Kombucha is a fermented tea drink. It’s slightly fizzy and sweet and it’s made by fermenting (breaking down) the sugars in sweetened black or green tea with a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). It’s touted for its supposed gut health benefits as it has living microorganisms which act as a probiotic.
The ease of implementing kombucha into our lifestyles makes being healthy so easy. You get it, drink it, you've cleansed your gut and you feel amazing. But is that reaction true, or is it just a placebo effect?
Love your guts
The gut is amazing. Anatomically, it’s sectioned into five main parts: mouth, oesophagus, stomach, and small and large intestines. But it’s a little more complex than just a long 9-metre tube from mouth to bum. There are also secondary organs within our gastrointestinal tract – such as the liver, gallbladder and pancreas – which support digestion.
The main job of the gut is to extract essential nutrients from the food we eat and deliver them to all the cells in our body via the bloodstream. There is also increasing evidence our gut health is linked to our brain health. So, that’s why it makes sense we eat well to give our gut, and the rest of our body, the best outcome possible.
We all have a unique combination of gut bacteria known as the gut microbiome, hitting the hundreds in their varieties. Our gut bacteria establish in the first few years of life, and strongly influenced by how we're delivered and whether we're breastfed or not. But it does change as we age, stabilising around the time of our third birthday. It’s determined by diet, environment, genes and even our lifestyles. But sudden adverse changes in our gut microbiome can occur from disease, infection, antibiotics or other influences.
We're told we should consume prebiotics and probiotics to ensure proper gut function and maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome. But what are pre- and probiotics? Probiotics are foods or drinks such as kombucha that contain live bacteria and provide a health benefit.
Researchers are investigating the effectiveness of probiotics. Some studies show the benefits of using probiotics like boosting immune health and reducing gastrointestinal disorders. But there are others which don’t replicate those same benefits. Probiotics are also extremely variable in their effectiveness. This depends on the strain you consume and whether it’s compatible with your own individual microbiota. It also depends on what food you eat it in, if there are enough microbes present or whether you have enough.
On the other hand, prebiotics are dietary fibres that pass undigested through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract. They provide food for the 'good' bacteria in the large intestine. Think wholegrain bread and cereals, apples with the skin on, bananas and vegetables such as broccoli, eggplant and peas.
Bring the booch?
So how does this relate to kombucha? There’s limited and contradictory research into the gut benefits of kombucha. On top of that, there are no studies on humans which test the benefits of kombucha – they’re all lab and animal-based studies.
Let’s be clear. We’re not telling you to stop drinking kombucha. But when it comes to its benefits, it’s hit and miss. There are so many environmental factors which can cause their probiotics to not work. For example, store-bought kombucha can get hot in transit from factory to shop. This may kill the beneficial bacteria before it even gets to your mouth. Plus, the strains of good bacteria may not be compatible with your body.
If it does work for you, then great! The SCOBY may have created good bacteria that aligns with your gut microbiome. However, for a probiotic to have long-term benefits, you’d have to take it continuously. Some kombuchas are high in sugar as they have fruit juice added to aid the fermentation process and make them taste good. So, it would be best to look at your kombucha’s nutrition label before you go guzzling longnecks.
Gut health beyond the craze
If you want to achieve optimal gut health, fibre is your friend. Eating fibre provides food for the bacteria in your gut that produce a range of beneficial products including short-chain fatty acids. In doing so, they create an environment that can enhance immune response and inhibit gut inflammation. They can also reduce the growth of pathogenic bacteria such as E coli and other harmful microbes.
The best approach is to eat a wide range of plant-based foods. Focus on having a variety of coloured fruits and vegetables and a range of wholegrain breads and cereals every day. To further enhance gut health you can also include foods that contain resistant starch such as legumes, cold cooked starchy foods, green peas and firm bananas. Resistant starch promotes gut wall integrity, healthy digestion and optimal immune function.
So, if you want to improve your gut health, don’t fall for clever marketing campaigns. Instead, follow an approach supported by scientific evidence and feed your gut bacteria with a variety of plant-based foods.