Carbon in the Diet-Do we really need fulvic acids, activated charcoal, or C60?

Carbon in the diet is a rare subject.  I am including it here, because in episode 13, I had a lot to say about carbon as plant food.

In that episode, I emphasized the importance of carbon in plant nutrition.¬† I said carbon was essential for plant growth because carbon makes up 45-50% of a plant’s dry weight.¬† I also said that as autotrophs, plants make their own food.¬†

Does this say anything about carbon in our own diets? After all, aren’t we also made of carbon?

Do Our Diets Require Carbon?

Absolutely!¬† If we use the dry weight composition as our meter stick for essential nutrients, humans and any of the other 7 or 8 million species of animals need to consume a lot carbon.¬† But if you look at the FDA’s Recommended Dietary Allowances for elements, carbon isn’t even listed!¬† Is carbon being neglected as a nutrient for people, pets, and livestock?¬†¬†

Well if we are taking the subject too literally, you might say carbon in the diet is neglected, and that carbon is not alone.¬† The FDA’s list says nothing about any of the most abundant elements in the human body.¬† They don’t talk directly about carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, or oxygen.

But when we look at the bigger picture, this omission makes a lot more sense, because we as humans are heterotrophs.¬† ¬†Like the other 7 or 8 million species of animals on the planet, we have to eat food. We can’t just absorb nutrients from our environment like plants do.¬† We all need food, and the food we eat is made of proteins, carbohydrates, and/or fats, vitamins, and other compounds,¬† All of which contain carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.¬† Proteins, vitamins, and certain other compounds found in food also contain nitrogen.

Since the FDA does publish Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, they have actually covered all of these major elements.  They are not neglecting carbon in the diet.  Rather, they are expanding discussion of carbon (and other macronutrients) by highlighting its many forms.

Why we might supplement with carbon.

If  a person is eating enough protein, carbohydrate, and fat, that person is getting enough carbon in their diet. Even if you are not eating enough of any one of these, you are probably still getting enough carbon.  It is safe to say that the only way a person would ever be deficient in elemental carbon would be if they were chronically starving.

Nonetheless, most vitamin shops often carry some of the very same carbon rich supplements that growers use to add carbon to their soils.  Almost every major vitamin shop carries activated charcoal (also called activated carbon).  Many carry humates, (ex: fulvic acid, humic acid, or humic shale extracts). The Plant Derived Minerals made popular by Dr. Joel Wallach are natural colloidal minerals and fulvic acids that come from humic shale.

In recent years, even pure carbon C60 molecules called fullerenes can be found, often mixed with olive oil, in health food shops.

Not one of these compounds are recognized as nutrients by the FDA.  So why should people take them? Why do vitamin shops promote these supplements?

Well, we do know that activated charcoal and humates, at least, have long histories of use in human health. C60 also has some reported health benefits.¬† So let’s talk about these.

Health benefits of activated charcoal.

Activated charcoal is promoted as a general detox substance.¬† For example, a 2018 review of medical research exploring the use of activated charcoal to manage diarrhea, Canadian researchers observed that “Activated charcoal has a firm history in its ability to attract and expel ingested toxins from the gastrointestinal tract. It acts to prevent absorption…by adsorbing them on the surface of its particles, making it a suitable diarrheal treatment.”¬† The emphasis on “firm history” is mine..This photo shows activated charcoal-a black, odorless substance most commonly made from wood.

This is all good. However, it is worth knowing that activated charcoal can come from a variety of sources.  Purity can vary. Make sure that if you decide to use activated charcoal as a supplement, yours is coming from an establishment that applies high quality standards in their manufacturing practices.

The other point to keep in mind, not only with activated charcoal, but with all the products we will discuss today, is that the effect it has on your health can vary.¬† ¬†Every supplement has an optimal dose.¬† Taking too much or not enough will work against you. Furthermore, each of these compounds can interact in either positive, or negative ways with medications and environmental toxins that you might already have in your system.¬† So don’t your decision to take a product on its flashy label or its price.¬† Instead, do some homework.

Conduct your own research, then share your questions with experts, such as trusted health care providers.  Ask about potential interactions with medications you might be taking.

Get expert help using activated charcoal for detox

In particular, while activated charcoal can help with some kinds of detox, don’t use it randomly to treat any toxic exposure.¬† It works well for some.¬† Not so well for others.¬† Poison Control Centers and Urgent Care Centers can offer you advise for dealing with acute and urgent toxic exposures.¬† Qualified physicians, and licensed nutritionists and alternative health practitioners can advise you on more chronic detox demands.

Health benefits of humic substances (humic acid, fulvic acid, etc.).

A review article published in 2015  noted multiple benefits of humic substances, including:

  • anti-inflammatory activity
  • reduction of C-reactive protein levels
  • suppression of allergic reactions in patients with hay fever
  • cardioprotection
  • promotion of new blood vessel growth (angiogenisis)

Humic substances (humic acid, fulvic acid, humic shale extracts) are reasonably safe.

This same article also provided valuable “safe dose” information, revealing that a daily dose of humic acid (in the form of potassium humate) is safe up to 1 g/kg, meaning that a 60 kg adult (132 lbs in the English system) could safely consume 60 grams (that’s about 2 ounces by weight) of potassium humate.

Friends, this is a lot of humic substance.

Translation: the data in this review suggests potassium humate is safe.  So safe, in fact, that I wondered if these assertions held steady over time.  So I found some more recent studies.

NOAELs provide safety estimates.

When testing products for safety, one goal is to identify a NOAEL, or “No Observable¬† Adverse Effects Level.”¬† The idea behind these routine toxicology tests is to figure out how much of a substance can be consumed before it starts to affect your health.¬† The higher the NOAEL, the safer the product is.

As an example, it is widely known that cyanide is pretty poisonous.¬† One NOAEL level for oral exposure to cyanide is 12.5 mg/kg.¬† ¬†12 mg isn’t a lot.

By comparison, two independent studies in 2020 studies failed to administer enough fulvic acid to see adverse effects at all. Collaborating authors from Washington State and Hungary established a NOAEL for mixtures of humic and fulvic acid at 2000 mg/kg/day. This was the highest level they tested.

If we extrapolate their model directly to humans, this would mean a typical adult could safely eat half a pound of the product they tested daily without seeing adverse effects.

In an independent study, also carried out in 2020, collaborators at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the China Agricultural University reported a NOAEL of 5,000‚ÄČmg/kg body weight/day.¬† In humans, that would be more than a pound a day for an average adult.

These NOAELs indicate defined humic substances are safe.

Now, I don’t know anyone who would want to eat up to a pound of humic substances a day, but the take-home point here is that humic substances are shown to have have some therapeutic effects, and they are quite safe to consume.

It is important to note that in both of the studies above, the scientists defined the source of their humic substances.   Humic substances can come from humic shale deposits, peat bogs, and many other places.  Each of these will vary in composition.  So if you plan to take supplements containing humic substances, make sure you know they are coming from a safe source. Companies can provide certificates of analyses, NSF certifications, and various independent laboratory validations to document product safety. Ask your dealer for these.

The Plant Derived Minerals (PDM) available in our affiliate marketplace is one example of a supplement derived from humic substances that is available as a dietary supplement.

Now please keep in mind that I am not an MD.¬† I’m offering general information-not making health recommendations.¬† So please check with your health care provider if you have questions about adding humates or other carbon supplements to your diet.

Are C60 carbon supplements safe?

First of all, what are C60 carbon supplements?

C60 is a kind of fullerene, also known as a buckyball or buckminsterfullerene.   Imagine a pure, elemental carbon compound made of 60 carbon atoms joined together in the shape of a soccer ball, and you have C60.  Like graphene and diamond, C60 is made by carbon molecules binding exclusively to other carbon molecules.

C60 and other fullerenes were only discovered in 1985. However, these molecules had so much significance in materials science that the British and American researchers who discovered them were awarded a Nobel Prize.  Soon, buckyballs were the center of research in materials science, nanotechnology, and not surprisingly, medicine.

Reasons to take C60

C60 entered the dietary supplement market after a  study in 2012 demonstrated that C60 nearly doubled the lifespan of laboratory rats.  This seems like really great news!  Afterall, other studies indicate C60 is a powerful antioxidant that is safe to consume. Needless to say, many health advocates are promoting C60.  I am not one of them.

Reasons to avoid C60

There are two reasons that I am not jumping on board with the C60 bandwagon.

  1. Long term safety of C60 supplements has not been firmly established.
  2. Even though C60 itself is reasonably safe, it can act as a carrier or a synergizer for other toxins.  A synergizer is a molecule that, when combined with another molecule, can make the second molecule more potent. 

In all fairness, activated charcoal and humates can also act as synergizers.  But people have been using activated charcoal and humates internally for centuries.  There are well established methods for safe use.   This is simply not true for C60.

C60 Interactions with Other Chemicals are Complicated

C60 interactions in the environment were highlighted by  researchers from Spain who were studying contaminants in river Scientists looking at C60 interactions with environmental contaminants discovered that some contaminants (triclosan, phenanthrene) were more toxic when C60 was present. When C60 was combined with these compounds, it acted like a trojan horse, sneaking the toxins into cells they would not normally enter.  The interaction were synergistic, because the combinations were more toxic than the molecules alone.

The picture gets more complicated, however, because other contaminants (pentaclorophenol, diuron) the scientists tested were actually less toxic mixed with C60.  For these chemicals, C60 was an antagonist.

  1. This is good news when your dealing with toxic chemicals.  Less good if C60 can also work antagonistically with medications.  To my knowledge, those studies have not yet been done.

These findings emphasize real difficulties associated with toxicology assessment in general.  A chemical that is perfectly safe when taken alone, can be dangerous when mixed with the wrong companions.

Environmental protection agencies in and beyond the US struggle just to examine the toxicity of the 85,000 or more chemicals in the marketplace.  Testing how C60 or any of these other compounds interact together is even more difficult.

When available studies are not enough to ensure safety, I usually look at historical use.   If civilizations have been using a treatment for centuries, and adverse reactions have been rare, I feel more confident trying a product that might have benefits.  In the case of C60, neither the research nor the historical usage data are strong.

C60 alternatives

In regards to C60, in the absence of records indicating successful, long term historical use, it may be wise to avoid C60 supplementation.  Afterall, there are many antioxidant and antiaging options available.  Most of these have been more extensively tested than C60.

Some of the best antiaging options include the whole foods and healthy lifestyle choices I have described in my Managing Your Microbiome online course.

Using Carbon Rich Supplements Safely

Carbon rich supplements like activated charcoal, humates, and C60 each have the potential to interact with other substances.

To use any of these products safely, be sure to purchase them from reputable dealers.  Ask your dealer what kinds of tests they use to ensure purity, and make sure your health care provider is aware of any supplements you are taking.

In Summary

People do need carbon in the diet.¬† However, essentially all of the food we eat is high in carbon, so most of us don’t need¬† supplements to ensure we are getting enough.

Nonetheless, some dietary supplements contain high carbon substances like activated charcoal, humates or C60. This is not because they are adding carbon to the diet.¬† It is because these compounds offer a variety of benefits–ranging from detox to anti-inflammatory and antiaging effects.

While some of these benefits have been well established, the benefits will vary with purity and with the way the product is formulated.  For this reason, if you are going to use any of the[checklist][/checklist]se products as supplements, be sure to buy them from a reputable dealer.

Always be aware that supplements can interact with medications or environmental contaminants.  These interactions can impact their benefits.


This article contains links to external sources. Some of these links are to affiliate sites, through which I may be compensated for any purchases you make.


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