Is Kombucha Actually Healthy? Functional Doctors Weigh In
Kombucha: the fizzy, probiotic-rich drink that's the darling of the wellness set. The bottles promise gut healing, alkalizing, and much more, but recently, there have been whispers that the super-healthy soda replacement may be no better than its more sugar-laden counterpart.
"Kombucha is popular but that doesn't mean it's a good choice for everyone," says Sara Gottfried, M.D. and best-selling author. "It may contain sugar, alcohol, and even Candida, so it may not be a good choice for healing the immune system and gut." The often high-sugar content of the beverage was mentioned by many functional health experts—while most of the sugar in kombucha is consumed by the bacteria during the fermentation process, many brands add far more of the sweet stuff than the bugs could ever eat, seeking out specialty flavor profiles designed to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Beyond the sugar load, kombucha can be problematic for people with histamine intolerance, a condition Will Cole, D.C., refers to as "basically an allergic reaction without the allergen, sometimes called a 'pseudoallergy' that happens when a person's body can't properly respond to high-histamine foods, causing allergy-like symptoms of rashes, stomachaches, brain fog, and anxiety. People with histamine intolerance don't typically do well with fermented foods," explains Cole—including kombucha. He also points out that patients with Candida have a hard time tolerating the yeast in kombucha.
According to Ellen Vora, M.D., it's not that kombucha isn't bad—it's simply not enough. "I'll say this—if you're counting on kombucha to repopulate your gut with beneficial bacteria, I think it's necessary to upgrade your fermented food regimen. Add A-list ferments like sauerkraut and kimchi along with starchy tubers like sweet potato to really shift your gut flora." She also suggests evaluating your relationship with the beverage. "My own personal experience with kombucha is that I'm addicted to it," she says. Any addiction—even an ostensibly healthy one—should be treated with caution.
Still, kombucha is a health superstar for a reason. "Kombucha has a long history in Russia and Eastern Europe1, where it is a prized food for its health benefits," says Terry Wahls, M.D. "It's high in glucaric acid, which provides important support for detoxification2."
"For most people," says Cole, "quality kombucha can be a great way to feed the gut." Just be sure to choose one with less sugar (because of the fermentation process, sugar content for kombucha is tricky to nail down—be sure to choose one with a low-sugar label and a tart flavor), and, like all healing foods, pay attention to how it interacts with your individual body and mind.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.