Kombucha is the “in” health drink lately, available from local producers, in stores, online and even many people make their own version of the fermented tea. Kombucha (pronounced kom-BOO-cha) can help restore the body’s natural microbiome and improve overall health, but it’s important to make informed choices about kombucha sources and consumption.
Kombucha, originating from China, is made by adding a scoby—a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast—and sugar to brewed tea. By allowing the mixture to sit for seven to 14 days, the sugar feeds the yeast and the liquid ferments. The result of fermentation is a naturally fizzy drink similar to a carbonated vinegar or wine.
“It’s an acquired taste for many people,” Barbara Cole, a nurse practitioner with Penn State Health Medical Group – Park Avenue in State College said about the tart, slightly sweet drink. “Kombucha contains live beneficial bacteria and yeasts and is a source of organic acids, B vitamins, antioxidants and trace minerals.”
Medical professionals spend a lot of time preventing and fighting bacterial infection that can be deadly for patients. However, beneficial bacteria play an important role in a healthy body. The human body contains 10 times more bacteria than cells. The helpful bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi that live in the body—particularly in the digestive tract—make up the microbiome.
Cole noted that these diverse microbes help us digest food, protect us against disease-causing bacteria and make vitamins such as B12, thiamin and riboflavin. But, changes in the microbiome—resulting in too many bad bacteria and not enough good ones— can make it more difficult for the body to drive away illness.
“Many Americans have damaged microbiomes due to overuse of antibiotics and an unhealthy diet that is high is processed foods and animal-based fats and low in fiber-rich plants,” Cole said.
Probiotic-containing foods and drinks such as fermented vegetables, kefir and kombucha can help restore the body’s microbiome. Kombucha is often called a “natural energy drink” because its consumption can result in benefits, including:
- Better immunity
- Improved digestion
- Regular bowel habits
- Prevention of urinary tract and yeast infections
- Lower levels of inflammation
- Weight control
“The natural fizziness of kombucha provides a healthier alternative to soda, and if made properly, the fermented beverage is also low in sugar,” Cole said. “Kombucha also is a better probiotic choice than highly processed supplements sold in capsule form.”
To take full advantage of the health benefits of kombucha:
- Drink the beverage in moderation. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
- Research and follow instructions before making kombucha at home.
- Read labels. Commercially made brands vary greatly in the amount of sugar, additives and calories.
- Avoid brands that are pasteurized, which kills beneficial bacteria.
- Refrigerate fermented kombucha to stop the fermentation process and avoid unwanted bacteria.
- Consult a medical professional about consumption by children, pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems. Kombucha contains a tiny amount of alcohol, depending on the fermentation process.
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other high-fiber foods found in nature, and limit consumption of processed foods.
“Kombucha can be highly effective in restoring an individual’s microbiome and an overall feeling of good health,” Cole said. “The process does take time—after all, the effects of a lifelong diet high in processed foods don’t get reversed in a day. However, the benefits can be well worth the wait.”
The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.