Published 12/16/2013. Updated 1/17/2014.
Kefir, one of the oldest cultured milk products in existence, is regarded by many (including me) as a super food. It is a fermented, yogurt-like drink made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk, containing probiotic yeasts along with ten strains of live, beneficial bacteria … billions of active probiotics to support the immune system and balance the gut microbiome.
Centuries ago, shepherds in the Caucasus Mountains running between the Black and Caspian Seas discovered that fresh milk carried in leather pouches sometimes fermented into a tart, effervescent beverage with amazing health benefits. It is consumed regularly for its medicinal benefits in eastern Turkey, Georgia, Chechnya, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Kefir balances the body’s ecosystem, supports digestive health and immunity, reduces inflammation, moderates the body’s allergic response, and has anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. It is also a good source of calcium, protein, many vitamins, essential amino acids and minerals. Because the fermentation process digests most of the lactose in the milk, it is 99% lactose free so doesn’t produce the sinus congesting mucus common after eating dairy products.
The strains of beneficial yeast and bacteria found in kefir exist in a symbiotic relationship that gives it natural antibiotic properties for killing pathogenic bacteria. Kefir is slightly mucus-forming – precisely what makes it so healthful for us. It’s a healthy mucus, with a clean quality that coats the lining of the digestive tract, creating a surface for beneficial bacteria to settle and colonize. (Fallon, 2001)
And it tastes good – really good – clean, tart and clearly a living food. The Turkish word keif means ‘feeling good’. Kefir is one of the most potent probiotic foods available. (Kresser, 2012)
You’ll find bottles of commercial kefir in the dairy case of your grocery store, probably near the selection of yogurts. My preference is for the low-fat, plain type. The flavored ones are delicious too but have some sugar added to them. I pour plain kefir over my breakfast cereal in the morning, over fruit for dessert and add filtered water to it just to sip during the day. You can also make smoothies out of it. It’s safe to give to babies – and so good for stopping colic and establishing a healthy gut flora to help them thrive.
KEFIR VS YOGURT – PLAIN VS FLAVORED
Kefir is a relative of yogurt but contains 3-10 times the amount of live probiotic cultures typically found in yogurt so provides a much bigger benefit for your digestive and immune systems.
Unflavored kefir and yogurt contain about 20% more live microorganisms than flavored versions because the probiotic yeasts and bacteria survive better in the absence of the sugars in the fruit flavorings. (Karpa, 2003)
KEFIR FOR ALLERGIES AND ASTHMA MANAGEMENT
Research has identified two probiotics, lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, that have antioxidant properties beneficial for the management of allergies and asthma. (Laiho et al., 2002); (Yu et al., 2010); (Ferreira et al, 2012). Both probiotics are found plentifully in kefir.
MAKING YOUR OWN KEFIR
You can also brew your own kefir. It’s made by adding a kefir starter (can be purchased online) to various types of milk (cow, goat, sheep) – or, for you vegans, to nut milks (almond, walnut), young coconut water, green tea or just plain filtered water – although the National Kefir Association specifies that only dairy based products are actually kefir.
Donna Schwenk’s blog (culturedfoodlife.com) and book (Cultured Food for Life) are excellent sources of information and recipes for both making kefir and using it in cooking.
See the National Kefir Association‘s site for more information.
A CAVEAT ON KEFIR
It’s a fermented food so contains some tyramine. If you’re taking an MAO inhibitor, you should avoid it unless your physician has said it’s okay for you. Some kefir samples have been found to contain just a trace of tyramine and some contain more. (Ozdestan & Uren, 2010)
Falon, S. (2001). Nourishing Traditions: The cookbook that challenges politically correct nutrition and the diet dictocrats (Revised 2nd edition), 86.
Ferreira, C.M. et al.(2012). Suppression of Th2-Mediated Airway Inflammation by Bidobacterium Longum. Inflammatory Mechanisms in Asthma: American Thoracic Society International Conference Abstracts.
Karpa, K.D. (2003). Bacteria for Breakfast: Probiotics for Good Health.
Kresser, C. (2012). Kefir: the not-quite Paleo superfood. See http://chriskresser.com/kefir-the-not-quite-paleo-superfood National Kefir Association.
Laiho, K. et al. (2002). Inventing probiotic functional foods for patients with allergic disease. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. 89:6, 75-82.
Ozdenstan, O. & Uren, A. (2010). Biogenic amine content of kefir: a fermented dairy product. European Food Research and Technology, 231:1, 101-107.
Schwenk, D. (2013). Cultured Food for Life.
Schwenk, D. (2013). Blog: Cultured Food Life. See http://www.culturedfoodlife.com/
Yu, J. et al. (2010). The Effects of Lactobacillus rhamnosus on the Prevention of Asthma in a Murine Model. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. 2:3, 199-205.
A version of this page content will appear in my forthcoming 2014 Oriental Medicine Journal article THE MICROBIOTA-GUT-BRAIN AXIS: The constant two-way communication between our guts and our brains.
© Copyright 2013-2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.