Kombucha tea can be dangerous to your health

Celebrities are powerful role models and are important to consumers concerned with their health because of the perception that famous people have access to the best health practices and medical care. The public looks to celebrities for hope and inspiration as they struggle with their own health issues and fight disease. However the health practices that celebrities promote are often questionable and misleading.

One currently popular folk remedy, kombucha tea, is part of the dietary regimens of multiple Hollywood actresses and entertainers including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirsten Dunst, Lindsay Lohan, Madonna, Halle Berry, Meg Ryan, Anna Paquin, Cher, Barbara Streisand, Alec Baldwin and Susan Sarandon. The claims for its medicinal value are as far reaching as they are implausible and include aging, anorexia, arthritis, atherosclerosis, cancer, constipation, diabetes, gallbladder disease, gout, hemorrhoids, hair growth and color restoration, headache, hypertension, HIV, immune boosting, indigestion, increased vitality, treatment of alcohol and coffee addictions, and wrinkle reduction.

Kombucha is a form of black tea and sugar that is fermented using a combination of bacterial and fungal cultures that form a “mushroom” on top of the fermentation vessel. It originated in China thousands of years ago, eventually spreading to Europe, and is today becoming increasingly popular, through celebrity use and endorsement, in the U.S. and U.K. Many home brew recipes for making kombucha may be found on the Internet but it is also manufactured and sold by companies such as Synergy Drinks.

We conducted a literature review of kombucha at www.pubmed.gov and found 40 articles on kombucha tea. Many of these studies originated in China or India and consisted of testing the effects of kombucha tea on rats or mice; a few papers tested effects on human cancer cells in vitro. Some beneficial effects were seen but one study concluded that “Comparable effects and mechanisms in humans remain uncertain, as do health safety issues, because serious health problems and fatalities have been reported and attributed to drinking kombucha.”

Most of the reports of human consumption of kombucha tea are case reports of toxicity, in some cases, life-threatening. The greatest danger from kombucha seems to arise in “home brew” versions that have become contaminated because of improper preparation and/or when kombucha interacts with alcohol or prescription drugs.

Observed adverse effects of kombucha consumption include hepatitis, xerostomia, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache, shortness of breath, restless legs, abdominal pain, hypotension, and tachycardia. In most cases, patients fully recovered after discontinuation of kombucha and symptomatic treatment.  However there are case reports of serious and sometimes fatal cases of hepatic dysfunction and lactic acidosis.

In addition to oral ingestion, skin application of kombucha is also used as a topical analgesic. Such use has resulted in cutaneous anthrax infections from kombucha stored in unhygienic conditions; such conditions make kombucha preparations a potential medium for the growth of pathogenic microorganisms.

Because folk medicines, herbal remedies and dietary supplements, including Kombucha tea, are not considered foods or drugs, they are not routinely evaluated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drinking this tea in quantities typically consumed (approximately 4 oz daily) may not cause adverse effects in healthy persons; however, the potential health risks are unknown for those with preexisting health problems or those who drink excessive quantities of the tea.

Recently, Whole Foods removed kombucha drinks from its store shelves because they can contain alcohol as a product of the fermentation process. This fact was used as a possible explanation for why actress Lindsay Lohan’s alcohol-monitoring (SCRAM) bracelet was activated even though she asserted compliance with court orders not to drink alcoholic beverages.

Michele Berman is a pediatrician who blogs at Celebrity Diagnosis and at MedPage Today Blogs, where this post originally appeared.

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  • Taylor

    Ok, this makes me sad! I started drinking these about a year ago in an effort to drink less soda. I love them and I actually only have 1 to 2 (synergy) bottles a week b/c they’re EXPENSIVE! I haven’t had one in about 2.5 months b/c WF pulled them, but I guess I won’t be getting kombucha anymore. I have found a new drink though: green tea by Steaz. It’s tastes just as good, if not better so I’ll stick to that.

  • http://www.physicianrelo.com Sara

    While some kombucha might be dangerous, I think there are some much worse lifestyle choices that Lindsay Lohan promotes besides drinking tea! :)

  • another idea

    Taylor, why don’t you just drink more water? Better health, in the vast majority of the population, is a question of self-control. If you eat your fruits and vegetables (and fish) and do your exercise you greatly increase your chances of living a long, productive, and high-quality life.

    Taylor July 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Ok, this makes me sad! I started drinking these about a year ago in an effort to drink less soda. I love them and I actually only have 1 to 2 (synergy) bottles a week b/c they’re EXPENSIVE! I haven’t had one in about 2.5 months b/c WF pulled them, but I guess I won’t be getting kombucha anymore. I have found a new drink though: green tea by Steaz. It’s tastes just as good, if not better so I’ll stick to that.

    • Taylor

      Where in my post did I say I didn’t drink water? I like kombucha b/c it’s a change from water and not horrible for you like soda. I drink 70-90 ounces of water a day AND eat about 8-10 servings of fruits/veggies as well. Oh and I exercise every day and don’t eat meat other than fish. I was simply commenting on kombucha before, not my overall lifestyle.

  • erin bever

    I also read some of the research at Pubmed.gov, and I recommend everyone to do the same. This author of the article obviously chose to take a negative slant on Kombucha. If you were to do your own research you’d find many good benefits of Kombucha, and only one case where it was not determined, but mentioned that someone who had AIDS and drank kombucha had some adverse effects. There are more people getting sick from lettuce than kombucha every day.

  • http://www.otbskincare.com/blog/ cynthia bailey md

    Food and drink preparation has inherent dangers and there does need to be a governmental safety oversight agency for products like this. That said, fermented foods have been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Our bodies expect and need a supply of the ‘right’ organisms for intestinal health. I wouldn’t ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ here. Instead, I’d encourage people to search for safe fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, miso etc.

    I prescribe a lot of antibiotics in my dermatology practice. When I give a patient a prescription, I feel obligated to discuss with them how to rectify their intestinal flora after their antibiotic course. Again, probiotic supplements fall into that unregulated supplement category so I prefer probiotics from foods. My personal bias is home brewed kefir, but quality commercial products made from live kefir grains should be as good. Commercial products also have the added benefit of governmental safety oversight. I refer interested patients to a blog post I wrote describing how to brew kefir at home and giving more reference links to help them understand the concept of probiotic foods: http://www.otbskincare.com/blog/kefir-the-best-probiotic-for-healthy-skin/139/

    Cynthia Bailey MD

  • http://www.beyourself.gnld.net Francois Wolfaardt

    Not everyone can afford a MD and if kombucha is an healthy cheap way to have your health, WHY NOT??? I truly believe it is more dangerous to visit your MD than to use kombucha. MD have so much more dangerous stuff they give their patiens and who say their patients do the right thing with that medication?? Kombucha is not dangerous unless the people with the degrees makes it dangerous. If the peasants outside Moscow could not afford regular tea but rather made tea from the Birth tree and got the benefit of no cancer, why does the modern society have to go to doctors and get Chemo (probably the worst poison you can get) and barely survive the process. I rather have great health with lots of energy than cancer and Chemo and barely survive. I am not a doctor but I’m not stupid either. My gut feeling tells me more people should be encouraged to drink kombucha than scare them with the very few people who wants to make it look dangerous. If you really want to know the truth just look how many people dies because the priscription they got were wrong compared to the isolated cases of people feeling a little oozy cause of kombucha?? Then we shall realize doctors should focus on what they have studied, Sickness, and leave Health for those who does not need to run to the doctor every 5 min. Sorry for sounding harsh on doctors. I respect all people who have to learn so many year to help sick people. You are really needed for sick people. Please leave our healthy one’s out of the picture and please don’t badmouth our homegrown “muties” that keeps us healthy.

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