Namaste, dear Reader. I am writing to you from the comfort of my organic, free-range and shade-grown yoga mat, wearing my cruelty-free bamboo clothing, having just dabbed essential oils on my blocked chakras as I sip on my fermented fungal brew. That concoction also known as kombucha.
Hold the phone. None of this sounds like me. At all.
Except, I freaking love kombucha.
Yes. It’s true. I drank the kombucha Kool-Aid, as it were, and you should too.
So, what the hell is kombucha?
In a nutshell, it’s fermented tea. Food historians trace kombucha’s origins back to East Asia. Some people claim it’s been around for thousands of years but there’s no proof to support that claim.
The one special thing needed to make tea into kombucha is a SCOBY — a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. This little gelatinous blob is where the magic happens. It’s very similar to the Mother in unfiltered apple cider vinegar and is often called “the mother” in kombucha as well. So it’s a probiotic beverage, along the lines of yogurt.
Why drink it?
Maybe you’ve heard people say kombucha is a cure-all, and your skeptical, rational self said, “I thought that was coconut oil” or “Um, that’s stupid, no thanks.”
“It is not a panacea — it doesn’t cure anything,” says Paul Haney, co-owner of Kentucky Kombucha. “It helps the body do its own thing.”
Haney and his wife Ali started Kentucky Kombucha in 2013, the first commercial kombucha brewer in the Bluegrass State. There are now a handful in Kentucky and about 150 nationwide, although some states still have none (sorry, Ohio).
The Haneys set out to make a product that maximized nutrition and flavor. “It’s not going to help the gut if it doesn’t taste good,” Paul said. Plus, they wanted to make it convenient. Kombucha is pretty easy to brew at home, but … really?
Since kombucha is fermented, it contains probiotics. Same things that are in your yogurt, and that are also in things like kimchee and sauerkraut. They are especially beneficial to your digestive system, and there is increasing research on the importance of a balanced GI. Without getting too deep into it, your digestive system is controlled by the enteric nervous system, your body’s “second brain.” When something stressful happens and your stomach ties up in knots? Yep. The enteric nervous system controls your digestive system independently of your brain, and sends signals to your brain, not just vice-versa.
Kombucha also contains antioxidants, amino acids, organic acids, enzymes, B vitamins, gluconic acid and glucuronic acid.
“Kombucha helps the body regulate itself by restoring and maintaining balance,” Paul said.
For runners, who are no strangers to GI distress considering how popular poop and running articles are, kombucha may provide relief. By drinking it on a regular basis — Paul recommends about 12 to 24 ounces per week — a healthy gut biome may suffer fewer problems while running.
And many runners have found that kombucha settles an upset stomach post-run. There is a light effervescence to kombucha, and ginger is a very common flavor known for reducing stomach distress.
Kombucha and other fermented foods might also keep you from getting sick. Heavy training can weaken a runner’s immune system, but probiotics can build it back up. NSAIDs like ibuprofen, antibiotics, stress, and even sports drinks can also decrease the healthy bacteria in your gut. In fact, a 2014 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that probiotics halved the incidence of upper respiratory and GI symptoms among elite rugby players.
What to look for on the label
- “Unpasteurized” and “unfiltered” because you want the bacteria to be alive.
- “Live probiotics” because that’s the point here.
- “Organic” because you want an unpasteurized kombucha, you want to know the ingredients in it are free of pesticides, especially the tea itself.
- Sugar and calorie content if that matters to you, because many brands market exotic flavors that can increase the sugar and calorie content. Compare a few brands when making your selection.
Beer breweries, bars, and some restaurants are beginning to carry kombucha on tap. I can get it by the glass at my local Whole Foods, too!
Side effects and concerns
A quick note that there have been some reports of adverse side effects, although they’re not common.
- The introduction of new gut bacteria can cause some gastrointestinal issues, including constipation and bloating. These symptoms should pass, and decreasing kombucha intake and ensuring you’re hydrated should help.
- Acidosis (increased acidity in the blood or other tissues) has been reported but attributed primarily to home-brewed kombucha with high pH levels.
- Kombucha does contain small amounts of alcohol (typically about .5% abv, compared to beer at around 5%) and some caffeine.
- If you have a weakened immune system or are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor.
Since becoming popular and commercially available beginning about a decade ago, scientists have not performed many studies on kombucha. But, there is evidence supporting probiotics of all kinds, and kombucha is a convenient way to incorporate probiotics into your diet. It also helps you rehydrate and offers a little caffeine to boot.
Do you drink kombucha?