Charcoal: Beyond Barbecue
As it turns out, the toxin-absorbing action of activated charcoal isn’t just beneficial to humans. Read on, as Tigger discovers and discusses the very real benefits of using charcoal for horses (and dogs!)…
Back in the spring, one of my dogs ate something that resulted in GI tract upset … all over the house. There was no vomiting and no temperature. I started him on probiotics, which helped, but didn’t end the cycle of liquid, foul-smelling poop.
A friend suggested I try charcoal. I had used charcoal myself, some 40 years ago, for a gastric upset, and it worked well. So, I bought some activated charcoal for my dog, gave it to him mixed with a little food but not part of his regular meal. The next morning, he had perfect poo.
As I started researching and digging around the rabbit hole on charcoal, I discovered that it’s commonly used in the UK and Europe for horses as a supplement. Hmmm, I said to myself …
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is created from wood, bamboo, or coconut shells burned at a very high temperature resulting in a more porous powder. Because of its porosity and greater surface area, the number of binding sites is increased. To put this in perspective, just 50 grams of activated charcoal has the same surface area as seven football fields.
Barbecue charcoal isn’t as pure as activated charcoal. Lumps of barbecue charcoal still contain wood smoke and other chemicals in their pores, whereas the activated charcoal process flushes out the pores.
How does activated charcoal work?
Activated charcoal does not act as an absorbent where molecules are drawn into the material, like a sponge.
Instead, activated charcoal works by binding and trapping toxins. This is known as adsorption: a process in which gases or solids adhere to a surface. The porous surface of activated charcoal has a negative electrical charge, attracting positive-charged toxins and gas to bond with it.
History of charcoal as medicine
• Around 1500 BC, Egyptian physicians began using charcoal to eliminate bad smells from wounds. This is the first recording (on papyrus) of a medical application of charcoal. The ancient Egyptians also used charcoal and layers of sand to bury their mummies.
• By 400 BC, the Phoenicians were storing water in charred barrels on trading ships to purify and preserve the taste of the water.
• Hippocrates (400 BC) and later Pliny (50 AD) described using charcoal for epilepsy, anemia, and anthrax. In the second century AD, Claudius Galen, one of the most famous doctors in the Roman Empire, wrote medical treatises on charcoal for the treatment of a variety of diseases.
• After the Dark Ages, charcoal resurfaced in the 1700s and was used for various GI tract issues and treatment of wounds.
• In the 1800s, charcoal was recommended as an antidote for poisons and intestinal disorders, as well as for topical use on gangrenous sores and sloughing ulcers.
• Native Americans have used charcoal for hundreds of years for excess gas in the GI tract.
• Charcoal use has been used in both Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for several thousand years. It’s used as a detoxifier, to reduce gas and bloating, and to eliminate odor in the digestive system.
• By the end of the 20th century activated charcoal was being used in hospitals, clinics, research departments, and poison control centers around the world.
• James Winchester published a research article in 1976 titled Activated Charcoal-Black Magic? 1 This was the first known use of the name “black magic” to describe the benefits of activated charcoal.
Charcoal is rated “safe and effective” by the FDA. It’s listed in the United States Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia as having “marked absorption power of gases.” 2
Current research on the benefits of activated charcoal
Benefits for the gut microbiome:
Several studies from France, Japan, and the US show that activated charcoal can be beneficial in protecting the gut from dysbiosis (microbiota imbalance) during antibiotic therapy.
One of the common consequences of dysbiosis is the rise of Clostridioides difficile infections in the gut, the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, allergies, and metabolic syndromes.
It appears that activated charcoal can bind to certain pathogenic bacteria such as E.coli and C.difficile but does not bind well to the beneficial Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains. 3,4,5
This means that charcoal will not negatively affect the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Activated charcoal and European horses:
As I began my deeper exploration into charcoal, I discovered that activated charcoal use in horses is common in Europe, particularly in the UK, where it can be found in feeds, in a multitude of supplements, or simply used on its own.
In the UK charcoal is recommended for loose manure, diarrhea, bloating, gas, to support horses going through diet changes, stress, GI tract discomfort, and lush pasture grazing — actual terms used on various UK websites recommending activated charcoal for horses.
In Germany activated charcoal is recommended to bind and eliminate pollutants and toxins, stabilize the metabolism, provide support while grazing, mallenders (*see below), gas and bloating, and to promote a calm digestive system (terms taken from actual German and Austrian websites).
(*) Mallenders are an accumulation of thickened, crusted scale and scabs on the front and hind legs of horses. These scabs occur behind the knee or in front of the hock. This is known as hyperkeratosis and is most common in draft horses and cobs.
Activated charcoal and Lyme disease:
Some integrative health practitioners in the UK have been focusing on activated charcoal and Lyme disease. Activated charcoal is used for a short period of time following antibiotic therapy to bind and trap toxins released by the bacteria.
Herxing is a phenomenon that happens after the antibiotics do their job, and the bacteria die-off causes a release of toxins. Horses may feel worse than they did before the antibiotic therapy.
Herxing only affects about one percent of equine Lyme patients, but is not uncommon in humans with Lyme disease. Activated charcoal can bind these toxins and safely remove them from the body.
Frequently asked questions about charcoal
Does activated charcoal affect the probiotic bacteria in the gut?
According to a study on horses published in the Journal of Equine Science, 2016, activated charcoal did not affect the microbial community of the hindgut, or the volatile fatty acid levels or pH values. 6
Does activated charcoal interfere with nutrients?
If your horse is on a multivitamin-mineral supplement, allow 2 or more hours before or after giving activated charcoal.
Does activated charcoal reduce absorption of medications?
Activated charcoal can reduce the systemic absorption of acetaminophen, aspirin, metformin, pergolide,altrenogest (Regu-Mate), and albuterol.
It’s best to give these medications two hours before or after activated charcoal.
Is activated charcoal a daily ulcer preventative?
There isn’t any research indicating activated charcoal helps to decrease or prevent gastric or hindgut ulcers.
Is activated charcoal beneficial for the kidneys?
Research does indicate that activated charcoal may help remove toxins from the kidneys. 7,8
How about activated charcoal for laminitis?
According to TheLaminitisSite.org, activated charcoal does not seem to be effective in treating endocrine laminitis, which is what most all pasture-associated laminitis is. 9
However, activated charcoal can be an effective adsorbent in cases of grain overload that can lead to laminitis.
When would I give activated charcoal to my horse?
- Upon noticing diarrhea or unusually loose manure
- With excess gas or bloating
- With lush pasture grazing
- During stress from travel or competition
- During feed changes
- When a horse is sensitive to mold and could benefit from a gentle detox with activated charcoal to trap the mycotoxins.
- When a horse is sensitive to glyphosate and could benefit from a gentle detox with activated charcoal
How often should activated charcoal be used?
• For a detoxification from mold or glyphosate, use for approximately 3 days according to the product label, then stop. This can be repeated once a week for 30 days if needed.
• For excess gas, bloating, diarrhea, or lush pasture: use 1 serving (follow label instructions) for one or 2 days.
• For stress from travel, competition, or feed changes: 1 serving (follow label instructions) as needed.
Activated Charcoal should not be used as a regular daily supplement because it binds important minerals. Give charcoal separately from the horse’s feed ration to avoid binding minerals and vitamins. Medications and multivitamin – mineral supplements should be given two hours before or after feeding charcoal.
BioStar’s journey with activated charcoal
The more I read about activated charcoal, the more I wanted to experiment with it.
Let me just say that finding “the right” activated charcoal was a challenge in itself; BioStar found itself with seven different activated charcoal raw materials for experimentation! We ended up choosing a coconut-derived version with a specific granulation size providing more surface area for binding.
We’ve made this black granular charcoal easy to use by creating a small mash designed to be fed independently of a regular feed. Just add water and serve.
For GI tract support alongside Hedgerow GI,
Hedgerow Mash + Hedgerow Paste = Hedgerow Pronto!