Your digestive tract is home to lots and lots of beneficial bacteria that fight off “bad bugs” that cause things like diarrhea, constipation, and bloat. A diet high in fat and sugar, lack of exercise, chronic stress, antibiotics, and certain digestive diseases are all things that can cause the good bugs to become depleted. If you take probiotic supplements, or eat probiotic-rich foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kimchi, you’re ingesting live microorganisms that increase the population of the good gut bacteria, explains registered dietician Rebecca Scritchfield, host of the podcast Body Kindness. A doctor might advise you to take supplemental probiotics if you have a GI disorder like irritable bowl syndrome or Crohn’s disease, or if you’ve recently come off antibiotics and are experiencing diarrhea (antibiotics kill good and bad bacteria).
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So could you skip the supplements and just drink kombucha instead? Scritchfield says it doesn’t quite work like that. “Supplements contain high amounts of multiple strains of bacteria shown to be beneficial in research,” she explains. “You can’t necessarily just replace them with one probiotic-rich food product, like kombucha tea, which likely has a smaller amount and fewer strains of good bacteria.” However, you can—and should—consume kombucha and other probiotic-rich foods in moderation as a preventative measure. Scritchfield recommends eating a variety of these foods in order to maximize your exposure to different strains of good bacteria. But she adds that probiotics alone won’t solve your digestive woes: You’ve got to feed the microorganisms with resistant starches and fibers (called prebiotics), like legumes, healthy grains, bananas, rice, and potatoes in order for them to live long enough to do their job. “If you don’t feed the ‘good bugs,’ they can die within hours,” she says.
Keep in mind, too, that not all kombucha drinks are created equal: “Probiotics don’t survive the pasteurization process, and drinking unpasteurized kombucha comes with its own list of food safety risks, especially for those who are immune-compromised or pregnant,” Lydon cautions. As for the other amazing things kombucha is said to do? “No solid research has been performed on humans to back up the many health claims associated with this drink,” she says. But hey, if it makes you feel good, or you simply like the taste, there’s no harm in sipping in moderation.