Bite Advice: Is Kombucha Really a Cure-All?

By Megan Tempest in Food on Jun 1, 2010 3:20PM

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Dear Megan,

I was convinced to try this Kombucha tea that supposedly prevents cancer and all sorts of ailments. Is there any truth to these claims, or is it just a bunch of hype? And what is this stuff anyway?

Thanks,
Sofia

Thanks for your timely question, Sofia. Kombucha is a centuries-old elixir that has regained significant popularity in recent years Kombucha, not a mushroom but often referred to as "mushroom tea", is a mixed culture of acetic acid bacteria and yeasts that are typically added to black or green tea and sugar to produce a fermented, naturally-effervescent “tea”. Health claims attributed to regularly sipping on Kombucha include the alleviation of arthritis, delayed progression of cancer and HIV/AIDS, and increased energy and stamina.

Rich in live bacteria, Kombucha is thought by many to have probiotic effects that may enhance the barrier of healthy bacteria lining your gut, protect the body against infection and treat digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease. Simply drinking Kombucha before or after eating may improve digestion.

Perhaps the most popular brand on the market right now is GT’s Organic Raw Kombucha, produced by Millennium Products. The company's founder, GT Dave, reportedly began bottling the tea when he realized his own mother’s breast cancer had not spread because she was drinking the cultured tea. According to their website, “Kombucha has an 'adaptogenic' ability that gives it a reputation for its widespread health properties. Its adaptogen effect is seen mostly through its influence on the liver, the blood and the digestive system, where it normalizes the acidity or pH. Metabolic balancing and detoxification is perhaps the most important function of Kombucha.”

For what it’s worth, the scientific literature supporting the health benefits of Kombucha is limited. A study published in the April 2009 Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology evaluated the hepatoprotective (ability to protect the liver from damage) and curative effects of Kombucha tea compared to standard black tea in laboratory rats. Kombucha tea was found to be the most efficient in reverting toxic liver damage. The benefit is thought to be related to the antioxidant molecules formed in the fermentation process.

The Journal of Chinese Medicine published results of a study in 2009 indicating that Kombucha may repair damage caused by environmental pollutants and may impart beneficial effects on patients suffering from kidney dysfunction.

But proceed with caution, as significant health risks have also been reported. Among them, a case report published in May of 2009 by the Journal of Intensive Care Medicine. A Case of Kombucha Tea Toxicity describes hypothermia, lactic acidosis and acute renal failure in a 22 year-old male, newly-diagnosed with HIV, within 15 hours of Kombucha tea ingestion.

Although there are no human trials that have been reported in any major medical journal, according to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, “This doesn't mean that Kombucha tea can't possibly have health benefits; it just means that at this time there's no direct evidence that it provides the benefits it's reported to have.”