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Kombucha & Boosting Gut Health

What does good gut health mean? Can you use foods or other products to boost and improve gut health?  These are certainly topical subjects.  Here is the detail on what makes up a good gut!

So, what is good gut health? Unfortunately, a clear definition of this doesn’t really exist in the scientific literature, but generally speaking, this could be taken to mean the absence of any gastrointestinal diseases or symptoms. It may also mean the absence of any changes in the gut environment (like an altered microbiome, increased gut inflammation or changes in the molecules produced in our gut), which is really difficult to precisely assess outside of a research setting.

Microbiome is a bit of a buzz word at the moment, even popping up in adverts on the TV, but what does this mean? The human microbiome refers to the billions of microscopic organisms called microbes that live in our body, with 95% of these living in our gut.  The microbes in our gut, their genes, the environment they live in and the molecules they produce is called the human gut microbiome.  Research has shown the relationship between our microbiome and our health is important, and our microbiome influences conditions such as obesity, asthma, allergies and arthritis. Even our brain function has been linked with the microbiome, with depression, anxiety and stress all being linked to undesirable changes in the microbiome.

Your own microbiome is unique to you.  Your diet, where and who you live with, what you touch, even how you were born (naturally or C-Section) and how you are fed early in life (breast milk or formula) are all factors that can influence your microbiome. For example, babies who are born naturally are exposed to their mother’s microbes in the birth canal, whereas babies born via C-Section don’t have the microbes from the birth canal. This all creates differences in microbiome.  An individual’s microbiome is developed in the first 2-5 years of life, and after this is relatively stable, unless there are major outside disturbances, like frequent use of antibiotics (which kill bacteria), one of the microorganism groups that make up your microbiome.

How do we keep our gut microbes healthy?

So how do we keep our gut microbes healthy? Since most microbes are located in the large intestine, what we eat has a major influence on our microbiota. Two of the most common terms used in this space are prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are essentially food for the bacteria in the gut, things like fibre rich complex carbohydrates that cannot be digested in the small intestine.  These are broken down by bacteria through fermentation in the large intestine, producing and absorbing nutrients that go on to have impact on things like immune system function. Sources of fibre rich foods are wholegrain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables. Probiotics are live microorganisms that have beneficial health effects. Not only a supplement you can buy at the chemist, they are also found in fermented foods like yoghurt. Therefore, to gain long term health benefits, one must eat a wide variety of healthy food from the core food groups: fruit, vegetables, dairy, grains & cereals, and lean sources of animal based proteins or plant based proteins.

Kombucha

Fermented foods have become quite popular in recent years, riding the “gut health” wave. Let’s take Kombucha, as an example of a fermented food, which has become quite trendy to consume. Kombucha is a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. Kombucha isn’t a new product – it was first consumed by the ancient Chinese 2200 years ago, who used it to detoxify and energise.  As time went on, Russia, Eastern Europe, Germany, France and North Africa started consuming kombucha.  In the 1960’s, Swiss scientists explained it has similar benefits as yoghurt in terms of gut health.

So how is kombucha made? An ingredient used in the fermentation and production of kombucha is a SCOBY, which stands for a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.  This is added to tea and sugar to create a sour, refreshing fruit sparkling drink. The use of the SCOBY during fermentation is important because it changes the polyphenols (plant based antioxidants found in fruit, vegetables, cereals, coffee, tea and wine) into organic compounds with increased acidity.  The change in acidity prevents other organisms from growing, extending the shelf life of the product. The organic compounds themselves are claimed to have a range of health impacts (over and above that of normal tea). However, while an online search will suggest kombucha is a cure all that protects the human body against cancers, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases, little scientific evidence exists to support these claims. As Accredited Practising Dietitians, we need to provide advice that is based on strong scientific evidence, and because there have been no studies on the impacts of kombucha on any health outcomes in humans, we cannot say with any confidence that kombucha helps to improve any of these health conditions.

Overall, the health benefits of kombucha are most likely to be similar to drinking tea or other fermented foods. Our advice would be to drink what you enjoy, whether it be kombucha or black or green tea. Also be aware some kombucha drinks have added fruit juice which increase sugar (and calorie) intake, so may sure you read the label and make an informed healthy choice.




 

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