Nutrition / Food

Is Kombucha Actually Healthy?

Kombucha is often touted as a magical health elixir, but do you really know what you’re drinking?

You’ve likely heard of kombucha. It’s a trendy, fermented fizzy drink said to promote gut health, help with digestion, support weight loss, and strengthen your immune system. Researchers continue to explore the health benefits of the bubbly beverage. Evidence suggests that because it’s rich in probiotics—which increases the number of good bacteria in your gut—it’s a welcome addition to your diet. But it’s still up for debate. Our experts discuss whether or not kombucha is healthy, what to avoid when drinking it, and how often to pour yourself a glass.

What is kombucha?

“A key component of ancient Chinese medicine, kombucha is made from green or black tea that is combined with white sugar and fermented with scoby, a symbiotic culture of acetic acid bacteria and yeast,” explains Dr. Sean McCaffrey, an internal and digestive health specialist. “Once kombucha is fermented, new organic compounds are produced that have powerful health benefits. It’s rich in B vitamins, probiotics enzymes, cellulose and antioxidants that help to protect the body.”

Additionally, as it ferments, small amounts of alcohol, carbonation, and other acidic components become present in the drink. But, according to Rebecca Lee, a New York City-based registered nurse and founder of a natural health resource, the probiotics in kombucha function as the best benefit to health. While there are millions of bacteria already in your body, probiotics support digestive health as a whole and help your body fight against the disease. Outside of kombucha, you can add probiotics to your diet in supplement form, or eat certain fermented foods like kimchi or sauerkraut.

Are there benefits to drinking kombucha?

Integrative Nutritionist Anna Brown says kombucha, when consumed in moderation, can be a healthy option, due to the fact that it contains live active cultures that are beneficial for the gut. Yet, she warns that most clinical research regarding kombucha was conducted on animals or in vitro studies, versus with humans. Still, Brown concedes that there are a few key potential benefits to consuming kombucha: better digestion, reduced joint pain, and cancer prevention.

Reduce Inflammation

Dr. McCaffrey also sees the plus side, acknowledging that drinking kombucha can lead to lower risk of certain diseases, an improved digestive system, and even increased brain health. “Stress and inflammation on the body is the cause of most chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” he says. “The antioxidants in kombucha help to detoxify and reduce inflammation, reducing cell damage and helping to prevent chronic disease. Around 70 percent of our immune system is located in our gut, so good bacteria and probiotics stop the overproduction of candida and restore a healthy balance in the digestive tract. And, since there is a correlation between digestion and brain health, kombucha—rich in B vitamins—increases energy levels and keeps our minds sharp.”

Other studies claim that kombucha can reduce liver toxicity, provide antibacterial properties, improve cholesterol, and even treat or prevent diabetes. But, Dr. Nancy Rahnama, nutrition specialist and bariatric physician, ties the health claims of kombucha straight back to gut health. She says that the drink delivers probiotics that might be depleted in the gut. Consequently, these limit conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or leaky gut. It can also protect against viral and bacterial infections within the gastrointestinal tract, and help your gut absorb valuable micronutrients and amino acids.

Gut Health

“Kombucha can help restore your natural gut health due to its probiotic properties,” adds Lee. “Your gut microbiome (the bacteria that resides inside) is so important to your overall health. Our bodies thrive best when there is more good than bad bacteria in our systems. These bacteria impact inflammation, immune system, mood, and weight management. Having a variety of different kinds of bacteria in our guts is ideal.”

Should I avoid kombucha for any reason?

Julia Whelan, a Florida-based registered dietitian and nutritionist, says to look for two warning signs with respect to kombucha: too much added sugar and high levels of alcohol. Kombucha is made from fermented tea with sugar added to start the fermentation process, Brown says. So, it’s definitely possible to drink too much—indulge in moderation.

Sugar Levels

“Some of the kombucha drinks have flavors added packed with excess sugar,” says Dr. McCaffrey. “This is not healthy, so it’s important to watch out for those. Because of its sugar level, kombucha can affect people with diabetes negatively, or the caffeine [in kombucha] could irritate those who have irritable bowel syndrome.”

In addition to sugar, other drawbacks include toxicity, says Brown. She urges consumers to make sure they buy kombucha from a legitimate source. And always take extreme caution when making kombucha at home. Dr. Rahnama concurs. “[Homebrewed kombucha may] contain toxic amounts of Candida albicans, which can wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal tract, resulting in leaky gut syndrome.”

Alcohol

Alcohol levels in kombucha may raise an eyebrow, too. If a bottle of kombucha sits for too long, the fermentation continues. This can lead to a significant alcohol content over time. It’s complicated to test and regulate alcohol in kombucha as a result. Most brands show tiny amounts, while others may require you to show proof of age. (Because of this, Brown also recommends that pregnant women or individuals with compromised immune systems avoid kombucha entirely.)

“In moderate amounts, well-processed kombucha is a source of probiotics that can aid in gut health, immunity, and antioxidant function,” says Dr. Rahnama. “However, certain types of kombucha may have higher amounts of alcohol content. This is due to fermentation of sugar content by the yeast in the tea.”

How much kombucha should I drink?

If you choose to drink kombucha, then experts suggest sticking to one serving—16 ounces or less—per day. Those new to kombucha may want to drink less than that amount, in order to help your digestive system adjust. Since some kombucha products contain alcohol, Dr. Rahnama says drinking large amounts in a short window can result in hangover symptoms. And, Whelan likes to remind people to pair kombucha with other gut-healthy foods, too.

“If prepared safely and with no sugar added, kombucha is a great addition to your diet,” says Dr. McCaffrey. “A small percentage of people experience bloating, nausea, or heartburn when drinking kombucha. But drinking kombucha every day is normally safe and well-tolerated. It’s best to start slow and see how your body reacts. Like everything, moderation is key.”

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