By now you’ve probably heard of kombucha, the beverage the ancient Chinese called the “Immortal Health Elixir.” It’s a fermented tea that’s been around for more than 2,000 years and has a rich anecdotal history of health benefits like preventing and fighting cancer, arthritis, and other degenerative diseases. But are these health benefits backed by science?
Made from sweetened tea that’s been fermented by a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (a SCOBY, a.k.a. “mother” because of its ability to reproduce, or “mushroom” because of its appearance), kombucha didn’t gain prominence in the West until the past couple of decades. Now it’s gained an ardent and addicted following — so much so you can buy it in most airports and grocery stores in the US.
People love it for it’s tangy flavor and fizzy texture and drink it down because it promises all the health benefits of tea plus a healthy dose of beneficial probiotics.
Kombucha first began growing in popularity in the US in 1990s, particularly among the health-conscious who had heard bold claims of kombucha’s medicinal qualities. In his book, The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz explains, “I first tried kombucha around 1994, when a friend of mine with AIDS started making and drinking it as a health practice. It was touted as a general immune stimulant, though claims of kombucha’s benefits have been extraordinarily varied and broad.”
From the mid 90’s until now, commercial kombucha production has enjoyed exponential growth. It is reportedly the fastest growing product in the functional beverage market, largely because of it’s health claims. (source)
Yet even as recently as 2018, only one study reported the results of empirical research on kombucha in human patients. (source)
So what exactly are kombucha’s health benefits? How can we even begin to sort through all the competing claims?
While there are a growing (but still limited) number of studies done on the beverage itself, there has been lots of research done on many of the nutrients and acids it contains in large quantities (such as B-vitamins, antioxidants, and glucaric acids). From this, we can begin to get a clearer picture of the health benefits of kombucha.
It may detox your liver.
While most detox fad diets are actually unhealthy and overall bad for you, there actually is something to the idea that your body needs to detox itself. Your liver, in particular, is a key organ in your body’s detox pathways. Removing toxins from your liver keeps your liver healthy and may help prevent cancer. In multiple studies done on rats, they’ve found that ingesting kombucha significantly reduces liver toxicity, sometimes up to 70%. (source 1, 2, 3, 4)
It may protect against cancer.
Of course, no studies have been done in humans on the protective nature of kombucha to help fight cancer, but there is some research that is encouraging.
Will it cure cancer? Not likely. Can it potentially help slow its growth and reduce its spread? Possibly. It’s certainly an area that demands additional research.
It may improve joint health.
Anecdotal evidence about the benefits of kombucha for joint health continues to mount, but actual scientific research remains limited.
There are a few theories circulating to explain why so much anecdotal evidence exists, the most popular being that kombucha contains glucosamines (source 1, 2), a strong preventive and treatment all forms of arthritis (source).
Glucosamines increase synovial hyaluronic acid production (source). Hyaluronic acid functions physiologically to aid preservation of cartilage structure and prevent arthritic pain, with relief comparable to NSAIDs and advantage over glucocorticoids (source). Hyaluronic acid enables connective tissue to bind moisture thousands of times its weight and maintains tissue structure, moisture, lubrication and flexibility and lessens free radical damage, while associated collagen retards and reduces wrinkles (source 1, 2, 3, 4).
Because it’s naturally fermented with a living colony of bacteria and yeast, kombucha is a probiotic beverage (source).
What’s so special about probiotics? Let’s first start with a definition: probiotics are living microorganisms that you can consume in traditionally prepared fermented foods and beverages or take via supplements that confer a host of health benefits (source).
Because our bodies contain and depend on a flourishing microbiome, the balance of bacteria in our gut can affect everything from our mood to our digestion. Consuming probiotics has been linked to a myriad of benefits such as improved digestion (source 1, 2), mental clarity, and mood stability (source 1, 2, 3, 4).
As such, it makes sense that anecdotally kombucha’s been noted for reducing or eliminating the symptoms of fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and more.
It’s rich in antioxidants.
Kombucha is extraordinarily antioxidant rich, and you all know the benefits of anti-oxidants for boosting your immune system and energy levels. Antioxidants have also long been known for reducing the signs of aging (source 1, 2).
Essentially, antioxidants are molecules that fight the free radicals in your body. Free radicals, while not inherently bad, do become dangerous to your health in large quantities (source). When your body starts to accumulate enough free radicals for a long enough period of time, it can cause oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is currently thought to be the main cause of aging as well as age-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and dementia (source).
Naturally, the number one way to reduce oxidative stress is to consume antioxidants, particularly from foods and beverages rather than supplements (source). That makes drinking kombucha a much healthier alternative to sodas when you need a fizzy drink fix.
Are the health benefits of kombucha for real?
When I first read anecdotal stories about the panacea of benefits in kombucha over a decade ago, I was skeptical. How could one beverage do so many things?
But then I realized that it’s not so much that the beverage does something to our bodies, like a medicine targeted at curing specific symptoms. It’s more that kombucha promotes health. It, along with a balanced diet of ancestral foods, gives your body what it needs to heal itself by 1) aiding your liver in removing harmful substances, 2) promoting balance in your digestive system, and 3) being rich in health-promoting vitamins, enzymes, and acids.
Where can you get kombucha?
You can usually find a bottle of kombucha at your local health food store, and often at your local grocery store, but I recommend making your own kombucha at home.
I’ve even created a handy, easy-to-follow, print-friendly tutorial for how to make your own flavored kombucha at home.
To make your own kombucha, you’ll also need a kombucha starter culture.
Want to know more about kombucha tea?
Check out these other articles on kombucha tea I’ve written: