charcoal can effectively support treatments for systemic candida albicans. By adsorbing the toxins produced by this yeast during its life and death cycle, the body is spared many of the debilitating symptoms that generally result from such an infection.
Charcoal uses include treating or alleviating symptoms of jaundice in the newborn, kidney disease, bad breath, toothache and gum infection. As well, some physicians have used activated charcoal to stop bleeding from ulcerative colitis and to calm spastic colons.
Charcoal Uses at Home – External
Administered as a poultice or a bath, charcoal uses for external ailments are many. Note that any compress must stay wet in order to work.
General surface infection: If the surface is closed, apply a poultice directly to the site. Change often until the redness disappears.
Open infections (as in a lesion or bed sore): Though charcoal would be equally effective on an open sore, care must be taken to encase the poultice, especially if a binder is not used, or permanent “tattooing” may result.
Eye irritation from allergy or rosacea: Apply poultice of choice to the closed eye.
Stye: Directly apply a poultice to a closed eye and apply secondary heat. A poultice with a binder is less messy.
Earache: Apply a covered poultice to the ear. Heat is often helpful.
Home remedy for bug bites and stings: Apply direct poultice of powder and water or powder in a binder (the latter is very handy to keep in the freezer; see recipe below)
Snake bite first aid: Charles Church of Home Health Resource relates this anecdote concerning a couple in Arkansas:
Their 1-1⁄2-year-old child was bitten by a copperhead on the chest. There was swelling in the area, and the child was in extreme pain. They called their doctor, who advised them to get to the emergency room as soon as possible! But they were 60 miles of winding roads away from the nearest hospital. The doctor told them to use charcoal compresses, changed every 10 minutes and get to the hospital. By the time they arrived the swelling was totally gone, and the child was sleeping. As a precautionary measure, the antivenin was administered anyway. (It should be noted here that the compress should cover the whole extremity, and charcoal should be taken internally as well.)
Home remedy for poison ivy and poison oak: Charcoal will work satisfactorily with poison ivy and poison oak, especially when combined with French Green Clay.
Bath: When dealing with a general poisoning or a large area such as in a bee attack, charcoal can be applied by taking a cup or two and putting it in the bathtub, and soaking the patient in it.
In regard to the bath soak, Charles Church again relates that: “One lady who got into some bees, and who was greatly allergic to bee stings, used this treatment and felt so great that she got out. Within minutes she could hardly breathe.”
Making a Charcoal Poultice
Basic Poultice #1
As recommended by Drs. Agatha and Calvin Thrash, a basic poultice is made by putting 1-2 tablespoons of charcoal powder in a container and adding just enough water to make a paste. This paste is spread on a paper towel, cloth, or piece of gauze cut to fit the area to be treated. Make sure the cloth is moist, warm, and thoroughly saturated with the paste. Place it over the wound cloth-side down and cover it with a piece of plastic wrap or plastic bag cut to overlap the poultice by an inch on every side. Fix in place with adhesive tape. Thrash, Agatha and Calvin, Rx: Charcoal, New Lifestyle Books, 1998.
Note: Once a poultice has been used, throw it away. Never reuse a poultice.
Basic Poultice #2
This is a quick, clean application when made ahead and frozen.
Though the traditional poultice can be a messy affair, this recipe, provided by Dr. Chuck Reeve, makes no mess. And best of all, it can be made ahead of time and stored in the freezer for instant charcoal use, hot or cold.
1⁄2 cup psyllium seed husks (finely ground flax seed makes a suitable substitute)
1⁄2 cup charcoal powder
2 1⁄2 cups very hot water
Mix psyllium seed husks and charcoal. Add the hot water all at once, stirring slowly. The mixture will become thick like play dough.
For immediate charcoal use, roll mixture out to 1⁄2 inch thick between two layers of plastic wrap. Peel off one piece of wrap and place poultice directly on affected skin. (Applying directly to open sores may result in a tattooing effect.) — Generously shared by Dr. Chuck Reeve of North Port, WA
For later use, divide and roll the “dough” into several one-inch balls, flatten to 1⁄2 inch between two layers of plastic wrap. Place these “sandwiches” of flattened charcoal and plastic wrap inside a plastic bag, seal, and freeze.
When a cool poultice is needed, as in a bee sting, retrieve one of the flattened balls from the freezer and place directly on the affected site where it will thaw quickly. Keep the poultice on the site a minimum of 10 minutes after it has thawed.
To warm a frozen poultice, place it in a plastic bag and either submerge the bagged poultice in hot water or run hot water over the bag until the poultice has thawed. It takes only a minute or two.
For applications requiring heat, thaw the poultice, apply it and cover with plastic wrap. Over this place a wheat bag or other source of moderate heat. Renew the heat as needed. (I have found this latter application extremely beneficial in relieving the symptoms of ocular rosacea.)
Basic Poultice #3
Juliette de Bairacli, a natural animal practitioner recommends “one pound grated raw carrots mixed well into a half-pound of powdered charcoal, then heated and applied quite hot. Or mashed turnip can be used instead of the carrot. This gives an excellent drawing poultice for swellings, abscess, boils, and all types of inflammations. Do not bind too tightly, especially not the feet.”
The Complete Herbal Handbook For Farm and Stable, by Juliette de Bairacli Levy. p. 151-152
Summary of Precautions
Charcoal use is not recommended as a poisoning antidote for the following.
• Mineral acids
• Caustic alkalies
• Boric acid
• Consult a Poison Control Center or a doctor immediately for instructions and information in any poison- ing emergency.
• Do not take with other medications. Charcoal may adsorb and inactivate other medications. If you are taking prescription drugs, check with your doctor before beginning treatment with charcoal.
• Do not put charcoal directly on broken skin or it may result in a tattooing effect.
• Extremely large doses, especially when taken with insufficient water, may cause constipation.
• Remember: The material in this article has been provided for general charcoal use. Any use or misuses of charcoal on the reader’s part, is the sole responsibility of the reader.
Originally published in Countryside March / April 2005 and regularly vetted for accuracy.