The History and Spread of Kombucha

By James Roche, Taoist Philosopher
jroche@zetnet.co.uk


As early as 220 BC in China - during the Tsin Dynasty - immortality was sought after through the use of fungi as they were considered to have special magical properties. There was one plant which was prized above all others - the Divine Che - Ganoderma japonicus Lloyd, known to the Chinese as Ling-tche. This particular fungus is still being used today for specific ailments such as gastritis. In 414, the Japanese Emperor Inkyo sought for a physician as far afield as Korea to cure his digestive troubles and he summoned the doctor Kombu who probably brought the Divine Che with him.

Japanese warriors considered the properties of the fungus to be so special that they took it into battle in their field flasks! This must be one of the few instances where tea is fermented on the move. Historical archives indicate that their habit was to top up the ferment in their hip flasks with freshly brewed tea. They considered it to be a refreshing and strengthening beverage.

Historians consider that the tea fungus was first used for its healing benefits in the Far East - mainly in Japan, China and Korea. As trade routes extended, oriental merchants probably carried the fungus with them first to Russia and then indirectly to Eastern Europe. The habit of drinking fermented tea became quite acceptable throughout Europe until the unavoidable rationing restrictions of World War II prevented many households and retail outlets from making Kombucha due to the widespread shortages of its two essential substrates: tea and sugar. It is known that Kombucha appeared in Germany about the turn of the century via trade routes from Russia.

Italian high society had a real passion for this fermented tea during the 1950s, but for some inexplicable reason there soon followed unsubstantiated rumors that the Russian Tea Kwass was likely to induce cancer. A few years later in the 1960s (perhaps as a reaction to this) scientific research in Switzerland found that drinking Kombucha was as beneficial as eating yogurt and its popularity soon increased as it became widely available throughout chemist stores.

Alternative Names

Other names for the jelly-like fungus are 'Olinka' where it was cultivated by Moravian monks and throughout Bohemia. There is strong evidence that the monasteries kept Olinka a closely guarded secret since they drank fermented tea for a long time before surrounding settlements knew about its health giving properties.

Czechoslovakian sources reference the fungus by its more commonly known name, Kombucha, but it is often referred to as Mo-Gu or Fungojapon. In the "Lehrgang fur Drogistenfachschule" (Instructions for Druggists' School) by Hans Irion, the fungus is mentioned by such alternative names as: Fungus japonicus, the tea fungus, Fungojapon Kombucha, Indo-Japanese tea fungus. It is also referenced under other titles as: Tschambucco, Volga spring, Kwassan, Pichia fermentans, Cembuya orientalis, Combuchu, Champignon de longue vie, Tea Kvas or TeaKwass.

The Fermentation Process

When the fungus is placed in a freshly prepared infusion of tea and sugars, the fermentation and oxidation processes commence. These chemical reactions are highly involved - with as high a degree of complexity as those encountered when yeast react with complex sugars and dextrin in the production of beers and wines. Essentially, the fungus will feed on sugar and in return produce glucuronic acid, lactic acid, many vitamins, amino acids and antibiotic substances. Unlike traditional brewing with hops and malts, or wine making with the juice of grapes, Kombucha produces a beverage that is very low in alcohol - about 0.5 per cent by volume.

Its rejuvenating properties are thought to arise from the glucuronic acid, the vitamin B complex, vitamin C and lactic acid. Research in Russia has identified that many of the substances in Kombucha beverage have quite significant antibiotic properties.

When Kombucha starts to ferment the sugars in its supply of nutrient tea, it is the wide range of acids and vitamins which give the drink its unusual flavor. That refreshing and veritable thirst-quenching quality of the beverage can be attributed to the production of carbonic acid. Noted for its antibiotic properties, it is the lactic acid that has a retarding effect on the growth of many bacteria and yeast.

This popular drink has a beneficial action throughout the entire body and in particular there are noticeable changes at the cellular level which provide enormous benefits to the individual.

Composition of Kombucha Fungus

Scientific exploration of the fungus commenced in the 1950s with the Moscow Bacteriological Institute (as part of their research project on the investigation of cancer throughout the country). They discovered that it was not, as initially thought, a single organism but a symbiotic colony of several bacteria and yeast with highly complex and sophisticated metabolic pathways.

They isolated the following organisms: Bacterium xylinum, Bacterium xylinoides, Bacterium gluconicum, Saccharomyces ludwigii, Saccharomyces apiculatus varieties, Schizosaccaromyces pombe, Acetobacter ketogenum, Torula varieties, Pichia fermantans and other yeasts. This group of organisms shows a distinct antibiotic effect through the presence of usnic acid which is present in some lichens. There is also evidence that usnic acid may deactivate certain groups of viruses.

Kombucha Protects Itself

Despite repetitive reports that Kombucha should not be made at home under "amateurish conditions", there is no reason why an invigorating and health-giving beverage cannot be successfully made and enjoyed by all in much the same way that the home brewing of beers and wines has now gained a high level of respectability. The general principles of cleanliness and sterilization of equipment for beers and wines may also be applied to the fermentation of tea.

In fact, it is more likely that a home-based production of Kombucha will be successful because Kombucha does protect itself through the production of organic acids and a low alcohol content. All these substances in combination provide a powerful antibiotic effect which shields the symbiotic colony from unwanted foreign micro-organisms that are not a part of its inherent makeup. This antibiotic protection does not extend to the brewing of wines and beers as many home enthusiasts will know only too well when they first sample - with great disappointment - a spoiled wine or ale.

The Kombucha mushroom is quite tough and gelatinous in structure and given the correct nutrients of sugar and tea, will spread out over the surface of the liquid and gradually thicken. If handled with care, there is no reason why the fungus should not serve the needs of a household for life and be passed on from generation to generation. In fact, it is mainly because the fungus is so vigorous in growth and sturdy of structure that it has successfully survived the extensive rationing during World War II which deprived many homes of its two vital substrates: tea and sugar.

As early as 1959, the Russian researcher I. N. Konovalow reports that the potent growth of the Tea Kwass directly suppresses the colonization and growth of other types of yeasts and bacteria. This is further substantiated by another Russian researcher, Prof. G. F. Barbancik, who in 1958 reported that the tea fungus bacteria energetically suppress the growth of all other microbes.

Kombucha Treats Many Diseases

One of the main reasons why Kombucha seems to be efficacious against such a wide spectrum of diseases is that it does not have any specific action on particular illnesses, but rather its systemic detoxification of the whole body through glucuronic acid has an overall beneficial effect that invigorates the entire person. When all the toxins have been successfully eliminated, the body is much more able to heal itself.

Although this miracle 'Tea Kwass' is capable of treating many diseases, some of these physiological changes are well documented but others do require further investigation. However, it is clear that the following effects may be observed in those who drink the beverage on a daily basis: regulation of intestinal flora, cellular strengthening, detoxification of the entire organism, dross elimination, metabolic harmonization, a general antibiotic effect, a balancing of the blood pH.

A sign of Friendship

The earliest observed traditions with the tea fungus is that it is shared from family to family and passed on so that others may benefit from its rejuvenating powers. As a new beverage may be started from quite a small piece of the fungus it is apparent that it has a remarkable vitality and ability to survive - something that has been unhindered for literally thousands of years. Let us hope that it continues to provide a healing influence for countless years to come.

The Beginnings of Kombucha Research

In a report for the Correspondence for the Association of Nature Researchers in Riga, 1915, Professor Bazarewski discovered that a folk-remedy called "Brinum-Ssene" is used by the Latvian population in the Baltic provinces of Livland and Kurland. This "wonder mushroom" was accredited with considerable healing properties for many diseases.

Professor Lindner in 1917-18 reports that fermented tea is helpful in the regulation of intestinal disorders as well as the treatment of haemorrhoids. Simultaneously, Professor Rudolf Kobert released his findings that showed he had few doubts that the beverage was highly effective against joint rheumatism.

Like Professor Linder, Dr. Wilhelm Henneberg in 1926, mentions the remedy "Teekwass" as a home remedy throughout Russia where it was also considered a great healer against many diseases and in particular constipation.

In 1927, Dr Madaus revealed in "Biologic Healing Arts" that the mushroom has the ability to regenerate cellular walls and for this reason is particularly helpful in arteriosclerosis. In the same year, H Waldeck reports of a chemist he met during World War I in Russia-Poland during 1915, who was able to cure him of his constipation by brewing him a Russian 'secret remedy'. He was trusted with the mushroom culture and told to always keep it with him as it was a master healer for many ailments and sicknesses.

One year later, Prof. Dr. Lakowitz corroborated Waldeck's statements about the cure-all mushroom and its effect on digestive disturbances. He also discovered that it was able to quickly remove many gastric illnesses and also headaches of a nervous origin.

Also in 1928, the "White Flag" reported that Kombucha is now noted for its beneficial effects of detoxifying the system, cleansing the blood and the rapid clearing of facial skin rashes. Doctors report that it is a treatment for pains in the limbs, gout, constant headaches, rheumatism and general aging problems. Physicians usually expect its healing work to be noticed within a few weeks of commencing treatment and possibly attribute this to the beverage's high vitamin content and hormone effect. It is known to be a metabolic stimulant and assists the body in the excretion of countless disease toxins.

Further reports in the same year from Dr Maxim Bing recommended Kombucha for arteriosclerosis, gout and also intestinal deficiency. With arteriosclerosis, a freshly prepared culture of the mushroom may alleviate symptoms of high blood pressure, anxiety, irritability, pains, headaches and dizziness. Constipation caused by a sluggish response of the intestines may also be treated by this remarkable fungus. He also noted that it was useful in the treatment of kidney stones and was 'effective in the capillaries of the brain'.

Arthritis and gout are considered to be conditions which may be explained by the accumulation of toxins in the body. When a sufferer of these conditions starts to drink Kombucha on a daily basis, these toxins are dissolved and excreted by the kidneys by virtue of the fact that they couple with glucuronic acid to form soluble glucuronides or paired glucuronic acid.

In 1928 there seems to have been many scientific reports and statements issued about the fungus and Dr. L Mollenda discovered that Kombucha is highly effective for digestive disorders due to its ability to balance and normalize the gastro-intestinal organs. He also considers that it is helpful for gout and rheumatism - like many other doctors. One particular new area of interest is angina, he writes: "In the case of angina, especially when there is a coating of the tonsils, the drink should not merely be used for gargling but for drinking, and that, for the destruction of bacteria which reach the stomach through food and drink. Such gargling in angina brings fast recovery, and in pains of gout and arteriosclerosis, surprising successes are reached even in serious cases. Even though the beverage is acidic, it does not cause any acidic condition in the stomach; it facilitates and noticeably promotes the digestion even of difficult to digest foods. Equally favorable successes after taking Kombucha beverage have also been reached for gouty eczema and for stones in kidneys, urine, and gall."

In 1929, Dr E Arauner made the following announcement having considered all the latest research on the tea fungus, "In summary, one can say that the Kombucha mushroom or its extract, has proven itself as excellently prophylactic against diabetes, but especially against aging problems, such as arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure with its consequences such as dizziness, gout, hemorrhoids; for the very least it is a pleasant laxative." Dr Arauner also comments that doctors, biologists and professors have confirmed that Kombucha has surprising healing properties.

Physicians Treat Cancerous Conditions with Kombucha

Over thirty years later, in 1961, Dr. Valentin Koehler wrote in the periodical "Medical Practice" about the medical effects of glucuronic acid and how that this natural method was giving courage to cancer patients. This sparked off a debate about the existence of the Kombucha culture and Dr. Koehler was encouraged with the results that he was observing in his patients. He considered that in the long term, Kombucha may well increase the overall performance of the immune system and boost interferon production. It seems to be that around the late 1950s and early 1960s that the scientific community became aware of the cancer healing properties of the fungus.

A few years later in 1964, in the publication "Cancer diagnosis based on Blood and the Treatment of Cancer, Pre-cancerous Conditions, and other Metabolic Diseases with Kombucha and Coli-Preparations" Dr. Rudolph Sklenar of Oberhessen concludes that it is able to produce an outstanding detoxification of the organism. Additionally, the glands are revitalized and the metabolism is considerably enhanced.

For cancer patients, this detoxification process that is triggered by the ingestion of glucuronic acid is good news indeed, for many medical specialists feel that there is a direct link between the overall toxicity of the body and the potential for the onset of tumors and other malignant growths. In several of his books, Alexander Solzhenitzyn relates how he considers his cure from stomach cancer was due to the discovery of Kombucha whilst he was in prison.

The Acid/Alkali Balance of the Body

Considering the acid/alkali balance of the body it has been found that humans who are free of cancer usually have a pH balance which is less than 7.5, whereas people suffering from cancer usually have a pH higher than 7.56. Kombucha will cause the blood pH to fall by increasing its acidity. The pH of the ferment is usually about 3.0. (Gastric secretions may be as low as pH 1.7.)

Trees and Plants Healed by Kombucha

Further research in the 1960s, also by Dr. Valentin Koehler, revealed a shift in emphasis towards investigating if animals and plants may be helped by Kombucha extracts. Dr. Koehler realized that many research institutions were expanding their activities to encompass the animal and plant kingdoms as well. If Kombucha could detoxify the human body, it was considered a possibility that animals and plants may also benefit by taking the material.

After extensive research it was observed that glucuronic acid is able to combine with over two hundred known toxins within the plant cell and these included substances absorbed from acidic and radioactive rains and specific chemical groups such as nitrites as well as atmospheric pollution from the gases sulfur dioxide and ozone. Most surprising was the discovery that Kombucha offers genetic protection so that growth patterns are normalized after disruption by endogenic or exogenic poisons. The implications of this for the survival of many species of plants that have suffered considerable damage as a result of global environmental pollution are remarkable.

Human Cells are Affected

Investigations into the action of Kombucha on the cellular metabolism of plants may also have implications for human cellular reconstruction. Research is indicating that daily amounts of glucuronic acid may optimize the natural processes of growth and decomposition at a cellular level by effectively eliminating toxins through chemical combination products that are easily excreted and eliminated from the organism. There is evidence that this contributes to a general strengthening of the cell walls and a improvement of cellular metabolism which has a rejuvenating effect on the whole system.

Vitamin Content and Recovery from Illness

If you suffer from any nervous conditions then it may be of interest that Kombucha manufactures a large proportion of the B complex of vitamins: B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12 together with folic and lactic acids. Glucuronic acid is known to be manufactured in the liver, but those who suffer from long-term illness do not produce it in sufficiently large quantities to assist the body in rapid cleansing that is often a vital part of the recovery process. Its function is to combine with toxins in the body so that they cannot be subsequently re-absorbed through the intestines. It follows that glucuronic acid plays a considerable part in systemic detoxification. This is especially important for disease processes that have been in operation for many years.

Holistic Approach to Healing

Although Kombucha may be viewed as a cure for many ailments, it must be noted that recent research in the USA indicates that negative emotions such as fear, guilt, jealousy and hatred all contribute in a marked fashion to the breakdown of the immune system. A holistic approach to healing is of vital importance rather than taking just one remedy in exclusion of all other methods for recovery from illness.

Russian Cancer Research After World War II

In World War II, shortages of sugar and tea inevitably lead to the disappearance of the culture in many households. Primarily for these reasons, it use fell into a rapid decline without adequate nutrients to keep the fungus colonies well sustained. It was only after the war, with the noticeable increase in cancer in many countries that oncological research started to investigate possible causes and cures for the disease. In 1951, the Central Oncological Research Unit and the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow statistically analyzed the incidence of cancer throughout all the cities and districts of the USSR. It follows that any particular area with a low incidence of cancer deserved special scrutiny from the research teams.

In the research program, data was collated on environmental conditions and the everyday habits of the people were closely examined for any possible clues about their extremely high resistance to cancer. In particular, the districts of Ssolikamsk and Beresniki - in the Western Ural Mountains - were studied since there were hardly any recorded cases of cancer. Most surprising to the researchers was that this area, in particular, was a rapidly expanding industrial zone where highly toxic metals were manufactured such as potassium, lead and mercury together with asbestos. All this industrial pollution rated the area as one of the most toxic throughout the USSR and this was evidenced by dead fish floating in the Kama river and many species of trees were withering away with the uptake of so many industrial pollutants.

Research teams focused on Ssolikamsk and Beresniki districts in an attempt to understand the unusually low incidence of cancerous disease in the population despite the surrounding environment. Living conditions, sleeping, eating and drinking patterns were investigated. Ethnic differences were taken note of together with genetic origins of all the inhabitants. Age was also considered and despite the thorough analysis of numerous factors, the research teams lead by Dr. Molodyev and Dr. Grigoriev were unable to discern any appreciable differences to other districts in the USSR that displayed a higher cancer rate which was closer to the national average.

The mystery finally unfolded one day when Dr. Molodyev visited a local household to make more detailed inspections. On questioning the housewife about what they eat and drink, he was introduced to some stoneware jars as being the source of their 'Tea Kwass' - a very popular drink throughout the district and one that every household enjoys. She uncovered the jars to reveal a large fungus floating on top of some liquid. To the locals, this was 'Tea Kwass'. On questioning where she had obtained the fungus from, the woman said that travelers had brought it with them from China many centuries ago. It was thought that the Chinese had originally obtained it from the Japanese.

To further substantiate the possibility that there may be some connection between drinking 'Tea Kwass' and a very low cancer rate, Dr. Grigoriev in Beresniki also found that every household in the region possessed the fungus and drank large quantities of the ferment each day.

Cancer Sufferers and Lactic Acid

Cancer patients rarely exhibit the L-lactic acid (+) component in their connective tissues. If present in sufficient quantities, it is thought that cancer may not develop. When lactic acid is deficient then cellular respiration starts to fail and consequently there will be a build up of DL-lactic (-) in the tissue. If both of these types of lactic acid exist in balanced proportions in the tissues then cancer may be the outcome.

Research from 1944 to 1987

In 1944, Hans Irion, the Director of the Academy for Chemists in Braunschweig reports in the Course for Druggist Speciality Schools (vol 2, page 405) that Teekwass invigorates the entire glandular system, and is highly recommended for gout and rheumatism, furunculosis, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure and aging problems. By further harmonizing and balancing the metabolism, unwanted fat deposits in the body are removed or prevented from building up. Damaging deposits of uric acid and cholesterol are converted into more soluble forms where the body can easily excrete them via the kidneys and intestines.

In 1954, G. F. Barbancik produced a booklet titled "The Tea-Mushroom and its Therapeutic Properties". In it he refers to the practical application of the beverage as a healing remedy in the Omsker Hospital therapeutic clinic. In particular, the booklet mentions that the fermented tea was used for the treatment of tonsillitis, diverse internal diseases, especially those of an inflammatory nature, stomach catarrh (due to deficient acid production), intestinal inflammations, dysentery, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure and scleroses in general.

Ten years later, Dr. Rudolf Sklenar of Oberhessen reported in the periodical "Experiential Healing Science" about his various techniques of diagnosis and therapy. The tea fungus is mentioned as an outstanding remedy which he considered to be a powerful agent for detoxifying the human body since it dissolves micro-organisms and also cholesterol. Some of his specific cancer treatments were based on the use of fermented tea for the balancing of intestinal flora.

With the tea fungus he successfully treated gout, rheumatic conditions, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, dysbacteria, constipation, impotence, non-specific draining, obesity, furunculosis, kidney stones, cholesterol and finally cancer in the early stages of detection.

In 1987, Dr. Veronika Carstens, recommends Kombucha in a series called "Help from Nature - My Remedies Against Cancer" with the words: "Kombucha detoxifies the organism and enhances the metabolism; this improves the defense capacity." In the Netherlands, A J Lodesijkx of Ermelo - a natural healing specialist - describes the health-giving benefits of the fungus in his book "Life Without Cancer". He concludes that the Kombucha fungus has strongly antiseptic properties. It purifies the glandular system and promotes the elimination and neutralization of uric acid. He concludes that the fermented beverage is an excellent remedy for gout, rheuma, arthritis, kidney stones, intestinal dysbacteria and early stages of cancer due to its influence on disease causing endobionts. (Red corpuscles are eliminated by these endobionts when the pH of the blood shifts unfavorably to the alkaline side.) Kombucha is considered to be unique in that it actively re-balances the blood pH and thus helps to counter any disease processes that are in operation.

Heavy Metals Excreted as People Drink Kombucha

When examining body fluids such as urine, it has been shown that people who drink Kombucha on a regular basis will excrete any toxins that have either built up internally as a result of illness or been absorbed from the environmental. Specific toxins which have been successfully isolated as being effectively purged from the body are: cesium, mercury, lead and benzol.

Detoxification of the human system is one of Kombucha's most noteworthy effects and this is mainly due to the glucuronic acid component. Various toxins (either from natural metabolic processes within the body or from environmental sources absorbed via the lungs, stomach or skin) combine with the glucuronic acid to form complex molecules which are then voided through the intestines or bladder. Furthermore, compounds of glucuronic acid may be found within vital complex polysaccharides such as mucoitin-sulfuric acid which is present in gastric mucous membranes and the vitreous humor of the eye, chondroitin sulfate - within cartilage - and finally in the connective tissues as hyaluronic acid.

From this it is apparent that ongoing research on the effects of glucuronic acid on the human organism will be followed very closely by all those interested in detoxification and its relationship to cancerous conditions and the aging process.


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