A Rheumatologist’s Take on Prebiotic and Probiotic Sodas: Do They Help Autoimmune Disease?

You’ve probably seen a surge of prebiotic and probiotic sodas and other similar drinks flood the shelves in the last several years. These specialty drinks have gained popularity due to a combination of clever marketing and a societal push for healthier alternatives to some of our favorite, traditional sugary drinks.

But this may not be just a fad. According to data published by Fact. MR, the probiotic soda market is currently valued at $210.4 million USD and is projected to reach $443.8 million USD by 2032. Brands like Olipop and Poppi are two of the more popular brands on the shelves, but there are dozens of brands claiming their drinks are a tasty and healthy alternative to soda.

But is it true? Could these drinks be the key to promoting healthier habits and minimizing inflammation in the gut? Let’s take a closer look at the makeup of these drinks, and how their ingredients affect the gut at a deeper level.

What’s the Difference Between a “Pre” and “Pro” Biotic?

Your gut is filled with bacteria. In fact, there are approximately 100 trillion bacteria that compose what we refer to as the gut microbiota. “Pre” and “pro” biotics are both essential components in the gut that fuel the production and maintenance of the gut microbiota.

While prebiotics and probiotics are grouped together when it comes to discussing gut health, they are entirely different.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers found in certain foods that serve as nourishment for beneficial gut bacteria. These compounds act as “food” for probiotics, stimulating their growth and activity. Prebiotics are not living organisms themselves; rather, they create an environment conducive to the flourishing of beneficial bacteria. By promoting the growth of good bacteria, prebiotics indirectly contribute to a balanced gut microbiome and support various aspects of digestive and immune health.

Probiotics

Probiotics are living organisms. These healthy bacteria, yeast, fungi, and protozoa help maintain a diverse gut and improve digestion and influence your body’s immune response. Introducing healthy bacteria to the gut can help illuminate “bad” bacteria and even support the gut lining. Probiotics are naturally found in many of the foods we eat, including yogurt, kombucha, fermented vegetables, and sourdough bread.

The Role of “Pre” and “Pro” Biotics in Autoimmune Conditions

Pre and probiotics are essential to all individuals for a healthy, properly functioning gut. However, research suggests that the role of prebiotics and probiotics for those with autoimmune conditions is especially critical. The availability of certain microbes has been shown to help regulate the immune system in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, MS, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

“Good gut bacteria are essential to our regulation of digestion, absorption of nutrients, and maintaining a healthy barrier from the things we are exposed to and direct blood flow,” says Chief of Rheumatology at Summit, Dr. Brittany Panico, DO. “The health of this barrier is critical for our overall immune system health.”

Emerging research shows that different types of autoimmune conditions have been associated with distinct patterns of imbalances. Therefore, it’s important to note that the effects of prebiotics and probiotics can vary greatly depending on the specific autoimmune condition and the individual’s unique microbiome.

Are Prebiotic and Probiotic Sodas Helpful for Autoimmune Conditions?

If you’re looking for a healthier alternative to sodas, pre and probiotic sodas may be a better option, especially for those looking to reduce sugar intake. Sugar, particularly high fructose corn syrup, is known to be inflammatory and foster more of the gut bacteria that breaks down the barrier within our gut. Of course, not all brands are created equally, and it’s always important to look at the nutritional labels of the beverage to see if it’s a healthier option or just clever marketing.

For those who are looking for gut benefits these sodas claim to support, the reality is that these drinks most likely aren’t going to be a miracle concoction for your gut health. There are so many variables, including brand, individual gut biomes, and the ability of your body to make use of the pre and probiotics. Temperature and storage are also important factors that can render probiotics more or less effective.

“Probiotic sodas can certainly have a benefit, much like fermented foods, but it is important to consider how much product is reported to provide benefit,” says Dr. Panico. “A serving size is the measurement of liquid with a caloric value, not specifically the amount of bacteria that are reported to be useful.”

Take Olipop for example. This brand is marketed as a prebiotic drink with high fiber sourced from a variety of roots. There’s no denying that fiber is proven to be beneficial for the gut, but fiber added to a beverage isn’t digested or used by the body in the same way fiber would be if consumed by eating whole foods.

If you have an autoimmune condition, you should also be aware that consuming too much inulin (a fiber supplement added to some prebiotic drinks, including Olipop and Wildwonder). While it can help increase “good” gut bacteria in small amounts, too much inulin has been linked to increased inflammation.

Dr. Panico recommends caution before banking your gut health on one of these drinks.

“These brands of sodas do not distinguish between what is ‘good’ for one person over another. Therefore, these should not be viewed as supplements that replace the value of real food and real nutrition.”

The Final Verdict

The bottom line is that while these beverages may offer some potential benefits for the gut compared to traditional sodas, they should not be considered an easy solution to solve your gut issues or help manage inflammation associated with your autoimmune condition. The dynamic interplay between gut health, the immune system, and complex health challenges extends beyond what any single drink can provide.

“Having a discussion with your healthcare provider is an important tool to understanding how these products may be useful in your particular diet,” says Panico. “Real food products and fermented foods can be completely sufficient for meeting your prebiotic and probiotic needs without the use of additional supplements. So although these products seem like a healthier alternative to traditional soda products, they may not be as helpful as the marketing leads you to believe.”

Prebiotic and probiotic sodas may have a place in your diet, but it is important to consult with your rheumatologist or referring provider if you are making diet changes to help improve your gut. Our team at Summit Rheumatology help patients navigate autoimmune disease diagnoses, including lifestyle and diet changes to reduce inflammation and live a healthier life. Ready to schedule your appointment? Send us a message or give us a call at (480) 494-2770.

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