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CARBON

Carbon is a chemical element with the atomic number 6 that is found in various compounds within the human body but not in its purest form. Millions of carbon atoms form the thousands of molecules in almost every bodily cell as it is a basic building block of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.  All living organisms on earth, including humans, are known as 'carbon-based life forms'.

Food is essentially carbon dioxide. The plants consumed directly, such as vegetables, have all absorbed carbon dioxide out of the air through the process of photosynthesis, and the animals humans consume have all ingested it via the grass and plants they eat. Ultimately, everything that is organic gives its carbon back to nature through death and decay. This is called the 'Carbon Cycle'.

The ingestion of carbohydrates, fat and protein supplies the body with carbon in the form of large molecules called macronutrients. Most of the human diet can be classified into one of these three categories, all of which are carbon-based but have differing chemical properties.

Carbohydrates are the most common source of energy for all living things. They come in two forms, simple sugars and complex carbohydrates. Sucrose is the most widely known sugar, but there are several other simple sugars, including glucose, which is found in blood, and fructose, which is found in honey.

All carbohydrates eventually break down to glucose which is a molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. During cellular respiration, the body oxidises glucose and energy is released. The oxygen in the compound is reduced to water, while the carbon atoms in the glucose are released as carbon dioxide.

All the cells in the human body are built from protein, which in turn is built by 20 types of amino acid. These essential acids are formed by combinations of carbon and several other atoms. Although adult bodies can manufacture twelve of the acids from their carbon content, they must get the other eight from food.

More than 30 elements are important in helping plants and animals live and thrive, with carbon being the most important because of its ability to combine with other elements. All natural foods contain carbon except water.

Carbon dioxide

A human being breathes about 20,000 times a day through the components of the respiratory system such as the lungs, nose, throat and windpipe. The air that people breathe consists of several gases, with oxygen most important for cell growth and energy. Carbon dioxide, a waste gas, is produced when carbon is mixed with oxygen during cellular metabolism. It is possible, though, to have too much or too little carbon dioxide in the blood. Too much carbon dioxide may be associated with such conditions as Cushing's syndrome, Conn's syndrome, severe vomiting, restriction of blood flow and lung disorders. Too little carbon dioxide, often caused by hyperventilation, can make muscles tense and cause people to become anxious, stressed, tense and even aggressive.

Carbon monoxide dangers

Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal. The gas forms when there is not enough oxygen to produce carbon dioxide mainly when the carbon in fuel is not burned completely. Carbon monoxide prevents oxygen in the blood from being carried throughout the body causing asphyxiation. Exposure to carbon monoxide can severely affect the elderly and people with cardiovascular or lung disease. Low concentrations can cause confusion, disorientation, fatigue, headache, hyperventilation, loss of alertness and nausea, fatigue. High concentrations can result in a coma or death.

Carbon in activated charcoal

A carbon-based substance, activated charcoal, is a highly porous substance able to bind many harmful substances such as chlorine, and is often used in hospitals to treat chemical poisoning or drug overdose. It is given by mouth to conscious patients or through a tracheal tube in unconscious patients. The drug or chemical attaches to the surface of the charcoal and, because charcoal is not digested, it stays in the gastrointestinal tract and eliminates the toxin through bowel movements. Activated charcoal also is used to reduce intestinal gas and treat bile flow problems during pregnancy.

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