PERHAPS YOU’VE HEARD SOME of the astounding claims surrounding kombucha: it helps the body fight cancer, detoxifies and alkalizes the system and reduces cholesterol. Though relatively new in the States, kombucha’s Far Eastern folklore stretches back 2,000 years. First mentioned during the Chinese Tsin Dynasty of 212 BCE, it was then called “The Elixir of Life.” By the 1800s, it had become a popular Russian folk remedy used to promote health. But, can well-being really come from a fermented drink that’s made of black or green tea, sugar, and a living gelatinous blob known as a SCOBA, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast?
Though no clinical research about kombucha exists, its components have been tested in the laboratory. If fermented in sanitary conditions, kombucha contains a long list of amino acids, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B12 and C, antioxidants, probiotics, organic acids and ethanol. If brewed in unsanitary conditions, however, the same kombucha colony can grow toxic bacteria and molds. Russia and Germany have produced the largest body of research on kombucha, attributing its therapeutic effects to glucuronic acid, a liver detoxifier, as well as acetic acid, which provides antimicrobial activity. Kombucha also contains the beneficial bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus and fungi Saccharomyces boulardii; both have been shown to reduce infection by opportunistic pathogen yeasts such as candida.
In 1964, Dr. Rudolf Sklenar of Oberhessen published research that attributed cancer fighting and cholesterol reducing qualities to kombucha. A 2009 lab study performed on mice with high cholesterol confirmed both kombucha’s antioxidant effects and its ability to reduce cholesterol. A 2009 Korean study regards kombucha “as a preventative and curative agent” against hepatotoxicity, chemical-driven liver damage.
Sounds great, but can kombucha fight cancer?
One of the oldest commercial brands, GT’s Kombucha, was founded on such a story. Fifteen years ago, GT’s mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. “Her tumor was so large that the doctors were certain it had spread throughout her body,” says GT, “and ordered a bone marrow transplant. When they discovered that the tumor was dormant and the cancer hadn’t spread, they asked her if had been doing anything differently with her diet. She replied that in addition to being a vegetarian for over a decade, she had been drinking this pungent-tasting tea for the last two years and that it makes her feel great. The doctors said that whatever you are doing; continue to do it, because your situation is miraculous.”
Licensed herbalist and acupuncturist, Heather Lounsbury says, “Kombucha tea alkalizes the body, which means you reduce your chances for illness, arthritis, and infections I recommend it to anyone who has the desire to be healthier.”
However, since no clinical studies exist, some doctors and other practitioners are wary of kombucha. James Bailey, LAc, Dipl Ayu, a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Ayurvedic Practitioner in Los Angeles, says, “Of all the food trends out there, I am most skeptical of kombucha. My personal opinion is that it is of little use, if not contraindicated, by those with kapha (water/earth) and vata (air/ether) conditions, and tolerated at best by those with strong healthy pitta constitutions. As a yeast product, I would not suggest a daily lifestyle use of kombucha.” Another cautionary note for those avoiding alcohol for any reason, kombucha is a fermented food that does contain 0.5% - 1.5% alcohol. For example, the Chinese herbalists and formulators at Tonix Botanical Solutions in Hollywood caution that kombucha is, by its very nature, heating, an effect that should be taken into account when choosing to incorporate it into your life or dietary regimen.
Should you choose to drink kombucha, do so intelligently. Remember, it is a raw food. Begin with a few sips and see how you feel. Also, be careful to note how much you are drinking. While some kombucha drinks can feel like natural alternatives to soda pop, it is an herbal food with stronger effects than water or herbal tea. Since it is fermented, it may be safer to purchase commercial kombucha, but if you wish to make your own, brew it under sterile conditions. Don’t drink kombucha that’s been left to ferment for several months. Not only will it taste overly sour and acidic, but metabolic acidosis may occur. Discard your kombucha immediately if you see any mold. Please consult with your physician before drinking if you are taking medication.
Aria Mayland is a writer and Yoga teacher in Los Angeles who has been brewing and drinking her own kombucha for ten years: yogawitharia.com.
I have been growing my own kombucha for ten years. Here is the recipe, as it was given to me:
Making the Tea:
- Boil one gallon of water for twenty minutes. Use stainless steel or glass pot.
- Add one cup of sugar (don’t use honey) and let boil for another five minutes.
- Turn off the heat and add two teabags (black or green tea works.)
- Let the tea seep for ten minutes.
- Remove tea bags and let cool to room temperature.
Prepare for Fermentation
- Pour 10% starter mix* into a large food grade glass jar and add 90% freshly brewed tea.
- Place your kombucha mushroom on top.
- Cover with a paper towel and put a rubber band around the lid to seal the opening. Make sure that there aren’t any holes in your paper towel.
- Let the mixture ferment for 7 – 30 days in a warm place, free from drafts and direct sunlight.
Drinking the Tea and Preparing the Next Batch:
- After fermentation is complete, pour out 90% of the fermented tea to drink.
- Save 10% for your next batch.
- If your kombucha has made a kombucha baby, peel it off carefully so that you now have two kombuchas. Don’t worry if it tears or sinks to the bottom of your next batch of tea, A new one will form in its place.
- Start the process again, each time saving 10% of the fermented batch and adding 90% fresh tea.
- To mimic the taste of commercial kombucha, experiment with adding tea or juice to your kombucha. I enjoy about 1/4 cup kombucha mixed with 1/2 cup juice and 1/2 cup sparkling water.
Warning: Never bring the mushroom or the fermented tea in contact with anything, but glass. Remove all metal jewelry and rings before handling the mushroom. Never use metal, ceramic or plastic to store or ferment your kombucha. Kombucha tea is highly acidic and may leach toxins, such as lead, into your tea.
*How to Get that First Mushroom:
Like most fermented foods (yogurt, sourdough or others) you need a starter. In this case, it is a mushroom and batch of already fermented tea. Find a kombucha growing friend or purchase a starter batch online. If you have experience fermenting foods, you may also purchase some commercial kombucha and let it ferment by covering it with a paper towel and sealing the edges until a new mushroom appears.
When Worry…and Not:
Don’t worry if you have stringy dark things floating in your fermented tea or if your mushroom becomes darker on one side and is lighter on another. This is normal. However, if you notice any type of mold growth (green, black, white et cetera) throw out everything and start new. Do not attempt to save your kombucha mushroom or drink the tea.
Kombucha is a living organism and is sensitive to energy. Make its home as peaceful as possible. I talk to my kombucha and put crystals around them. I try to brew fresh batches only on a new moon or a full moon, which works well for me.