Kombucha Tea Mothers and Babies, Healthy or Crazy?
Among the latest health kicks is kombucha tea, a fermented beverage that has resurfaced in popularity after it faded from the limelight in the 1990s. For those old enough to remember those earlier days and who perhaps tried the odorous brew, the pitch is back, with its mothers and babies in tow.
Kombucha tea is touted as a cure-all
Back in the day, kombucha tea was often referred to as a mushroom tea, although no mushrooms are involved at all unless you want to make a connection between the fact that mushrooms are fungi and kombucha tea involves a smelly culture of yeast and bacteria. This combination is added to black or green tea, along with sugar, to produce the end product that is slightly fizzy.
Kombucha tea lovers can either buy their teas from commercial providers, which sold more than $295 million worth of the product last year, or make their own using “mothers,” which then go on to produce “babies.”
In the world of kombucha tea, a “mother” is a colony of yeast and bacteria that develops into a glob that floats on the top of sweetened tea that has been allowed to sit in a glass jar at room temperature for 7 to 14 days. Mothers have babies, which can then be shared with other people as starter colonies for their own brews.
Kombucha tea, healthy or harmful?
Advocates of kombucha tea say the beverage can enhance the immune system, aid digestion, improve eyesight, prevent hair loss, treat AIDS, and serve as a general tonic, among other benefits. No studies in humans, however, have shown any of these claims to be true.
Around the time of the first increased interest in kombucha tea in the early 1990s, there were several published reports of illness and even death associated with consuming the tea. A 1995 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted the death of one woman from Iowa likely linked to the tea, and severe illness in another woman.
In a report published in the GMHC Treatment Issues in 1995, the author noted that “since the culture must grow at room temperature for seven to ten days, contamination and growth of other organisms can take place.” The author also pointed out that since kombucha tea contains caffeine and large amounts of sugar, “these may account for the increased energy some individuals have claimed.”
In the Journal of General Internal Medicine, there are reports of four individuals who suffered side effects attributed to the tea, including allergic reactions, jaundice, nausea, vomiting, and head and neck pain. These effects resolved once the people stopped using the tea.
A case of toxicity associated with kombucha tea was reported in 2009 when a man with HIV developed hyperthermia, acute renal failure, and lactic acidosis—a life-threatening condition--within 15 hours of drinking the tea. The authors concluded that “While Kombucha tea is considered a healthy elixir, the limited evidence currently available raises considerable concern that it may pose serious health risks.”
Of the more recent interest in kombucha tea, Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and a world-renown author, has expressed concern “about the possibility of contamination in home-brewed kombucha,” as “some batches contain aspergilllus,” a fungus that produces toxins.
In addition to pointing out the health dangers reported in the medical literature, Dr. Weil summarized his feelings about kombucha tea on his website by stating “I know of no health benefits to be gained by drinking kombucha tea.”
Animal studies and kombucha tea
The research of kombucha tea has been largely limited to animals, mostly rats, and even those studies are few in number. On the safety side, a 2000 study in Biomedical and Environmental Sciences reported that rats fed kombuchu tea for 90 days did not experience any toxic effects.
Some research has focused on the use of kombucha tea in liver disease. For example, a June 2011 article in Pathophysiology looked at the use of the tea in preventing drug-induced liver toxicity.
The authors reported that the tea showed some benefit in modulating cell death and it “could be beneficial against liver disease, where oxidative stress is known to play a crucial role.” Another study in mice, published in the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology, also found the tea to offer some protective effect.
But are these few rat and mouse studies enough to justify drinking kombucha tea? Is the combination of what little we know and don’t know about kombucha tea enough to raise a red flag? How long will this new love affair with the tea last?
For now, the popularity of kombucha tea has given birth to new commercial products, home brewers, kombucha tea parties, new start-up companies selling the tea, and people sharing recipes and kombucha mothers and babies, and perhaps more time will tell whether they are on a healthy kick or they’re crazy.
Bhattacharya S et al. Hepatoprotective properties of kombucha tea against TBHP-induced oxidative stress via suppression of mitochondria dependent apoptosis. Pathophysiology 2011 Jun; 18(3):221-34
Bhattacharya S et al. Protective effect of kombucha tea against tertiary butyl hydroperoxide induced cytotoxicity and cell death in murine hepatocytes. Indian J Exp Biol 2011 Jul; 49(7): 511-24
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unexplained severe illness possibly associated with consumption of Kombucha tea—Iowa 1995. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1995 Dec 8; 44(48): 892-93
Majchrowicz M. Kombucha: a dubious “cure.” GMHC Treat Issues 1995 May; 9(5): 10
New York Times June 10, 2010
Srinivasan R et al. Probable gastrointesetinal toxicity of Kombucha tea: is this beverage healthy or harmful? J Gen Intern Med 1997 Oct; 12(10): 643-44
SungHee KA et al. A case of Kombucha tea toxicity. J Intensive Car Med 2009 May-Jun; 24(3): 205-7
Vijayaraghavan R et al. Subacute (90 day) oral toxicity studies of Kombucha tea. Biomed Environ Sci 2000 Dec; 13(4): 293-99
Dr. Andrew Weil website
Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons