GUT It Together – Gut Health & the Kombucha Trend

13 Jul

Written By: Holly Szczepanski

Holly Kombucha Picture-July7_17

This picture was taken last summer when I tried homemade kombucha for the first time. The top/unappetizing portion is the tea fungus but I promise you what is underneath is so refreshing!  Photo courtesy of Holly Szczepanski

The term ‘gut health’ is increasingly used within the food industry and medical literature, but what does it really mean? Can gut health be measured? How can gut health be maintained through dietary choices?

Let’s start off by defining ‘health’, what exactly does it mean to be healthy? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘health’ is defined as complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not just the absence of a disease (Grad, 2002). Okay… nothing too complicated, right?

Now, what is the ‘gut’? A common misconception is that the gut is only the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but it is important to understand that a healthy gut also includes the upper GI tract (i.e. the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum) (Bishcoff, 2011). Although it may seem plain and simple, the definition of gut health becomes far more complex once we consider how to maintain it and all of the potential factors that could impact it. Five criteria in a more precise definition of what a healthy gut is include: effective digestion and absorption, the absence of GI illness, normal and stable intestinal microbiota, effective immune status, and status of well-being (Bishcoff, 2011). All of these factors are intertwined and they all come back, in some way, to what we are subjectively putting into our bodies, i.e. what we eat.

With respect to dietary choices, there are a few measures that can be taken to maintain good digestive health. These include but are not limited to, consuming adequate amounts of fibre, low Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols (FODMAP) diets in scenarios of GI conditions (Decker, 2016), eating a healthy and balanced diet, avoiding processed foods and foods that induce allergic reactions, eating foods slowly, incorporating non-sugar based fluids as much as possible (Makharia & Sanders, 2016) and potentially the consumption of trendy beverages like kombucha (Vina et al., 2014).

The Craze About Kombucha

When sugared tea is fermented with a symbiotic culture of acetic acid bacteria and yeast, it yields a refreshing and popular beverage known as Kombucha. Desired for its “magical properties”, Kombucha has been consumed since 220 BC (Greenwalt et al., 2000). It is historically recognized in China, Russia, and Germany and is currently gaining popularity worldwide (Greenwalt et al., 2000). In 2015, North Americans held the title of the largest kombucha market and it is expected to grow due to consumers’ expanding knowledge of its potential health benefits (Grand View Research, 2016). Kombucha is capable of initiating crucial mechanisms within the process of digestion, such as contraction of the stomach and intestines. From research conducted using kombucha fermented tea extracts, it is proposed that this drink’s healing capacities are attributable to the protection it provides for various membranous layers within the GI tract as it possesses antioxidant capacity and the ability to reduce gastric acid secretions (Vina et al., 2014). Kombucha also contains an important detoxifying component, i.e. glucuronic acid, which is produced to assist gut tissues in avoiding the absorption of harmful toxins (Vina et al., 2014). A balanced diet should be consumed in addition to this functional beverage as nutrient deficiencies may inhibit its detoxification capacity (Vina et al., 2014). Kombucha as a drink has also been reported to play a role in balancing the human microbial flora within the GI tract by acting as a probiotic (Watawana et al., 2015). Therefore, there is promising emerging evidence that consumption of kombucha may benefit gut health.

However, there are few systematic human trials supporting this, as of yet and little scientific literature addressing the safety and tolerability.  This research is crucial to establish the beverage as a functional food. As kombucha flavour typically differs based on the type and quantity of starter culture, tea, and sugar used, it would also be interesting to see a study examining the effects of different acidities and whether a spectrum of digestive benefits exists between the various kombucha combinations. One can imagine that, as the kombucha trend catches on, food manufacturers will launch various kombucha products and combination products.

All in all, there is good reason to think that kombucha may have potential benefits for gut health; an acidic environment that introduces consumers’ digestive system to live cultures in a more appetizing way.   So, if you are looking to replace a sugar-based carbonated beverage, kombucha is certainly a bubbly option worth a try.

References

Bishcoff, S.C. (2011). ‘Gut health’: a new objective in medicine? BMC Medicine, 9 (24), 1-14.

Cummings, J.H., Antoine, J.M., Azpiroz, F., Bourdet-Sicard, R., Brandtzaeg, P., Calder, P.C., Gibson, G.R., Guarner, F., Isolauri, E., Pannemans, D., Shortt, C., Tuijtelaars, S., & Watzl, B. (2004). PASSCLAIM – Gut health and immunity. European Journal of Nutrition, 43, ii118-ii173.

Decker, K.J. (2016, October). Gut check. Retrieved from: http://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/digestive-health/gut-check-digestive-health-market-update

Grad, F.P. (2002). The preamble of the constitution of the World Health Organization. Public Health Classics, 80 (12), 981-984.

Grand View Research. (2016, September). Kombucha market analysis by flavor (original, flavored), by distribution channel (supermarkets, health stores, online stores) and segment forecasts to 2024. Retrieved from: http://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/kombucha-market

Greenwalt, C.J., Steinkraus, K.H., & Ledford, R.A. (2000). Kombucha, the fermented tea: microbiology, composition, and claimed health effects. Journal of Food Protection, 63 (7), 976-981.

Makharia, G.K., & Sanders, D.S. (2016, May 29). Understanding of normal gut health. Retrieved from http://www.worldgastroenterology.org/UserFiles/file/WGOHandbookonDietandtheGut_2016_Final.pdf

Vina, I., Semjonovs, P., Linde, R., & Denina, I. (2014). Current evidence on physiological activity and expected health of kombucha fermented beverage. Journal of Medicinal Food, 17 (2), 179-88.

Watawana, M.I., Jayawardena, N., Gunawardhana, C.B., & Walsundara, V.Y. (2015). Health, wellness, and safety aspects of the consumption of kombucha. Journal of Chemistry, 1-11.

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