Kombucha: the elixir of life

When I first realised that I was suffering from chronic fatigue a few years ago, I spent an awful lot of time trying to understand my problem and looking for a solution. After putting Dr. Google through his paces I discovered that one of the many causes of chronic fatigue was malabsorption of nutrients from my food due to damages to the intestinal wall courtesy of my gluten intolerance. Even with the best intentions it’s not always possible to be 100% gluten free, especially when traveling or sharing the place with people who don’t suffer from the same intolerance or don’t understand it.

glass of kombuchaOne of the remedies that was mentioned in one of the many documents I read was a drink called Kombucha, made out of sugary tea that had been left to ferment with some yeast and probiotic cultures for 7 to 14 days. It sounded intriguing so I did some further research into it. What I discovered was nothing short than amazing.

Apparently Kombucha as a drink has been around for over 2000 years. Originally from East Asia it became “famous” in the West after WWII when the Stalin administration decided to investigate anomalies in the rates of death from cancer across the former USSR. It appeared that there were two distinct areas in the whole of Russia where the locals didn’t have cancer and the only few deaths from the disease were from people who had only recently moved there. So two separate groups of scientists were dispatched to each location to conduct a thorough research of the lifestyles of the locals.

They quickly discovered that the environmental pollution was exactly the same as that of other areas with higher death tolls and that the locals were also consuming large quantities of alcohol and tobacco but the number of drink driving accidents or even misdemeanor from being drunk were negligible. It was only by chance that they discovered the reason why: during a home visit an old lady offered the scientists a slightly fizzy drink, a bit sharp, ever so slightly sweet that she referred to as “tea kvass”. She went on to explain that the drink was made from sweetened tea that had been fermented by means of a “tea fungus” that was large, round, translucent, flat and jelly like. By pure coincidence the other team of scientists in the other location came across exactly the same scenario. And so the research into the fungus started.

The science bit

Analysis of the fermented product revealed that it contained some of the building blocks of glucuronic acid, folic acid, lactic acid and trace quantities of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12. Glucuronic acid is thought to be responsible for the main health benefits of Kombucha: this has the ability to bind to toxins in the bloodstream and then expel them via the urinary system. This was document by clinical tests carried out on patients that had never previously drunk Kombucha.

The same building blocks for glucuronic acid have also been found to be important components of hyaluronic acid from which connective tissue develops as well as chondroitin which is essential for healthy cartilage. It also contributes to healthy stomach lining and healthy eyes. Most importantly Kombucha has strong antibacterial and antivirus properties. Because of all this Kombucha has been successfully used in the treatment of many disorders: from joints degeneration, to eyes issues, to repairing damages to the lining of the digestive tract, fatigue, wrinkles reduction, relief of painful menstruation, psoriasis, adult acne, constipation and a weak  immune system.

The stories

There are many anecdotes relating how Kombucha has saved many people from cancer, the most notorious ones are relating to Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitzyn who was said to have been experimented on with Kombucha when he was dying from cancer and made a “miraculous” recovery. Another extraordinary tale relates to the late Ronald Regan who, after finding out about Solzhenitzyn’s recovery, was prescribed Kombucha at the time when he developed stomach cancer from which he also made a complete recovery and eventually died from old age several years later.

But of course it’s not all down to story telling evidence, there has been plenty of scientific research carried out on this subject both in the former Soviet Union and Germany that substantiate and explains the reasons behind many of the anecdotal claims.

How to make Kombucha at home

Kombucha home making kitKombucha is very easy to make at home. All that’s needed are a few glass jars, ordinary black or green tea bags, white sugar and a SCOBY (the fungus) consisting of a symbiotic culture of different types of bacteria and yeasts forming a jelly like substance. The main bacterium, Aceterbacter xylinum, is activated by the caffeine in the black tea and through the complex process of fermentation converts the sugary tea into Kombucha. This is typically slightly fizzy and can have an alcohol content of 0.3%.

The first step is to prepare a sugary tea by using a couple of ordinary tea bags and approx. 85g of white sugar for each litre of boiling water. The tea bags need to be infused for 30 minutes or so and then removed. Once the tea has cooled down to room temperature it can be poured in the glass jar and the SCOBY added with a bit of previously made Kombucha. Cover the top of the jar with a muslin cloth and tie in place. Store at constant temperature away from direct sunlight for 7 to 14 days.

After the first 5 days the bevarage will taste a bit peachy and can be drunk already, however to get the full benefit from the drink it’s best to allow it to ferment for an extra 2 to 3 days when it will start to have a sharp taste. At this point it will have become a strong antibacterial and antiviral drink too. When it’s ready carefully remove the SCOBY and place in a separate jar with a bit of the fermented product to be used to regulate the acidity of the next batch. Strain the beverage through a plastic sieve (no metal), bottle up and refrigerate. Be careful if you decide to store the bottles at room temperature as the fermentation process will continue and they have been known to explode. You can check the acidity levels with a litmus strip: ideally the pH will be between 3 and 4.

Litmus strips

It’s very important that the glass jar used is very clean and that the SCOBY is always handled carefully and with clean hands. Some people say the cultures don’t like direct sunlight, others say they want to be in the dark. Personally I found that they like temperatures of around 20+ ºC which can be tricky in winter if the heating isn’t on all the time. I worked around this problem by keeping mine on the top shelf in the spare room which is South facing and has a heating vent in the ceiling. It’s also important that the cloth used to seal the glass jar is thick enough to prevent bugs ending up in it but not so thick to prevent air flow. I use kitchen towel and it works a treat.

In the Summer when there is plenty of fresh fruit available I tend to play with different flavours and I substitute some of the sugar with organic fruit (berries, mango, cherries, peaches) that I chuck in the glass jar and leave to ferment. When the drink is ready the fruit will be reduced to a mush and can only be thrown on the compost bin as it has no flavour left. Be careful never to use honey as it has antifungal and antibacteria properties and will destroy the cultures. Also, analysis have revealed that in order to get the full benefit from the fermentation process it’s best to use white refined sugar instead of raw cane sugar and other natural sweeteners.

Just like when making milk Kefir the Kombucha cultures grow like triffids in the right conditions. These can either be used to make more batches, donated to friends and family (always good to spread the love and health too), dumped on the compost heap and even blitzed and turned into moisturiser to get rid of wrinkles and crow feet.

My story

I personally swear by Kombucha and I cannot bear the thought of not having some nearby. Since I started drinking it I seem to have been able to resolve many nagging health issues that annoyed me for most of my life, I can keep the chronic fatigue under control and can take liberties with the occasional pizza or pastry knowing that I won’t suffer afterwards. The dry eyes from having Lasek many years ago are a thing of the past, my skin is fresh, my joints are healthy (x-rays taken last Summer after a fall show no signs of arthritis whatsoever) and my immune system is strong.

The best part? The detox effect of Kombucha means that when I drink a glass of wine the alcohol is metabolised and eliminated quickly and as a result I no longer wake up with a hangover!!

Want to try some too? If we know each other personally ask me to bring you a SCOBY next time we meet, otherwise you can find them easily and inexpensively online.

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