Kombucha, a fizzy concoction of fermented tea and sugar, is the latest in a line of trendy “health” drinks. But is it really healthy?
Research suggests that kombucha does have several health benefits. These benefits include improved digestion and detoxification, as well as antiviral and antibacterial properties.
The benefits are believed to come mostly from the SCOBY, or symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Kombucha is made by adding the SCOBY to a solution of black or green tea, sugar, and other ingredients like fruit juice and flavorings. It then sits for at least a week, allowing the fermentation process to occur.
As with many health trends, kombucha has been touted as a magic potion to cure all ills — as well as a questionable “hippie” beverage with no hard data to its credit. The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle. Here’s a roundup of some recent research and potential health benefits.
The liver is the body’s main detoxification organ, and kombucha is thought to help it do its job. Kombucha contains glucuronic acid, which binds to toxins entering the liver and helps usher them out of the system through the kidneys.
A 2011 study found that kombucha protected liver cells from damage by toxins. Researchers hypothesized that this effect may be due to kombucha’s high antioxidant activity. Antioxidants are substances that fight free radicals, which damage our body’s cells and can speed aging.
Kombucha can have powerful detox effects, so be careful to only consume a small amount at first (4 ounces or less). You might experience detox symptoms like headaches, tiredness, or acne if you drink too much too quickly.
Kombucha is made through fermentation. During this process, sugars are broken down by yeast or bacteria (the SCOBY in this case) and turned into alcohol or acids. This process makes kombucha rich in probiotics.
Probiotics are live microorganisms. They’re called “friendly bacteria” because they’re healthy for the body in a variety of ways. They compete with the “bad” bacteria that can cause infection and illness. They’re especially good for boosting gut health and easing digestive complaints like diarrhea.
Other fermented foods with probiotics include:
Consider adding some of these to your diet to improve the health of your digestive system.
Antiviral and antibacterial
Kombucha may have immune-boosting and antiviral properties. A study in the Journal of Food Biochemistry showed that black and green tea kombuchas had powerful antibacterial and antifungal effects against a variety of pathogens, including some strains of Candida and Staphylococcus.
In a 2015 study, Chinese herbal kombucha protected against infection by a foot and mouth disease virus. Another recent animal study showed that kombucha had similar effects to traditional antibiotics because of its ability to fight bacteria and infection.
Potential side effects
Before you start home-brewing kombucha in your basement, talk to your doctor about your lifestyle and health history. If you get the green light, start by introducing a very small amount of kombucha into your daily routine. Take note of how you feel. If you experience side effects like headaches, tiredness, or nausea, stop drinking kombucha and call your doctor.
When kombucha is made, especially at home, there is a risk of contamination by germs or fungus. Always buy the drink from a reputable source.
Side effects may include:
- rapid heartbeat
You are more likely to experience adverse effects from kombucha if you:
- are pregnant or breast-feeding
- have a weakened immune system due to a condition such as HIV
- are sensitive to even small amounts of sugar, caffeine, or alcohol
To minimize your risk, buy premade kombucha that is pasteurized and has been tested for bacterial contamination. Also, limit your daily intake to 8 ounces or less.
If you’re interested in making your own kombucha at home, you can try it with a few simple supplies. You’ll need a kombucha starter culture with SCOBY (available online or at health food stores), along with:
- glass jars
- fruit juice (optional)
Use high quality tea, and you’ll reap the health benefits of the tea’s antioxidants, too. You’ll also reduce the risk of contamination while making your kombucha. Other ways to avoid contamination include:
- washing all of your supplies with hot soapy water and vinegar
- cleaning the space where you will be making your kombucha
- keeping your supplies out of the reach of children and pets
- following instructions carefully and using enough starter culture (this keeps the pH level low, decreasing likelihood of mold growth)
If you’d prefer to buy premade kombucha, most grocery stores offer a selection of types and brands.
Because of its sweet, bubbly taste, kombucha can be a good choice if you’re weaning yourself off of soda. As always, include kombucha as part of a well-balanced diet full of vegetables, fruit, lean proteins, and grains.
Before you experiment with kombucha, remember to ease into drinking it and talk to your doctor about your lifestyle and health history. Enjoy the fizz!