Research suggests that kombucha microbes may mimic the effects of fasting, without actually fasting

The tasty, fermented beverage was most recently found to be effective in reducing blood sugar levels

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published April 8, 2024 3:01PM (EDT)

Kombucha drink close-up (Getty Images/Olga Pankova)
Kombucha drink close-up (Getty Images/Olga Pankova)

Turns out, you may be able to reap the benefits of fasting without actually fasting. According to a recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a simple bottle of kombucha has the potential to alter human fat metabolism, sans any strict dietary changes, and lower fat stores.  

The study, published in the journal PLOS Genetics, explored an alternate method by which people can reduce fat accumulation and lower triglyceride (lipid) levels in the body. High levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, are associated with several serious health conditions, including liver and pancreas problems and cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis, stroke, and heart failure. Making healthy lifestyle choices — like exercising regularly, limiting alcohol intake and consuming a diet that’s high in fibers and healthy fats — can greatly reduce triglyceride levels. But researchers stressed that it’s imperative to find new supplemental solutions, especially as modern diseases continue to be among the leading causes of early death.

“Investigation of functional foods that may directly improve lipid homeostasis during metabolic disease, or that could serve as a supplement to traditional therapeutic approaches, is paramount to identifying new strategies to support long-term health in the modern age,” Rob Dowen, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology at UNC’s School of Medicine and lead author of the study, told Medical News Today.

Researchers looked at kombucha tea in particular because there’s “a striking lack of mechanistic information about how its consumption impacts the consumer,” Dowen explained. Kombucha, which has roots in Eastern traditional medicine, remains a popular choice of beverage amongst consumers today. Per Grandview Research, the global kombucha market is expected to grow at a compound annual rate (CAGR) of 15.6% from 2022 to 2030.

Kombucha is a fermented drink made from black tea and a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, better known as SCOBY. SCOBY is rich in probiotic microbes — including species of Acetobacter, Lactobacillus and Komagataeibacter genera — which have been associated with numerous health benefits like lowering blood pressure, supporting weight loss and decreasing inflammation.

The intestinal effects of kombucha’s microbes were studied in Caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode roundworm. These microscopic nematodes feed on a variety of bacteria, making them a model organism for studying different molecular, biochemical and microbial-related mechanisms.

Once the microbes colonized the nematode’s gut, they created metabolic changes akin to those that occur during fasting, researchers discovered. The microbes essentially increased the formation of proteins needed to break down fat, while also decreasing the formation of proteins that help build triglycerides.

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“We were surprised to find that animals consuming a diet consisting of the probiotic microbes found in kombucha tea displayed reduced fat accumulation, lower triglyceride levels, and smaller lipid droplets — an organelle that stores the cell's lipids — when compared to other diets,” researchers noted. “These findings suggest that the microbes in kombucha tea trigger a 'fasting-like' state in the host even in the presence of sufficient nutrients.”

Although the study was conducted on a microscopic nematode — which unlike mammals, stores fat in droplets in their intestinal cells — researchers believe similar effects will also be observed in humans. Dowen told Medical News Today that much of the evidence is “anecdotal,” adding that a similar study must be conducted on mammalian model systems “to further inform how kombucha consumption impacts human physiology.” 

Kombucha remains a prime subject within medical research. Most recently, kombucha was found to be effective in reducing blood sugar levels. Additional studies also suggested kombucha may be a powerful inflammation-reducing antioxidant and an antibacterial.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.