For centuries, healers have been using various compounds to bind toxins. They’ve used binders to address poisoning from chemicals, drugs, food, and other harmful substances.
Today, functional medicine practitioners also use binders. They help bind harmful microbial byproducts, pesticides, radioactive elements, toxic heavy metals, and more. Such toxins are often at the root of complex chronic health challenges. (1)
A variety of binding substances are available, such as charcoal, diatomaceous earth, and bentonite clay. You can buy them individually, or purchase products that contain a mixture of them.
But many binders aren’t very good at their job. Most are only able to bind certain toxins, only work under certain conditions, and can’t move beyond your gut. Plus, most binders don’t provide materials to repair the damage caused by the toxins they’re hauling away.
But what if there was a potent, versatile binder that could also help repair the damage caused by toxins? This isn’t just wishful thinking. It exists in carbon-based binders.
To truly appreciate how carbon-based binders work, it’s helpful to understand “old-school” binders. They may have some benefits. But unfortunately, this old technology also has significant drawbacks.
Here’s a closer look at these binders, including their effectiveness ranking out of 10.
1. Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal is a fine black powder. It’s been used as a binder for hundreds of years. Some poison control centers still use activated charcoal to help with drug overdoses and the like. (2, 3)
To make activated charcoal, manufacturers start with a carbon source. For example, they could use decomposed plants (peat), coconut shells, or wood. It’s then exposed to an activating agent and high heat. That creates many tiny pores and gives more surface area for binding. (4, 5, 6)
As the charcoal travels through your digestive tract, toxins get caught in the pores. Then you poop out the charcoal with the toxins. Sounds like a decent binder, doesn't it?
But charcoal has several drawbacks, including:
Gritty texture: Activated charcoal is sold in capsules, but it works best when dissolved in liquid. That said, its gritty texture is unpleasant. People may resort to “hiding” it in chocolate milk or other beverages just to get it down. (7, 8)
Limited toxin binding: Charcoal can bind some drugs, mycotoxins (mold toxins), and pesticides. But charcoal doesn’t bind heavy metals well. It’s “spent” carbon, meaning it doesn't have much energy. And its long-chain carbons can’t travel beyond your gut. (7, 9, 10, 11)
No repair capabilities: Charcoal doesn’t undo any of the damage caused by the toxins it removes. And since it can bind nutrients you need, it’s commonly advised to take periodic breaks from activated charcoal. (12)
Time-sensitive: Charcoal can only grab toxins that are in your gut when it’s passing through. So, it works best when given within an hour after your exposure to the toxin. Charcoal doesn’t address the toxins stored in your tissues. (7, 13)
Unwanted nutrient binding: If food or medication are in your gut when you take charcoal, it could bind them. Generally, you have to space activated charcoal two hours apart from everything else, which can be inconvenient. (14)
Unpleasant side effects: In some cases, regular use of activated charcoal has led to constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and other side effects. Plus, charcoal isn’t advised for anyone with sluggish gut motility. That combo could cause blockages. (5, 7)
As an overall binder, activated charcoal is mediocre at best. For these reasons, activated charcoal earns a 6 out of 10.
2. Bentonite Clay
This absorbent clay has been used since ancient times for its health benefits. It is named after the town of Fort Benton, Wyoming, which is a major source of the natural clay. It comes from the weathering of volcanic ashes. (14)
Research suggests bentonite clay may help bind and remove some mycotoxins, pesticides, and heavy metals like cadmium and lead. However, its binding ability is affected by the pH of the environment it resides in and the toxin itself. So its effectiveness varies. Plus, its long-chain carbons can’t travel beyond your gut. (14, 15, 16)
One human study found that five days of taking bentonite clay reduced aflatoxin markers by 55%. Aflatoxin is a mycotoxin that commonly contaminates foods, including grains and peanuts. (17, 18, 19)
But what about the mycotoxins you might get from living in a moldy home — like ochratoxin A secreted by Aspergillus and Penicillium mold? When scientists fed chickens bentonite clay, it failed to counteract the immune system suppression caused by ochratoxin A. Meaning, bentonite clay may not be very helpful with this mold byproduct. (16, 20)
It’s also worth noting that some animal research suggests bentonite clay may interfere with calcium uptake in your bones. The clay may interfere with thyroid hormones, too. (14)
Besides those concerns, the jury is still out on what bentonite clay may do to your cells on contact. Lab studies suggest the clay may be toxic to certain intestinal cells when taken at higher doses. But more research is needed on the topic. (21, 22)
While there are health benefits, there are also issues for concern. So, bentonite clay earns a 7 out of 10.
Chitosan is most commonly made from the outer shell of crabs, shrimp, and other shellfish. Either chemical or enzymatic processes are used to purify it. Some view chitosan as the natural equivalent to cholestyramine, as both can bind bile salts and mycotoxins. (23)
Lab studies do suggest chitosan may help bind some mycotoxins, such as ochratoxin and trichothecene. But it’s far from 100% effective. (24, 25)
In one lab test, chitosan only bound 27% of the trichothecene present. That mycotoxin is produced by the “black mold” known as Stachybotrys chartarum, as well as Fusarium and other problematic molds. (26, 27)
Lab tests also suggest chitosan can bind heavy metals, such as lead. But, chitosan’s ability to bind heavy metals and other toxins fluctuates with the pH. It performs better at some pH levels than others. That could limit its efficacy in your body. (28, 29, 30)
Other lab and animal research suggests chitosan may act as a prebiotic, meaning food for good bacteria in your gut. As such, it may help shift the balance of bacteria to promote your health. But more research, including human studies, are needed in this area. (31, 32)
You can buy chitosan either as an individual supplement or in binders with other ingredients. Interestingly, chitosan is commonly marketed for weight loss. Due to its binding activity, it may interfere with fat absorption. But human studies suggest it’s not very effective for weight loss. (33)
Lastly, keep in mind that chitosan derives from shellfish (though not from the “meat” portion). So, if you’re allergic to shellfish, this binder might be problematic for you. (34)
Since this binder can be problematic, chitosan earns a 5 out of 10.
Chlorella binders are made of blue-green algae. They naturally contain nutrients, including essential amino acids, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. (35)
Chlorella may help bind persistent environmental pollutants called dioxins. These release into the atmosphere from manufacturing processes and incinerating garbage. (36)
In one study, women took 6 grams daily of a chlorella supplement during the last six months of their pregnancy. It lowered the environmental toxin levels — including dioxin — in their breastmilk by about 40%. (37)
But chlorella may not be particularly good at removing heavy metals.
When mice took chlorella for three weeks, it increased mercury excretion in their urine and feces by 5–10%. It also helped decrease mercury in the kidneys and brain. But it didn’t lower mercury levels in their liver. (38)
That isn’t the only study in which chlorella has fallen short. Another rodent study found that chlorella didn’t improve cadmium detox. (39)
Some evidence suggests chlorella inhibits heavy metal absorption if taken at the same time as heavy metals. But chlorella may not work effectively at supporting excretion of heavy metals already in your body. Plus, heavy metal binding may vary with the species of chlorella used in supplements. (39)
On top of that, some evidence suggests sea-sourced supplements like chlorella are prone to toxin contamination. And some have questioned whether an inflammatory endotoxin in the cell wall of chlorella could cause harm, especially with routine use. (40, 41, 42)
While chlorella may bind environmental toxins, it may not be effective against heavy metals. For these reasons, chlorella earns a 5 out of 10.
5. Diatomaceous Earth
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is sometimes called fossil shell flour. That’s because it’s made of fossilized skeletons of single-celled algae called diatoms. These diatoms are encased in a glassy crust of silicon dioxide, which is like a glass wall. (43, 44)
Silicon dioxide makes up the majority of the contents of diatomaceous earth. You’ve probably consumed silicon dioxide and didn’t know it. It’s used as a food additive to prevent dry ingredients from clumping together. (44)
Once crushed, diatomaceous earth becomes very porous with microscopic sharp edges on its particles. But this white powder would look and feel like chalk dust in your hands.
There are different grades of diatomaceous earth, depending on its intended use. This includes food-grade diatomaceous earth, which is deemed safe for human consumption. (44)
Diatomaceous earth is also used as an additive in livestock feed as the mold toxins can interfere with animal growth. (44, 45, 46)
Some studies suggest diatomaceous earth in animal feed may also help combat parasitic worms. But more research is needed in this area since other studies have not shown this benefit. And this has not been tested in people. (44, 47, 48)
Diatomaceous earth may also help remove heavy metals in wastewater, but the effectiveness varies with the pH. And it’s unknown whether diatomaceous earth can bind mycotoxins or heavy metals in people. Its inefficiency at some pHs may limit its effectiveness in your body. (49)
Another concern with diatomaceous earth is that it may harm the workers processing it. Some forms may cause lung damage when inhaled. But this risk refers to the coarse, crystalline form of diatomaceous earth used to filter swimming pool water — not the kind you’d take orally. (50, 51)
Since there are concerns with this binder, diatomaceous earth earns a 4 out of 10.
6. Modified Citrus Pectin
This binder is made from the inner white pulp of citrus fruit peels. It’s a soluble fiber modified to make its molecules smaller. That could improve its uptake into your bloodstream and enhance its binding ability. (52, 53)
Modified citrus pectin has primarily been tested for its ability to bind heavy metals. When healthy adults took modified citrus pectin, their urinary excretion of arsenic, cadmium, and lead increased within days. A study in hospitalized children also suggests the binder may help detox lead. But the studies were small and lacked control groups. (52, 54)
Also, there's insufficient evidence that modified citrus pectin helps you remove mycotoxins or pesticides. And the binder doesn’t provide nutrients to help restore tissues that may have been damaged by toxins. (55)
Plus, some modified citrus pectins aren’t properly made. If the size of the molecules is too large, you will not absorb the supplement well. So make sure you know what you’re really getting if you buy this type of binder. (55)
With the lack of sufficient evidence, plus issues with molecule size, modified citrus pectin earns a 4 out of 10.
7. Prescription Binders
Cholestyramine (Questran) and colesevelam (Welchol) are best-known as cholesterol-lowering drugs. But a common off-label use is to bind toxins, particularly mycotoxins. As bile passes through your gut, these drugs tightly bind the mycotoxins in the bile so you can excrete them. (56)
Animal and lab studies, as well as human case studies, support the use of these drugs to remove mold toxins. These binders may also help remove environmental chemicals like perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), such as used in non-stick and water-repellent products. (40, 57)
But cholestyramine and similar binders have several possible drawbacks, including: (56, 58, 59)
Bloating, heartburn, indigestion, and stomach upset
Constipation, especially if you don’t consume enough water and fiber
- Interference with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and K
- Interference with the absorption of other medications
- Worsening hypothyroidism
On top of that, Questran comes in a powdered form littered with artificial colors, flavors, and sugar. The “light” version contains the artificial sweetener aspartame. (60)
If you must take cholestyramine, you may want to consider a compounded pharmacy prescription to avoid undesirable additives. That said, the compounded version is very pricey and may not be covered by your insurance.
With all its drawbacks, prescription binders earn a 3 out of 10.
8. Silica Gel
A silica-based gel (technically polymethylsiloxane polyhydrate) is widely used in some European countries. It’s popular for acute gut infections, food poisoning, and irritable bowel syndrome. (61, 62)
Silica gel doesn’t claim to do it all when it comes to detox. It works in your gut to remove toxins, but it doesn’t go beyond your gut. In other words, you don’t absorb it. (63)
In your gut, this colorless gel binds some microbial toxins, such as from Shigella and other bacteria that cause food poisoning. Lab research has also shown the gel may bind harmful toxins from Clostridium difficile. That’s the infamous bacteria that can cause horrible diarrhea. (62)
Limited evidence also suggests silica-based binders may help remove aluminum. Just keep in mind silica gel doesn’t go beyond your gut. So don’t expect it to help with aluminum in your brain, for example. (64)
Also, be mindful that you should take silica gel two hours away from medications, as it can interfere with drug absorption. (65)
In short, silica gel provides some binding benefits and may be helpful in cases of stomach upset. But its ability to help with detox is limited to a few areas. (66)
With these limitations, Silica gel earns a 5 out of 10.
Zeolites are primarily made of silica, aluminum, and oxygen. Don’t let the word aluminum scare you. Zeolite doesn’t contribute to heavy metal toxicity. Instead, its unique composition helps it tightly bind and remove harmful heavy metals. (67)
In fact, when it comes to binders, zeolite is near the top in binding effectiveness. It selectively binds heavy metals and other toxins without interfering with vitamins and trace elements you need. (67)
Notably, the form of this binder thought to be most beneficial to people — zeolite clinoptilolite — is higher in silica. That makes it more stable in acidic environments than typical zeolites. And the European Food Safety Authority has deemed natural zeolite clinoptilolite safe. (67, 68)
Zeolite clinoptilolite can also be micronized to make it even more effective for detox. That means it’s broken down into microscopic pieces, increasing its charge and surface area. This gives it a greater capacity to bind toxins and hold onto them until you excrete them. (69)
Micronized zeolite clinoptilolite is the “Cadillac” of zeolites. It has optimal detox capacity for ammonia, heavy metals, mycotoxins, radioactive materials, pesticides, and other toxins. (69)
Besides detox and binding, animal and human studies suggest zeolite clinoptilolite could help with: (67, 69, 70)
- Antioxidant defense
- Gut barrier health
- Inflammatory balance
- Microbiome and immune system support
As impressive as micronized zeolite clinoptilolite is, there is a binder that achieves detox and restoration better than any other binder. Therefore, zeolites earn a 9 out of 10.
The Best Binder: Carbon-Based
Carbon-based binders consist of the very best parts of what a binder should be, without the drawbacks. These nutrients come from soil-based microbes breaking down old vegetation, creating nutrient-rich “dirt.” (71)
There’s nothing old-school or ordinary about carbon-based binders. Twelve key features of these binders include:
Antioxidant protection: Carbon-based binders are supercharged with antioxidant carbon compounds. It has thousands of electrons to give away to neutralize harmful free radicals. So, it’s able to remain stable when it donates electrons. (72, 73)
High energy: Carbon-based binders are “unspent carbon” with high-energy. These promote strong toxin binding and maximize binding effectiveness. Remember, other carbon-based binders, such as activated charcoal, are “spent,” meaning low energy. (74)
Immune defense: Carbon-based binders provides antioxidants and helps naturally deter the growth of unwanted bacteria and fungi. (75, 76, 77)
Microbiome support: Carbon-based binders help nourish the good bacteria in your gut and support microbiome health. (78)
Multiple toxin targets: Carbon-based binders can bind chemicals, heavy metals, mycotoxins, pesticides, radioactive elements, and other unwanted microbial byproducts. Each toxin can find a place where it “fits” in these binders so it can be removed. (79, 80, 81, 82, 83)
Natural Delivery: Carbon-based binders are not a synthesized delivery system and therefore all natural. These carbons protect and drive the nutrients because it is attached to the delivery system.
pH versatility: Carbon-based binders have a carefully regulated pH to promote strong binding and can work at any pH without running out of energy. (84, 85, 86)
Restorative nutrients: Carbon-based binders contain the building blocks your body needs to help restore tissues and cells damaged by toxins. These building blocks include amino acids, carbon, hydrogen, minerals, vitamins, and others. These nutrients are on nano-size (tiny) particles that can easily move into your cells. (87, 88)
Safe long term: Because they only bind what they should and can restore cells with needed nutrients, you can take carbon-based binders long term without the need for periodic breaks.
Selective binding: Carbon-based binders only bind and remove what your body doesn’t need. So you can take these binders at any time, regardless of when you eat. They don’t bind the nutrients in your food.
Systemic effects: Unlike most binders, carbon-based binders can enter your bloodstream and detoxify beyond your gut. It not only has long-chain carbons that are active in your gut, but it also has medium- and short-chain carbons that can work in your tissues and cells. (89, 90, 91)
Ultra-strong binding: Carbon-based binders are like a powerful magnet that tightly binds toxins and carries them all the way out of your body via your stools. (92, 93)
Go for the Premium Binder
Binding toxins to clean out your body is not a new concept. People have been doing it for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a great binder among these archaic compounds. But some people still use them.
Old-school binders are limited in the number of different toxins they can bind. They’re also low on energy and “holding” power, which can result in redistributing the toxins in your body.
On top of that, most old-school binders can’t work beyond your digestive tract. Some rob you of nutrients. And the majority of them don’t offer your body what’s needed to fix cellular damage.
Carbon-based binders leave all these inadequacies in the dust. With powerfully charged molecules, it tightly binds and removes a wide variety of toxins — down to the cellular level. At the same time, it provides the building blocks needed to restore cells and tissues damaged by toxins.
In short, carbon-based binders are in a class of their own when it comes to binding and restoration.
How could carbon-based binders help you in your detox journey?