Kombucha- Healthy? Or hype?
Recently, gut health has really become an industry trend, and as a result, I find more and more people are asking me about whether they should or not consume fermented drinks, in particular, kombucha.
I actually was shocked to read that kombucha is so popular that it leads the market in fermented products, a market predicted to hit $1,061 billion by 2023. Fermented drinks like Kombucha are becoming popular largely because they contain probiotics, beneficial bacteria that are believed to balance the gut microbiome, the collection of microbes that naturally reside in your gastrointestinal tract. This is important because there is a growing body of research that links a balanced gut microbiome with all sorts of benefits including energy and focus, weight maintenance, digestive health, immune system function, hormonal balance, mental health, skin health. and more. But should YOU add kombucha to your daily regimen? Who should consume probiotic products like kombucha? Who should not? What does the science say? HEALTH BENEFIT CLAIMS OF KOMBUCHA: 1- Probiotics. Kombucha is made by adding specific strains of bacteria, yeast and sugar to black or green tea. The tea is then fermented. During the fermentation process, bacteria and yeast form a film on the surface of the liquid. This film (which kind of looks like a blob) is a living symbiotic colony called a SCOBY. The fermentation process also produces acetic acid (also found in vinegar) and several other acidic compounds, trace levels of alcohol and gases that give kombucha its signature carbonation. A large amount of bacteria also grow in the mixture. Although there is still no scientific evidence for the probiotic benefits of kombucha, it contains several species of lactic-acid bacteria which may have probiotic function. 2- Bacteria. Kombucha is rich in tea polyphenols and acetic acid, both of which have both been shown to suppress the growth of undesirable bacteria and yeasts. Acetic acid, which is also found in vinegar (and part of why apple cider vinegar is so popular) has the ability to kill potentially harmful microorganisms. This is why kombucha is termed “antimicrobial”, because it exhibits strong antibacterial properties, particularly against infection-causing bacteria and yeasts like Cándida. 3-Blood sugar management. There are no human studies, but animal studies have shown that kombucha can slow down the digestion of carbs, which reduces blood sugar levels. Kombucha made from green tea can be even more beneficial, as green tea itself has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels. A review study of almost 300,000 individuals found that green tea drinkers had an 18% lower risk of becoming diabetic. THE DOWNSIDE TO KOMBUCHA 1- It’s NOT low calorie. The average kombucha beverage has 120 calories, most of it from sugar. Frankly, in my opinion, this is a BIG downside. Depending on the brand, just one serving of kombucha can contain as much as 28 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 7 tsps and most bottles offer multiple servings. You HAVE to read labels. Look for drinks that contain less than 4g of sugar per serving and LIMIT YOUR SERVINGS to keep your added sugar intake to a minimum. 2-It can WORSEN digestion in some people, causing gas and bloating. This is due to three main reasons. 1) CARBONATION. Because kombucha is carbonated, too much may lead to bloating. Drinking carbonated beverages delivers carbon dioxide (CO2) into the digestive system, which may cause bloating and excess gas 2) FODMAPS. Kombucha contains compounds called FODMAPS, which’s are types of carbohydrates that can cause digestive distress in many people, particularly those with IBS or IBD. And 3) Kombucha contains sugar and alcohol which can cause digestive upset and diarrhea in some individuals. The amount of sugar and alcohol ranges as well. For example the older your kombucha is, the more sugar present (available for conversion into alcohol) and the warmer it has been kept, the more alcohol it will contain. 3- It can actually be harmful to your gut microbiome depending upon your health. I feel this is the BIGGEST reason why MOST people should approach Kombucha with caution. Because kombucha is unpasteurized and contains a mix of different types of bacteria and yeasts, it can promote the growth of opportunistic bacteria that can lead to infections in certain people. For instance, if you have a weakened immune systems, (resulting from infection, autoimmune disease, cancer, kidney disease, HIV etc) kombucha can proven harmful. Or, if you have an existing digestive condition such as SIBO or IBD it can also worsen symptoms. This is because not only are GOOD bacteria or probiotics present, BAD bacteria and yeast are also present during the fermentation process. So while yes good bacteria (probiotics) are present, SO are bad bacteria. In addition, the high concentration of prebiotics found in kombucha can help to feed good bacteria, but it can ALSO feed bad bacteria and yeast. So if you are dealing with SIBO or Candida overgrowth, and already have an overpopulation of bad bacteria or yeast, drinking kombucha is going to add fuel to the fire. This means that while it’s true that fermented foods do have potential health benefits, they may actually cause more harm than good by perpetuating gut infections. LASTLY- (kinda as a side note) since kombucha is unpasteurized and contains small amounts of caffeine and alcohol, any woman who is either pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid it. So should YOU use kombucha? There’s no black or white answer. Like EVERYTHING in fitness, it depends upon the context. What IS CLEAR is that while there is abundant anecdotal evidence about the positive benefits, there is only limited empirical evidence indicating that kombucha is beneficial to health. In other words- the health benefits of kombucha, at this point, are CLAIMS, they're not backed by a rigid body of science. In general I personally tend to feel there are safer and more effective ways to gain the health benefits of kombucha without all of the unwanted alcohol, sugar, and the potential negative side effects. But really, only you can know for yourself whether or not kombucha is something you would like to make a regular part of your diet. Listen to your instincts and best judgments, and feel out your body's unique response to determine whether it's right for you.