Benefits of Kombucha for Sporting Performance
Why Nutrition for Energy recommends kombucha I would like to start this blog by explaining who I am, as I think it is important that you, the reader, are critical of where you get your nutrition information from. I am James Hudson, founder of Nutrition for Energy and I am a registered sport nutritionist with […]
Why Nutrition for Energy recommends kombucha
I would like to start this blog by explaining who I am, as I think it is important that you, the reader, are critical of where you get your nutrition information from. I am James Hudson, founder of Nutrition for Energy and I am a registered sport nutritionist with a Post-Graduate Diploma in Sport Nutrition from the International Olympic Committee. I run a nutrition consultancy business for those who have fitness challenges on the horizon, and want to improve their diet, so they can maximise their performance.
The reason I got in touch with Equinox was because I recommend their live drinks to so many of my clients. For transparency, I want to explain I am not gaining anything (money or free products) by recommending clients to them …..well, apart from happy clients who are performing better. The team at Equinox asked me to explain what the benefits of Kombucha are for those of you who love sport and want to improve your performance. What is the connection between kombucha, sport and exercise? And, why do I recommend live drinks like kombucha to my clients? That is what I am going to explain in this blog, but in short, because healthier people perform better.
Applying the research to your drink and finding the right kombucha for improved sports results
Before I get into the details of the benefits, (and I do plan to go deep), I want to address the elephant in the room. Discussing the benefits of kombucha is fraught with difficulty because the production of kombucha is not standardised. This means that the final composition of the drink that is being studied is highly dependent on the raw materials (the tea) used, which can be affected by geographic location and climate, the physicochemical parameters adopted in the process (for example the local species of bacteria and yeast,) and the source of the inoculum (Jayabalan et al., 2014). As a consequence, kombuchas cannot only vary from one producer to another, but also batch to batch. Throughout this blog, I reference studies to back up my claims, however you need to appreciate that the exact kombucha in these studies is not the exact same as that produced by Equinox. That said, in general terms I feel comparisons can be made and this blog is a blend of my understanding of the literature combined with my experience as a practitioner.
I recommend Equinox specifically because they are a respected company where quality assurance and control is paramount. This means the benefits of their kombucha are more likely to be similar batch to batch. What’s more, having tasted a lot of kombuchas on the market (as well as making my own), I believe they are best in class (best in “glass” ?!) for taste. The fact that they are a B-Corp company is a lovely added bonus!
Taste is exceptionally important for me when recommending products because if I want my client to gain the benefits of the product, they actually need to consume it. It could be the most beneficial product in the world, but if they don’t like the taste then they won’t consume it. So, let’s get into what those benefits are.
Kombucha helps performance by scavenging “free radicals” – The antioxidant effect of live tea
Okay, first let me explain what “free radicals” are, so strap in for some biochemistry. Free radicals are molecular species that contain an unpaired electron. They don’t like being in this state and are looking for another electron to become “stable”. During the process of finding another electron (where they basically steal one) it damages cells. This process is called oxidative stress and leads to ageing as well as contributing to a number of diseases. What we need is a molecule with just one electron that will happily donate it to the free radical without damaging itself. These molecules are called antioxidants. Your body can produce its own antioxidants and you also can get them through your diet. Antioxidants work to prevent free radicals from causing damage to your cells.
Many factors in our lifestyle cause an increase in free radicals, for example not getting enough sleep, drinking alcohol, smoking, breathing polluted air and surprisingly, exercising. Now, I don’t want you to think, “OMG I need to stop exercising” because unlike the others I listed, exercise has a huge number of positives that outweigh the fact it does also cause a release of some free radicals.
As the majority of my clients exercise, I like to recommend they get antioxidants into their diet. The reason I do not opt for a supplement like Vitamin C or Vitamin E (both of which can act as antioxidants), is because nutrients may not act efficiently in isolation; instead, they work better together with compounds found in the food matrix (Jacobs & Tapsell., 2013). So the bottom line is food that contains antioxidants trumps supplements every time, and the good news is kombucha contains a lot of antioxidants because the main ingredient is tea.
All teas have good antioxidant properties (proper teas…!) even before they have been fermented. Kombucha can be made with any tea (black, green, white or oolong) and researchers have concluded that green tea has more health benefits than an equal volume of black tea in terms of antioxidant capacity (Lee et al., 2002). Equinox use green tea to make their booch, which is great news from an antioxidant perspective.
It is generally believed that polyphenols and catechins (which are healthy plant chemicals) are mainly responsible for antioxidant actions in kombucha. These phenolic compounds can easily donate hydrogen, which has the effect of preventing free radicals from causing cell damage (Srihari & Satyanarayana., 2012).
The awesome thing about kombucha is that it contains even more antioxidants than regular tea! During the fermentation process (which changes tea into kombucha) enzymes liberated by bacteria and yeast (in the SCOBY, “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”) break down larger polyphenols in the tea into smaller ones causing an increase in the total number of phenolic compounds (Srihari & Satyanarayana., 2012).
It is considered good sport nutrition practice to eat a diet rich in foods that are high in antioxidants, particularly during periods of high training load. This is because when your body is working really hard it is producing more free radicals and needs a little help from extra antioxidants in the diet. So, in the lead up to a race/event/competition when your training is full on kombucha will give you the boost you need or after that race/event/competition when you have just worked really hard, having some kombucha could help with your recovery. So, one of the reasons kombucha would help your sport performance is because of the beneficial impact it has on your recovery by helping to scavenge free radicals, and thus reducing oxidative stress. Find out more about why kombucha is a great pre/post workout drink.
How can probiotic “live” drinks help athletes?
Kombucha can be described as a probiotic drink because it contains live health-promoting bacteria that are beneficial for our microbiome. Our microbiome is the complex makeup of all the bacteria that live on and in us. We have a relationship with our bacteria where we help them, (by providing them food and a place to stay), and they help us (by protecting us from illness, helping to synthesise vitamins and minerals and a whole host of other things on which I could write a whole new blog post). The bottom line is, if we look after them as best we can, they can do the same to us. We look after them by not using harsh chemicals when we wash our skin, spending more time outside, eating a diet rich in fibre that has a wide variety of plants and also consuming probiotics.
There are a couple of reasons why I want my clients (those who exercise) to look after their microbiome, which includes their gut health. Firstly, if they have a healthier microbiome (one which has a wide range of different beneficial bacteria), then they are less likely to get ill. If they have better immunity they have less days off training, so they get fitter faster. Also, nobody likes being ill, so I encourage my clients to do something proactive, like drinking kombucha after they do sport to improve their gut health and reduce their risk of illness.
Secondly, your microbiome can affect your mood because the bacteria that live in your gut can send messages to your brain via your vagus nerve (Zhang et al., 2020). With a more stable and happier mood, you are more likely to want to exercise. I am sure we have all experienced the “I should go and do some exercise” feeling. Well, maybe a healthier microbiome will make this feeling occur less frequently or for it to be less severe? Again, if you can do more exercise, your body has more opportunity to adapt and you will become a stronger athlete who performs better.
Gateway probiotic for athletes
As a Sport Nutritionist, I want my clients to be consuming more live foods and drinks in their diet so they start getting some of the benefits described above. The good news is there are many live foods and drinks to choose from. For example, drinks like kombucha and kefir, as well as foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso and natto. Now, excluding yoghurt, I doubt many of us consume many of these foods on the regular. In my practice I make sure I make my recommendations realistic, and suggesting to a client to start having kimchi (the Korean spicy, garlicky fermented cabbage/radish mix), or natto (the gooey pungent flavoured fermented soybean) a couple of times a week, may be met with more resistance than a tasty sparkling drink like Equinox Kombucha. This is not to say that those other foods are not fantastic, healthy, and tasty, but it may require my client to be a little braver. From experience, when coaching new habits, it is important to make the new behaviour as attractive and easy as possible for that habit to stick. So, I often recommend kombucha as a starting point to get my client to dip their toe into the waters of live food and drink. This will improve their gut health and athletic performance.
A perfect replacement – improving diet quality
A final benefit of this drink is how well it works to replace an alcoholic beverage at a social occasion. Food and drink are more than the calories, macronutrients, and flavours they bring, because there are also the emotional connections associated with them. For example, we will pop some champagne or prosecco to celebrate, have a cocktail with friends or a glass of wine during an evening with our partner. Unfortunately having water instead of some bubbles can feel like you are missing out on something (other than the drink itself), almost like you are missing some of the fun or being part of the social occasion.
Maybe you are the designated driver, or you are consciously lowering your alcohol intake to help with your sporting performance, then having a go-to drink which is fancier than water can really help you from feeling like you are missing out. I think the bubbles in kombucha really help with this sense of fun. So, instead of having soft drinks, which are usually just loaded with sugar and little else, you can then enjoy the social aspect of drinking with friends and family whilst also safe in the knowledge the kombucha you are drinking is improving your exercise performance.
James Hudson is the Founder of Nutrition for Energy a sport nutrition consultancy business which teaches how to use the power of food to improve sporting performance. James works with his clients to build long-term habits and has an educational approach to his nutrition coaching. James is a keen runner, cyclist, swimmer and CrossFitter and works with everyday athletes in all sports.
Jacobs, D. R., & Tapsell, L. C. (2013). Food synergy: the key to a healthy diet. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 72(2), 200-206.
Jayabalan, R., Malbaša, R. V., Lončar, E. S., Vitas, J. S., & Sathishkumar, M. (2014). A review on kombucha tea—microbiology, composition, fermentation, beneficial effects, toxicity, and tea fungus. Comprehensive reviews in food science and food safety, 13(4), 538-550.
Lee, K. W., Lee, H. J., & Lee, C. Y. (2002). Antioxidant activity of black tea vs. green tea. The Journal of nutrition, 132(4), 785-785.
Srihari, T., & Satyanarayana, U. (2012). Changes in free radical scavenging activity of kombucha during fermentation. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, 4(11), 1978.
Zhang, J., Ma, L., Chang, L., Pu, Y., Qu, Y., & Hashimoto, K. (2020). A key role of the subdiaphragmatic vagus nerve in the depression-like phenotype and abnormal composition of gut microbiota in mice after lipopolysaccharide administration. Translational psychiatry, 10(1), 1-13.