Bismuth is considered a heavy metal, something that sounds like you probably shouldn’t ingest it, but certain bismuth compounds do have unexpected medicinal properties. Bismuth has been used as a medicinal ingredient for about 200 years to treat various things such as burns, stomach ulcers, and intestinal disorders. Bismuth even has antimicrobial effects and was used to treat wound infections, as well as a range of diseases including syphilis and parasite infections.
Bismuth is used less in medicine since the discovery of antibiotics, but is still used today to treat several gastrointestinal issues. Bismuth-based medicines are also often used to prevent and treat peptic ulcers, as the bismuth inhibits the growth of Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that most commonly causes stomach ulcers. Bismuth has even been shown to have promising cancer-fighting abilities, in an isotope called bismuth-213.
Pepto-Bismol is one of the most widely known bismuth-containing medicines available. Pepto-Bismol contains a compound known as bismuth subsalicylate. Bismuth subsalicylate is similar to the compound in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid. Both of these compounds break down in the body into salicylic acid, which acts as a painkiller and an anti-inflammatory. Unlike aspirin though, bismuth subsalicylate also has some effect on the gastrointestinal tract and can be used to treat common stomach issues like nausea and diarrhea. It also can act as a mild antacid, making it an excellent all-around remedy for stomach problems.
Bismuth Subsalicylate as a white powder.
Through a series of chemical reactions, the bismuth can be extracted from Pepto-Bismol, though it is hardly cost effective to do so. The bismuth subsalicylate in Pepto-Bismol can be broken down by hydrochloric acid to form salicylic acid and bismuth chloride. Aluminum can then be added to the mixture and will react with the bismuth chloride, causing the bismuth to precipitate as a black powder. Using the correct technique, this black powder can be melted and formed into solid bismuth, but this part can be very difficult. The bismuth must be heated at just the right temperature, to avoid the bismuth reacting with the air to form bismuth oxide as it melts. If done correctly, and in large quantities, you can have your very own slab of Pepto-bismuth.