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Here’s What Happens To Your Body When You Swap Alcohol For Kombucha

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If you're thinking about giving up alcohol for a while, you may be considering kombucha as a handy replacement in those moments when you want a tangy, refreshing drink in your hand. It seems to fit the bill: sophisticated taste, varied flavors, and a reputation for being a bit better for your body than a standard beer or glass of wine. However, people switching from alcohol to kombucha may experience some unexpected consequences. One of the most notable is that they'll still be ingesting trace amounts of alcohol — but switching to kombucha for a little bit also has consequences for the body's antioxidant levels, sugar intake, and caffeine consumption.

Dr. Steven Gundry M.D., a heart surgeon, medical director at The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine, tells Bustle that kombucha has some health benefits, as far as beverages that aren't water go. "When drinking kombucha, you get many of the polyphenol benefits of wine without the alcohol and its gut barrier damaging potential," he says.

Just like alcohol, there are a lot of varieties of kombucha, so it's difficult to pinpoint the exact effects of exchanging all booze for kombucha drinks. The precise impact of an alcohol-kombucha switch will depend on how much you drink, how regularly, and other aspects of your lifestyle, including your diet. However, experts tell Bustle that changing from alcohol to kombucha can have various effects on the body — some more surprising than others.

01
You'll Still Ingest A Bit Of Alcohol

Like many fermented drinks, kombucha isn't alcohol-free. "Kombucha is made from the fermentation of green or black tea and sugar by both bacteria and yeast and does contain a tiny amount of alcohol," Dr. Gundry tells Bustle. It's considered an insignificant amount of alcohol by a lot of consumers, but it can add up over time, particularly if you're drinking a lot of kombucha at once.

Kombucha's alcohol levels can vary depending on factors like storage and fermentation time; a study currently underway in Canada has found that some kombucha brands have alcohol levels comparable to beer or cider by the time they're ingested, because they keep fermenting after they've left the factory, producing more alcohol. Kombucha Brewers International recommends that any kombucha with an alcohol content over 0.5% be marketed for over-21s only in the U.S.

This means that kombucha is not a good alcohol alternative for people who need to cut out alcohol for medical reasons, rather than simply adjust their drinking habits. "If you have a history of alcohol abuse or dependence, you absolutely should not consume kombucha," Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., a gastroenterologist and gut health expert, says. It's also worth remembering that the alcohol content of "hard" kombuchas can impact the gut, holistic nutritionist Stephanie Papadakis N.C. tells Bustle: "The benefits of kombucha and the side effects of alcohol could end up canceling each other out in hard kombucha."

02
You Won't Lose Out On Polyphenols

Several kinds of alcohol, like red wine, carry a lot of polyphenols, a variety of plant product that has positive effects on human health. Dr. Bulsiewicz tells Bustle that polyphenols are prebiotic compounds that can have great effects on the microbiome in your gut. These polyphenols develop during the wine's fermentation and aging processes, and have been linked to lower risks of chronic diseases and heart issues.

However, giving up on alcoholic sources of polyphenols doesn't mean abandoning them altogether. Kombucha is derived from tea, which has a high amount of polyphenols, and the kombucha fermentation process also gives polyphenols a chance to flourish. "Kombucha provides important polyphenols such as ECGC," Dr. Gundry tells Bustle. ECGC has been linked to lower cancer risks and other positive health effects. Still, it's worth remembering that a single glass of either beverage won't represent a huge change in your polyphenol levels.

03
You Won't Automatically Improve Your Gut Health

Kombucha comes with many purported health benefits, including the idea that it may contain probiotic compounds that benefit gut health through fueling good gut bacteria. However, this isn't necessarily the case. "Kombucha is not the gut health game changer some think it is," Dr. Bulsiewicz tells Bustle.

Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the gut. "Beyond moderate consumption, the alcohol in wine or other beverages damages the lining of the gut, promoting leaky gut," he says.

Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum, PhD, an expert on the gut microbiome and mycobiome, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and author of the forthcoming book Total Gut Balance, tells Bustle that alcohol has also been shown to negatively impact our gut microbiome, decreasing our levels of beneficial bacteria and increasing levels of disease-causing microorganisms.

Kombucha does contain some elements that may help the gut. "It contains beneficial bacteria like Acetobacter aceti, as well as several lactic acid bacteria and yeast (Saccharomyces spp.)," Dr. Ghannoum tells Bustle. However, while some kombucha products may have probiotic bacteria in them, Dr. Bulsiewicz explains that the probiotic compounds in kombucha haven't yet been demonstrated to have benefits for humans. If you choose a kombucha with probiotic bacteria added, it's more likely to help gut health, but it's otherwise not guaranteed.

04
You May Have More Sugars

Switching from sugary cocktails to kombucha may lower your sugar intake, but it depends on the levels of sugar in your chosen kombucha brand. "If made properly, kombucha contains little or no sugar, but if buying commercially bottled kombucha, read the label carefully as many products have tons of added sugar to cover up the tangy taste," Dr. Gundry says. Kombucha with added sugar may also have far higher sugar amounts than the label suggests. Kombucha can have as much sugar as mixed cocktails, ciders or other sugar-heavy alcoholic beverages, so it's worth doing your research. "It is preferable to make your own kombucha at home — it’s really easy," Papadakis tells Bustle.

05
You Could Ingest More Antioxidants — Depending On Your Choice Of Drinks

Polyphenols aren't the only antioxidants in kombucha. A study of the microbiology of kombucha varieties published in Nutrients in 2019 found that kombucha has a lot of different antioxidants — but that the range depends on what kind of kombucha you like. Kombuchas derived from green and black teas have a lot of catechins, while kombuchas derived from rooibos teas have a different range of antioxidants entirely.

Whether this will be a greater or lesser amount of antioxidants in your diet depends on what you were drinking before. Red wine has its fair share of antioxidants, as do many varieties of beer. Whisky contains an antioxidant called ellagic acid which might be helpful for your metabolism and cell health, though it's unclear just how powerful it is. The impact of a switch from alcohol to kombucha on your antioxidant intake will depend on what alcohol you've favored and what kind of kombucha tickles your fancy.

06
You Might Experience A Caffeine Boost

As kombucha is derived from tea, it still contains some caffeine. Bon Appetit reported in 2018 that the fermentation process of kombucha reduces the caffeine content of the tea involved by about two-thirds. This varies depending on the process used, but all kombucha is going to be significantly lower in caffeine than tea.

Whether this lingering amount affects you depends on how much kombucha you drink and how sensitive you are to caffeine, but it's worth remembering that if you drink kombucha instead of alcohol on a night out, too much may leave you unable to sleep.

07
You Might Increase Your Vitamin Intake

Switching from alcohol to kombucha might boost your overall vitamin intake, according to experts. "Kombucha has vitamins B1, B6, and B12, which help boost your immune system, regulate your mood, and produce red blood cells," Dr. Bulsiewicz tells Bustle. "You'll also get some vitamin C, an antioxidant important for your skin, bone health, and heart." Large amounts of alcohol actually impede the body's absorption of various vitamins and minerals, so kombucha, with its low alcohol content, may be a nutritional improvement from that point of view.

08

In general, switching from alcohol to kombucha may have positive effects on your body. Evidence suggests, Dr. Ghannoum says, that kombucha is overall better for us than alcohol. However, aspects like alcohol, sugar, and caffeine content need to be taken into account when you make the switch, so don't assume that every kombucha drink is guaranteed to make you function better than a glass of wine.

09

Studies cited:

Bishehsari, F., Magno, E., Swanson, G., Desai, V., Voigt, R. M., Forsyth, C. B., & Keshavarzian, A. (2017). Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation. Alcohol research : current reviews, 38(2), 163–171.

Dasgupta, A. (2016). Antioxidants In Food, Vitamins And Supplements: prevention and treatment of disease. ELSEVIER.

Gaggìa, F., Baffoni, L., Galiano, M., Nielsen, D. S., Jakobsen, R. R., Castro-Mejía, J. L., … Di Gioia, D. (2018). Kombucha Beverage from Green, Black and Rooibos Teas: A Comparative Study Looking at Microbiology, Chemistry and Antioxidant Activity. Nutrients, 11(1), 1. doi:10.3390/nu11010001

Kapp, J. M., & Sumner, W. (2019). Kombucha: a systematic review of the empirical evidence of human health benefit. Annals of Epidemiology, 30, 66–70. doi: 10.1016/j.annepidem.2018.11.001

Khan, N., & Mukhtar, H. (2018). Tea Polyphenols in Promotion of Human Health. Nutrients, 11(1), 39. doi: 10.3390/nu11010039

Kim, H. S., Quon, M. J., & Kim, J. A. (2014). New insights into the mechanisms of polyphenols beyond antioxidant properties; lessons from the green tea polyphenol, epigallocatechin 3-gallate. Redox biology, 2, 187–195. doi:10.1016/j.redox.2013.12.022

Leal, J. M., Suárez, L. V., Jayabalan, R., Oros, J. H., & Escalante-Aburto, A. (2018). A review on health benefits of kombucha nutritional compounds and metabolites. CyTA - Journal of Food, 16(1), 390–399. doi: 10.1080/19476337.2017.1410499

Expert:

Dr. Will Bulsiewicz M.D., gastroenterologist

Dr. Mahmoud Ghannoum, PhD, professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and author of the forthcoming book Total Gut Balance

Dr. Steven Gundry M.D., a heart surgeon, medical director at The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine and author of The Longevity Paradox: How to Die Young at a Ripe Old Age

Stephanie Papadakis N.C., holistic nutritionist and founder of Gut of Integrity