By Thomas L. Stone, MD, Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and Medical Director of the Center for Biological Medicine in Rolling Meadows, Illinois.
WHAT IS KOMBUCHA TEA?
There are claims that Kombucha tea is a "fountain of youth elixir" used in China for thousands of years. It is purported to be a ancient tonic created by growing a so-called Manchurian mushroom on sweetened tea. The history and lore surrounding Kombucha imply an element of magic. Used in China for centuries during sacred rites of atonement, received, passed down, and transported all over the world, there is a ritual and tradition in the telling and the making of Kombucha tea that imbue it with an alchemy of mystery and power. The mystical aspect of Kombucha tends to attract and convert many people in search of perfect health and longevity.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE HEALTH EFFECTS ATTRIBUTED TO KOMBUCHA TEA?*
Claims to help with:
* Claims for Kombucha tea, NOT verified
Only a few of the health claims made for Kombucha tea have a scientific basis, even though some existing studies do suggest potential health benefits.
There is a considerable amount of mis-information available about Kombucha tea. For example, it is often called a mushroom that grows on sweetened tea. Actually, it is a colony of yeast and bacteria, a complex symbiosis of yeasts (simple fungi) and bacteria embedded in a pure cellulose "pancake." When this "pancake" is grown on a blend of black tea and sugar, it transforms the resulting liquid into a refreshingly sweet and sour, lightly sparkling beverage with a fruity fragrance.
Many articles claim that Kombucha tea contains usnic acid, a compound found in certain lichens with strong antibiotic activity. There is no available evidence that Kombucha contains usnic acid!
It is often claimed that Kombucha contains glucuronic acid, a potent detoxifying compound that the liver produces. In actuality, no credible laboratory analysis of Kombucha tea has found glucuronic acid. It does contain gluconic acid, a common food ingredient that is not used by the liver for detoxification.
The microbiology of Kombucha tea is confusing, because most books and articles on Kombucha report names that are considerably outdated. In addition, the exact species of microorganisms may vary slightly depending on the starting culture. For those interested in this aspect, the best place to begin is the paperback book: KOMBUCHA TEA MUSHROOM: MANCHURIAN TEA MUSHROOM: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE by Christopher Hobbs.
Is it really a fountain of youth capable of all the miraculous claims?
Can there be any justification for these recurring reports from around
the world that have gone on for centuries?
The tea is known to contain small but probably significant amounts of important nutrients such as the B vitamins, essential amino acids, etc. and could very well have been seen as a miracle food in the past by those who were unknowingly trying to compensate for a very limited diet.
For over twenty years I have taken extensive panels of tests of nutrients, including vitamins and trace minerals. Nearly every patient I saw had laboratory proven multiple deficiencies of both vitamins and trace minerals. Since the mid 1980’s these obvious proven deficiencies have become increasingly rare. I discovered that previously when people felt poorly, they would see their physician and get a drug. As the ineffectiveness and side effects of the expensive, patented chemicals began to be better known, more people went to health food stores, obtaining nutritional supplements. In my patient population it is uncommon to see anyone who is not already on a "healthy" diet and nutritional therapies. In recent years, the frequency of some of these abnormalities decreased to such an extent that I no longer routinely run full panels, particularly when patients report having been on nutritional supplements. Instead, I run specific tests for elements that are most likely to be deficient.
There is a long history of the human use of vinegar (at least 10,000 years) both as a food and as a medicine. Many of the same organisms and biochemical reactions that are involved in making vinegar go into the creation of Kombucha tea. If you leave the Kombucha culture to work on the sweetened mixture too long, vinegar is produced!
In the writings of the Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans they suggested vinegar as an important medicine and, just like the claims for Kombucha, believed it to be an astringent to aid digestion, promote healthy liver and gallbladder function, as well as to refresh one and prevent scurvy.
The Hippocratic writings (and many authors since then) frequently mentioned a blend of vinegar and honey called "oxymel." This sour honey was one of the most widely recommended remedies in the entire materia medica. Apple cider vinegar has been sold in health food stores since the 1950’s and has become quite popular as a home remedy and, like Kombucha, claims are made for everything from arthritis to wounds.
Like Kombucha, recent scientific studies of the health effects of consuming vinegar are rare. However (like Kombucha) it is very likely that the acidic nature is helpful for digestion and is antibacterial, as well as having many other "unproven" advantages. It may, for example, have a beneficial influence on the intestinal flora and/or on the body acid-base balance with immense effects.
We are told by highly paid experts that we should dismiss the thousands of years of healthful reputation of vinegar and Kombucha. Instead, we should wait until we are sick so we can have the benefit of expensive, patented chemicals, foreign to the body, that are "proven" by "scientific" double-blind studies paid for by benevolent multinational corporations.
A nationally syndicated writer, Dr. Peter Gott, warned his readers to avoid Kombucha because of a death in Iowa. The woman was a diabetic in her 60s, with several other health problems, who drank large amounts of the tea. One possible documented death in a thousand years is cause for such alarm? In a later column, Dr. Gott advised his readers with diabetes that NutraSweet® (Equal®, aspartame) was "safe." "I am unaware of any significant side effects from the use of this product."
Yet research by H.J. Roberts, MD, (a diabetes specialist, member of the American Diabetes Association, and authority on artificial sweeteners) shows that aspartame leads to the precipitation of clinical diabetes, causes poorer diabetic control in diabetics on insulin or oral drugs, leads to the aggravation of diabetic complications such as retinopathy, cataracts, neuropathy, and can cause convulsions. Perhaps Dr. Gott received his information from the American Dietetic Association, which in January 1993 received a $75,000.00 grant from the NutraSweet® Company. The American Dietetic Association has stated that The NutraSweet® Company writes their "facts" sheets. The American Diabetes Association received a large amount of money from NutraSweet® , including money to run a cooking school in Chicago. A researcher in New England who pointed out the dangers of aspartame in the past is now a Monsanto consultant. I have seen many, many patients who suffered with severe headaches, incapacitating memory problems, emotional problems, etc. that disappeared when aspartame (Equal®, NutraSweet® ) was eliminated from their diets! The FDA and Center for Disease Control has received over 7,000 complaints about aspartame. Guess who paid for the "double-blind" studies to get aspartame approved by the FDA?
In a planet ruled by greed and deceit, who is there to promote a
simple, inexpensive, (and for some people healthy) food whose main ingredient
What are our choices?
Is it Safe to Drink Kombucha Tea?
Kombucha tea, if taken in excess, like any substance, can be harmful. For most adults, about four ounces of Kombucha tea twice or three times a day is probably the maximum amount of the tea that should be ingested. To go much beyond this amount one runs the risk of the reverse effect. (See the outstanding book THE REVERSE EFFECT written by NOHA member Walter Heiby [link]). It is extremely important to emphasize that excessive amounts can indeed be hazardous over a period of time. Many people erroneously assume that if a little is good, more is better. They, and anyone who works with nutrition, would be well advised to read the above book which has 4,281 scientific references showing the reverse effect of dosage of the various nutrients.
We have measured with both biofeedback instruments and kinesiology and have found a few very large individuals who may do well on five or even six ounces, but this is unusual. Kombucha tea tastes good and is refreshing for many people. Therefore it is easy to rationalize and overdose oneself. This is probably the greatest risk of the "Kombucha craze."
In the 1970’s we were using Lactated Ringer’s solution as a vehicle for intravenous nutrients. Repeatedly, we had individuals who would become panic stricken very shortly after the IV was started. This bizarre phenomenon was finally explained when I saw an article is an obscure medical journal that demonstrated that lactic acid could precipitate a panic attack in individuals who had this vulnerability. We have never used Lactated Ringer’s solution since then. From this experience we learned to make up homeopathic dilutions of lactic acid that can alleviate patient’s panic attacks until the underlying cause can be identified and treated. Since Kombucha tea contains lactic acid, anyone who is prone to panic attacks would be wise to place a few drops of the tea under their tongue and wait a few minutes before trying a larger amount.
Tea is a known allergen. Kombucha tea might be a problem for tea sensitive people since a tiny amount of the tea might not by converted by the "pancake" culture.
Can someone who is sensitive to molds or has a Candida overgrowth
use Kombucha tea?
Is the alcohol in Kombucha a potential problem?
So if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) suddenly starts shooting machine guns through your roof and door and pumping "noninflammable" tear gas into your home, call Harold and tell him he was in error.
How does one make Kombucha tea?
It is not generally known that nicotine has definite anti-fungal activity. Over the years I have frequently observed that smokers who had extreme difficulty in withdrawing from tobacco often have an overgrowth of Candida. When they attempt to stop smoking, the withdrawal of the nicotine allows the Candida to flourish and they develop an exacerbation of all their symptoms. If they are first adequately treated for their Candida overgrowth, they are then able to conquer their addiction with considerably less distress. It was therefore no surprise to me when I read that it was difficult or impossible to culture Kombucha in a home where there was a smoker. Apparently the nicotine in the smoke interferes with the Kombucha culture.
Most authors state that you have to use refined sugar in making Kombucha. Since Kombucha tea has been cultured for thousands of years and refined sugar has only been available for about a century, this is an absurd statement. It has been noted that you can use honey to make the tea, but it must be kept at a temperature of about 85 degrees F, which is for most of us impractical. Since nearly all the sugar is transformed, white refined sugar is almost always used to make Kombucha tea.
My tea has always been better when I used a very large four quart Pyrex glass bowel. The culture needs exposure to air and the narrower glass or lead free ceramics took longer. Commercial producers and those who have limited space may need to use a container with a narrower opening. This solution becomes very acidic. Be absolutely sure that the container you use is lead free. Metal is entirely unsuitable as are many plastic bowls, which may contaminate the tea with plasticizers, etc.
When I first started culturing Kombucha, I wanted it to be perfect, so I used a small dipstick type electronic pH meter to determine when it was time to harvest the tea. This proved inaccurate in the acid range, so I then used a laboratory grade pH meter accurate to 0.001 pH for several batches. Since then, I have replaced the pH meter with an extremely versatile, easily accessed, highly sensitive instrument called a taste bud. If you are also of the anxious or obsessive type, you can obtain a vial of 100 pH dipstick strips from a scientific supplier or from A.F. Distributions for about $10. This will allow you to have a more consistent tasting tea. On the other hand, you will miss the opportunity of experiencing everything from sweet-sour tea to vinegar!
Nearly everyone has everything they need (except the "pancake" culture) to make Kombucha tea. Run up and down the streets in your neighborhood shouting "KOMBUCHA" and someone will certainly offer you one of their newly formed baby cultures or at least a taste of their tea. If you are the shy type, I have included a list of suppliers at the end of the article that will provide anything you may require.
Use ordinary measures of cleanliness as you would in preparing similar foods. There is no need for extreme measures of sterility that some hysterical or phobic writers suggest. The organisms in Kombucha tea are the same as reported from traditional fermented foods used by millions of people over hundreds, if not thousands of years without any reports of ill effects that are available in the world literature. Vinegar manufacturers make vinegar on a large scale all over the world without any costly sterility controls. Nor do they ordinarily use pure cultures. Pathogenic bacteria would find it extremely difficult to survive in the acid environment. Contamination with a mold is possible but very unlikely using the black tea mixture. If you see weird colors or a very unpleasant odor, etc. throw it out as you would with any possibly spoiled food, and start over.
If you cannot make an uncontaminated batch of yogurt or sauerkraut, then don’t culture your own Kombucha. The making of Kombucha has been handed down from generation to generation for over two thousand years without any sterile laboratory techniques. In other words, wash your hands, use clean utensils and common sense!
If you should experience dramatic relief of symptoms, or a miraculous cure of something or other, don’t tell anyone! This potentially threatens the profits of the multinational corporations. Then the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for sure will discover a contaminated batch of tea and forbid the further distribution and sale of tea!
If you have computer access to the world wide web, you can get further information/disinformation/opinions/claims/anecdotes/advertisements at:
The internet address for the Kombucha Tea Cider gopher sponsored by Arizona State University is:
The Kombucha "pancake" culture can be obtained from:
Bottled commercial Kombucha tea is available from:
If you have a far advanced disease, exercise as much caution with this as you would with any other new food. It would be most unwise to use this beverage as a drug for any given condition. In my opinion, Kombucha is a delightful, nutritious, inexpensive and probably helpful beverage for many people. There is minimal risk if properly prepared with organic black tea and sugar and consumed in appropriate amounts. And my hair is still grey!Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter 1997, pages 5-10.