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There's a lot of hype around charcoal and its perceived health benefits. These include teeth whitening, reducing stomach bloating, and even as a remedy for hangovers.
But does activated charcoal really have any impact on hangovers?
With so many health myths out there, it's hard to separate the fact from the fads. In this article, we’re going to take a detailed look at activated charcoal to see if it has any benefits for a hangover.
What is activated charcoal?
So, what's the difference between charcoal (by itself) and activated charcoal? Although charcoal they are similar, there are some important differences.
Activated charcoal is a lot more porous compared to standard charcoal because it’s been modified (either chemically or physically) to be super adsorptive.
What does this mean?
Adsorption (spelled with a d) describes a physical property of a material that makes other substances stick to it. To put it simply, substances stick to activated charcoal better.
Because of this property, activated charcoal is used in emergency departments to mitigate poisoning from an overdose of certain medications such as aspirin and anti-epileptic drugs.(1)
However, the important thing to emphasize is that activated charcoal only works for very specific compounds like the drugs mentioned above, and if given within 1 hour of ingestion. For everything else, it has no effect whatsoever.
But what about activated charcoal and alcohol. Does it have any interaction?
Next up, we’ll see what the research says.
Is activated charcoal good for hangovers?
Given that activated charcoal is thought of as a "detoxifying" agent, lots of people try and take charcoal before drinking alcohol to prevent getting hangovers.
Unfortunately, there have been several studies that have proven that alcohol does not adsorb to charcoal.(2)
Researchers have tried giving alcohol and charcoal in different ways including before, during, and after alcohol consumption, and found that every time it made zero difference to blood alcohol concentrations.
The reason is that alcohol just doesn’t stick to activated charcoal. And that's why it's essentially useless as a hangover prevention aid.
Are there any risks?
Taking charcoal before a big night out (aka binge drinking) comes with dangers. An important thing to mention is that charcoal can be dangerous when charcoal is used with alcohol.
There’s a risk that you could vomit up the charcoal and then inhale it through the trachea (tube connecting your mouth to your lungs).
The problem is, your body can’t absorb charcoal and therefore if any of it gets into your trachea or lungs, it just sits there.
This can be problematic in different ways as it causes inflammation of the lungs and in serious cases can lead to obstruction and breathing difficulties.(3)
In addition to this, charcoal is generally quite heavy on your stomach. At the same time, alcohol relaxes the lower esophagus and irritates the stomach lining. The combination of these factors can cause indigestion and/or leave you feeling bloated.
Does activated charcoal sober you up?
You "sober up" when your blood alcohol levels drop to zero.
Activated charcoal is not absorbed into your bloodstream and any remaining alcohol in your stomach will not adsorb to it. Therefore it will have absolutely no effect on sobering you up.
These dangerous health claim myths are often passed around without any scientific backing.
The only thing known to sober you up effectively is...time!
Anything else to consider?
Hangovers are a sign from your body that you’ve been drinking too much for your body to handle. Taking activated charcoal in order to prevent hangovers is not the best approach.
When it comes to hangovers, taking preventative steps is always better than looking for an elusive cure.
Drinking within your limits, keeping well hydrated, and eating a meal before going out can make a big difference in preventing the worst hangovers.
In addition, sticking to lighter-colored drinks can also help because they contain fewer congeners. Congeners are biologically active compounds formed naturally when alcohol such as wine and whiskey are made. They are responsible for the distinctive tastes and aromas you get with these drinks. But unfortunately, they are known to exacerbate hangovers.
Activated charcoal for a hangover – Final verdict
That brings us to the end of our look into activated charcoal for hangovers.
So far, the research suggests that activated charcoal doesn’t help hangovers. That's because alcohol does not bind to charcoal and, therefore, will have no effect on reducing blood alcohol concentrations.
Despite this, you’ll find that lots of people report that activated charcoal helps them with their hangovers. This is almost certainly explained by the placebo effect!