On the quest to being fit and healthy, it’s easy to fall into the latest health food fads, even if their numerous claims are not scientifically sound.  The growing popularity of kale and quinoa over the years has been due to its benefits promoting health and wellness, but what about the “elixir of life?” Kombucha, the popular fermented tea, is believed to have mythical healing properties that boost the immune system and can even be a defense against cancer, but could this just be a bunch of hocus pocus tea?

What Is Kombucha?

The health beverage, embraced by several health food stores, is sometimes referred to as kombucha mushroom tea. However, kombucha is not a mushroom — it’s a colony of bacteria and yeast. This is added to sugar and tea so it can ferment, says the Mayo Clinic. The end result contains vinegar, B vitamins, and numerous chemical compounds.

In the U.S., the probiotic tea has seen a 29 percent combined growth across all retails channels from February 2013 to February 2014, according to market research firm SPINS. During this period, the total scanned sales were $122.7 million. With a 16-ounce bottle typically costing between $3 to $4, and its 30 percent sales growth, its seems Americans are not planning on going on a kombucha dry spell. 

The Claims Behind The 'Elixir of Life'

The fermented tea drink has been around for centuries, but it recently became popular in the U.S. because of its purported health benefits. So, is it true? Alexandra Pony, a nutrition consultant and a fermentation expert in based in San Francisco, Calif., likes to think of kombucha as the gateway ferment.

“It's yummy and makes you feel good. Kombucha is still rich in probiotics, so you are still going to have all the incredible benefits that fermented foods have on the body — increased energy, digestive aid, and so much more — but do be aware that there are still yeasts,” she told Medical Daily in an email.

The benefits of kombucha tea are mainly based on anecdotal evidence and a few animal studies. There are no clinical trials to substantiate the claims behind the magical health elixir. However, regular drinkers of kombucha claim it aids digestion, detoxification, and boosts overall immunity, among many others.

Aids Digestive Health

A 2008 study of cells published in the journal of the Balkan Union of Oncology found the fermented tea itself could provide antimicrobial activity that controls E. Coli and staph bacteria. Kombucha is loaded with beneficial probiotic organisms linked to digestive health and immune function. Sometimes we eat food that is hard to digest, and if not digested properly, could lead to potential weight gain. Drinking kombucha before, during, or after a meal, says Pony, can help break down the food and make the nutrients more bioavailable. This means “[y]our body can absorb the nutrients, resulting in more energy, healthier body, and stronger immune system,” she said.

Boosts Immunity

The fermented tea is able to aid the immune system because it energizes and boosts the metabolism via the growth of beneficial bacteria. The rich bacteria are essential for immunity because then the body has a stronger chance of fighting off viruses, the bad bacteria, according to Pony. The greater the growth of beneficial bacteria, the better in shape the body will be internally and externally.

Moreover, it is the antioxidant benefits of kombucha that counteract the free radicals that disturb the digestive system. Dr. Christopher Hobbs, a fourth-generation, internationally renowned herbalist, and director of Herbal Science at Rainbow Light explained to Medical Daily in an email, “Extensive work has even been conducted to test kombucha’s ability to prevent and heal leaky gut and stomach ulcers. Additionally, it was proven to be as effective as drugs like Prilosec, which are commonly prescribed for heartburn, GERD, and ulcers.”

Protects The Liver

Kombucha not only helps boost the immune system, but also gently cleanses the liver. “Understanding the key to digestive health centers around the liver,” says Hobbs, “and kombucha has been hailed in its ability to counteract liver cell toxicity.” A 2009 study published in the journal Microbiology and Biotechnology found kombucha tea does have protective effects for the liver. The animal study showed the fermented tea decreased levels of toxins that are known to lead to liver damage. This is due to kombucha’s glucuronic acid that binds to toxins and takes them out of the body.

Is Kombucha Risky Business?

The safety of kombucha depends on how and where it’s made. Home-brewed kombucha and unpasteurized kombucha that is prepared in nonsterile conditions increases the risk for unhealthy bacteria to seep into the tea. There have been reports of side effects from drinking the tea, including an upset stomach to metabolic acidosis — the excessive acid buildup in the body.

In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report linking kombucha consumption with the illness of a woman suffering from metabolic acidosis in Iowa. The patient’s daughter reported during the previous two months her mother had drank approximately 4 ounces of kombucha tea daily. The CDC notes because of the acidity of the tea, it should not be prepared or stored in containers made from materials such as ceramic or lead crystal, which both contain toxic elements than can leach into the tea.

This is not to say kombucha consumption is unsafe. Drinking 4 ounces daily of commercially available pasteurized kombucha tea is safe for healthy people. The American Cancer Society advises pregnant women or those breastfeeding to steer clear of kombucha tea, since it can be contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria — aside from the Kombucha bacteria — making a pregnant woman and her unborn baby sick. Elderly people, children, and anyone with a compromised immune system should avoid it.

Currently, the claims are greater than what the science can prove. If you like the taste of kombucha, then drink in moderation, but don’t drink it due to its claims. Hobbs says “[f]ermented foods and teas are experiencing a resurgence in popularity,” but it’s best to consume responsibly.