Kefir

Published 12/16/2013. Last updated 4/21/2020.

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)

 

REFERENCES

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 appeared in my 2014 Oriental Medicine Journal article THE MICROBIOTA-GUT-BRAIN AXIS: The constant two-way communication between our guts and our brains.

© Copyright 2013-2020 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.

9 thoughts on “Kefir

  1. My son got me started making my own kefir as a way to strengthen my immune system while trying to recover from having pneumonia for over 3 months. After trying several antibiotics that didn’t work, I finally found one that did but as you can imagine, my immune system was pretty much non-existent! I still have some congestion hanging on tho. I am really enjoying learning all about the benefits, recipes, etc. My question is, I first put quite a bit in a smoother but it resulted in stomach pains so I backed off of the serving size and now add a few table spoons here and there. But I’m noticing my congestion is getting worse after I drink it. I understand it is beneficial for ridding your body of allergies but is it possible I’m allergic to kefir?

    1. Judy,
      Perhaps your dysbiotic gut isn’t up to tolerating dairy products. Kefir is generally easier to digest than other dairy products because the fermentation process that yields all those good probiotics eats up 99% of the lactose in the milk – but there’s still casein in it. Or maybe it’s cow’s milk causing the problem. Kefir can be made with goat or sheep’s milk. Some people have told me they’ve found goat or sheep’s milk kefir in their local health food store.

      This article, “Can Milk Kefir Cause Heartburn?”, may be helpful to you in explaining why, with your seriously impaired immune system, you’re having these unpleasant reactions to kefir:
      http://naturalfamilytoday.com/nutrition/can-milk-kefir-cause-heartburn/

      I remember when my gut was in terrible shape 3-4 years ago, dairy products of any kind gave me serious digestive problems (bad diarrhea & sinus congestion) so I had to avoid them. Then one day, after about a year and much work healing my gut with a variety of probiotic foods & digestive enzyme supplements, I had a strong craving for goat cheese, ate a little as an experiment & found my body did quite well with it. Then I slowly introduced a little organic, raw milk cheese (from a raw milk cheese vendor at the Union Square Greenmarket here in NYC) and also did well with that. Now I’m back to eating dairy without a problem. I mention this because it’s likely you too will do well with dairy products once you’ve succeeded in rebalancing your gut microbiome with pre-biotic & pro-biotic foods and supplements.

      Joan

    2. Judy,
      After I replied to your email just now, I decided to see what Donna Schwenk, had to say about bad reactions to kefir and found this information on “The Healing Crisis and Cultured Foods”, which I think you’ll find quite helpful:
      http://www.culturedfoodlife.com/the-healing-crisis-and-cultured-foods/

      Her blog, Cultured Food Life, provides lots of good informatio on it: culturedfoodlife.com . You might also want to take a look at some of her recipes: http://www.culturedfoodlife.com/recipes/ . I also highly recommend her book, Culture Food for Life: http://store.culturedfoodlife.com/product/cultured-food-for-life/

      Joan

      1. Thank you so much for your replies! Her site is amazing and chock full of great information! And I think the article you referred to may be exactly what’s happening with me; I can already see visible signs of improvement with my complexion, energy, etc. so I know it is making a positive difference – now I feel more comfortable hanging in there and letting it do its job! Thanks again!

        Judy

    3. Maybe you should try Kefir Water instead, it has a lot of benefits as well since is also a probiotic and you don’t have to deal with problems that might come from lactose intolerance.

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