Kombucha—China's Long-Life Elixir From Fermented “Mushroom” Tea
You may not have heard of it, but among some health enthusiasts in North America, a kombucha (pronounced kum-boo-sha) tea craze is under way. The source of the tea is sometimes called "Manchurian mushroom," but it's actually not a mushroom. Shaped like a honey-colored pancake and having a rubbery consistency, it looks and feels like a mushroom, yet it's not a solid at all, but rather a jelly-like skin of microorganisms.
Kombucha's origin is traceable to 220 B.C. China. Since then, appreciation of the tea as a healing beverage has slowly spread around the world so that, today, reportedly millions of people worldwide brew it at home and drink it every day.
The health claims for kombucha extant from ancient China are a bit daunting. It was known as the "remedy for immortality," "elixir of long life," and "the divine tea." In fact, as many as 120 different names for kombucha have been identified worldwide, indicating its seemingly global popularity.
What is this mysterious brew? Put most simply, kombucha consists of a sugar-sweetened black tea that has fermented for at least seven days with the kombucha culture, or what some characterize as "the miracle fungus." Kombucha is a conglomeration of yeasts (simple fungi) and bacteria, which, as with traditionally made yogurt, duplicates itself during the tea brewing process, so that it may be passed on to friends for making new batches. Starter cultures are handed down through generations, too.
As a tea, kombucha has a slightly sweet-and-sour taste similar to fermenting apple cider. As a product of its fermentation, kombucha tea contains a small amount of alcohol, in the form of ethanol, at about 0.5% (although it can be as high as 1.5%). Despite its strangeness to the Western palate, kombucha is a nutritious beverage providing significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, and therapeutic support for relief of many illnesses.
Kombucha's health claims are numerous and impressive, although supported mainly by user anecdote and cultural tradition. The prudent will proceed with a tempered openness. Considering the number of people who claim to have experienced positive effects and the range of healthful substances the tea contains, however, kombucha tea should be regarded as a potential nutritional support for general health and as an adjunctive therapeutic substance for many types of illness.
Acne: Acne is an inflammatory response that occurs as the body tries to fight off infection. Drinking kombucha tea can help the body with this detoxification. The tea can also be applied topically (at least five times daily) to the Acne lesions with a clean cotton ball or added to the bath (1-2 pints).
Arthritis: The glucuronic acid in the tea may be helpful for inflamed joints, cartilage repair, tendinitis and bursitis. A poultice (applying a piece of the fungus directly to a painful area) or warm tea baths may be helpful.
Candida albicans: It might seem counterintuitive to give yeast to someone with a yeast infection, but kombucha, being a mixed culture of yeasts and bacteria, naturally competes with other yeasts, inhibiting their growth and proliferation. Drinking kombucha tea can help detoxification efforts and recolonize the "friendly" bacteria in the intestines. In addition to its systemic benefits, a kombucha compress or douche (two tablespoons of kombucha diluted in two pints of warm water) can be used on affected areas, say the Bartholomews.
Digestive Problems: The combination of acids and enzymes in kombucha can aid the digestive process. Even though it is acidic, the beverage balances the stomach pH, and the lactic acid in kombucha helps to promote the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria.
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS): Drinking kombucha tea may alleviate some PMS symptoms by helping the body to eliminate excess estrogen as the tea's high level of B vitamins helps break down estrogen. The Bartholomews recommend drinking the tea during the two weeks prior to the onset of menstruation.
How Does Kombucha Heal?-One of the claims put forth for kombucha is that it exerts a beneficial effect on metabolism and that it stimulates general detoxification. It may accomplish this through the action of several acids naturally present in the tea.
The first is glucuronic acid. Normally produced by the liver as a powerful detoxifier, it is known for its ability to latch on to toxins (particularly environmental poisons, such as pesticides and herbicides, and metabolic waste products, such as uric acid and cholesterol) which are then eliminated from the body through the urine. Glucuronic acid is a natural by-product of the kombucha fermentation process. The acid is believed to enhance the body's immune defenses as part of its detoxification support.
Glucuronic acid is also a precursor of several important substances in the body: heparin, which regulates the clotting time of blood; mucoitin-sulfuric acid, a component of the lining of the stomach; and chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, which are important in the repair of cartilage and other connective tissues.
Kombucha's second acid is lactic acid, a common component of fermented foods. Lactic acid increases the body's energy supply by increasing oxygen levels in the blood and enhancing cellular respiration (moving nutrients into and waste products out of the cell). Lactic acid also helps balance the pH (ratio of acidity to alkalinity) of the blood and supports the liver's functions. As mentioned earlier, lactic acid encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestines which are important for improving both digestion and nutrient assimilation.
Kombucha tea contains other important organic acids as well. Acetic acid (found in vinegar) is an antiseptic that inhibits the growth of Salmonella,Stapylococcus aureus, and other harmful bacteria. Usnic acid (a natural Antibiotic found most commonly in lichen) and gluconic acid help protect the digestive tract. Malic acid is helpful for preventing muscle fatigue and oxalic acid stimulates energy production at a cellular level.
These acids keep the kombucha's pH level on the acidic end of the scale, anywhere from 2.5 to 6.0 (normal blood pH ranges from 7.35 to 7.45, while the stomach's pH is 0.9 to 2.0). As the product of a living organism, kombucha's composition is not standardized, but can vary with each batch. Reportedly, kombucha seems able to help balance the body's pH levels if they've become either too alkaline or too acidic. Lactic acid and the other acids apparently help rid the body of toxins that may be skewing pH.
Detoxification, intestinal vitality, and pH balance are generally regarded as key factors in preventing illness and, indirectly, in enhancing longevity or at least quality of life. So if kombucha is able to affect these crucial biological parameters, perhaps this is central to its reputed multiple health benefits. It may be that kombucha's diverse mixture of microorganisms-called a symbiotic ecology-also helps account for its therapeutic action.
Kombucha is a culture of several yeasts and bacteria that seem particularly adapted to each other, encased together in layers of cellulose. The yeasts include Schizosaccha-romyces pombe,Saccharomycodes ludwigii,Pichia fermentans, and varieties of Saccharomyces apiculatus. The bacteria include Bacterium xylinum and B. xylinoides,Acetobacter ketogenum,Acetobacter aceti, and B. gluconicum. The mistaken "mushroom" moniker is due to kombucha's typical shapea flat, round pancake about 1/2-inch thick.
Fermentation Delivers the Nutrients-Sweetened black tea is used as the medium for brewing kombucha. The mixture provides the yeasts and bacteria with the necessary nutrients for fermentation, which in turn produces a range of vitamins and other nutrients.
During fermentation, the yeasts eat the Sugar and tea ingredients and produce B vitamins, carbon dioxide, and ethanol, while the strains of bacteria digest Sugar and ethanol to produce cellulose (which gives kombucha its rubbery consistency).
Even though most is consumed in the fermentation process, some Sugar (about 5%), mostly glucose, remains in the tea, which can provide the body with a quick energy boost. The carbon dioxide created by the fermentation process is converted into carbonic acid, providing the tea with a slight fizz of carbonation. Carbonic acid, once in the bloodstream, is an alkaline substance and can help balance overly acidic blood.
Kombucha's rich nutritional package no doubt has a lot to do with its reported healing effects. Here are some highlights:
B vitamins: These include thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), B12, and B15, as well as folic acid and biotin. The B vitamins are protective against heart disease and strokes and may help alleviate Depression as well.
Specifically, B1 affects the nervous system and produces mood-elevating benefits; B2 helps break down fats and may help prevent cataracts; B3 is a vasodilator and regulates cholesterol levels; B6 stimulates the immune system and controls sodium and potassium levels in the body; and B12 regulates homocysteine levels in the blood, a factor in arteriosclerosis. Folic acid is necessary for producing red blood cells and maintaining the health of your arteries. Biotin may protect against hair loss.
Essential amino acids: These protein building blocks include leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, and valine. These amino acids are not made in the body and must be obtained from food sources.
Enzymes: The enzymes lactase and invertase are found in kombucha. Enzymes promote chemical and metabolic processes in the body. Lactase is necessary for digesting lactose, the sugar found in milk products. Invertase helps digest the sugar sucrose.
Minerals: the yeasts in kombucha contain a number of minerals, including chromium, potassium, sulfur, iron, and phosphorus.
Cellulose: A certain amount of cellulose makes its way into the tea. Cellulose is an insoluble fiber that improves digestive function and may help prevent constipation and colon cancer.
Other nutrients: Lecithin helps break down fats in the body and protects the myelin sheath which surrounds the nerves. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is also produced by the bacteria in kombucha; vitamin C is an antioxidant and immune booster.
Pryor publicized her personal experiences of the health benefits of kombucha and its popularity grew as people with AIDS and other chronic illnesses began to consume it. Kombucha fans report it helpful for boosting energy in cases of multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue, in alleviating some of the symptoms associated with AIDS, and in reducing allergic and asthmatic symptoms.
However, "Kombucha is not a cure for anything," cautions Pryor. "Your body cures itself. Kombucha seems to help your body do that." An estimated three million Americans now regularly brew and consume kombucha tea, says Pryor.
As with any new therapy, it is best to start slowly with kombucha, say Alick and Mari Bartholomew, particularly if you have a preexisting condition. They typically recommend starting with 1-2 tablespoons of kombucha taken three times daily (before breakfast and after lunch and dinner) as a general tonic. If this dose agrees with your system, then work up to 150 ml (about a wineglass-full) three times daily. Children (6-10 years old) should drink about 1-2 tsp of kombucha three times daily; older children, 100 ml three times daily.
The Bartholomews caution that pregnant or nursing mothers should not drink kombucha tea as it may be too strong for a developing baby. Reported side effects have been minimal, but the tea may cause some gastrointestinal upset. Those with liver conditions, yeast infections, or a compromised immune system should be especially cautious when using kombucha.
Kombucha is a product of home-brewing which means if preparatory conditions are not sterile, there is a chance of microbial contamination and subsequent potential illness among those drinking the beverage. Such an event happened recently and was noticed by the FDA which warned that kombucha's main risk was contamination by Aspergillus, a mold capable of producing serious problems in people with an immune system already compromised.