Milk kefir, or kephir, is a fermented milk drink that has an incredible history and is known for its many medicinal uses. Derived from the Turkish word “keif,” which literally means “good feeling,” kefir has been used in folk medicine throughout Europe and Asia for centuries. It is known to cure a wide variety of conditions. Kefir is made from cow, goat or sheep milk and is not a dairy alternative.
When produced correctly, milk kefir is quite tasty and is actually one of my favorite drinks. It is my hope that after reading this article that you will see the benefits of kefir and consider adding it to your diet.
Kefir’s Probiotic Properties
Pickling and fermenting have been used to preserve food in nearly every civilization virtually since time began. Unbeknownst to these cultures, they were producing superfoods rich in healthy microorganisms, which most likely contributed to their long lives.
As far back as the early 20th century, researchers were discovering the health benefits of fermented milk. In fact, Nobel Laureate Elie Metchnikoff discussed the benefits associated with Kefir in his Theory of Longevity.
From that point on, scientists have continually reaffirmed the medicinal benefits of fermentation due to the “healthy bacteria” found in the foods.
Some of the more common probiotics found in fermented foods include:
- Saccharomyces boulardii
- Lactobacillus salivarius
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Lactobacillus reuteri
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Bifidobacteria species
I know, you’re probably wondering why on earth we would want to eat foods with so much bacteria. I mean, we take antibiotics to kill bacteria and make us feel better, right?
That’s a very good question.
There’s no doubt we live in an “antibacterial” culture. We’re seemingly never more than 50 feet away from hand sanitizers, so why on Earth would we want to purposefully consume bacteria? There are several reasons why we need bacteria in our bodies, and understanding how bacteria affects our overall gut health is the key.
A Symbiotic Relationship
The vast majority of our immune system (75%) is housed within our digestive system. That means that billions of “good” bacteria live inside of us and work day and night to kill off “bad” bacteria. This keeps our bodies working strongly and efficiently.
This is why overuse of antibacterial soaps and lotions can be detrimental to our health. When we use these products, we are killing the good bacteria with the bad. This upsets the symbiotic relationship bacteria has in our digestive and immune systems.
Research has connected bacterial deficiencies to everything from chronic diseases to autism to leaky gut syndrome. What it ultimately comes down to is that without the proper balance of bacteria in our gut, our bodies cannot absorb all the nutrients in our food. Without the right fuel, our bodies cannot perform at maximum efficiency.
Despite the name, kefir grains are not really grains at all. They are a subtle blend of yeast and bacteria. Russian tribes from the Northern Caucasus mountain region first described the natural marvels.
With the ability to ferment milk in just 24 hours, kefir grains can turn raw milk into a healthy probiotic beverage with multiple medicinal uses. This naturally carbonated drink is loaded with Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum and provides beneficial yeast and lactic acid bacteria. This combination makes Kefir the most powerful probiotic on Earth.
Lactose Intolerance Improvement
I know it may be counterintuitive, but fermented milk products, such as kefir, can actually help people with milk-related lactose intolerance. In order to wrap your brain around this, it’s important to keep in mind that fermentation alters the chemical make-up of foods and, as with fermented milk, kefir is relatively low in lactose. Moreover, if you fight lactose issues, you may want to try adding kefir to your diet in small amounts because a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that, “Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion.”
Immune Boosting Kefir Benefits
When we get sick and our immune systems are under attack, we shouldn’t just jump to antibiotics. Drinking kefir is an excellent alternative. A report by the University College Cork, Ireland looked at Lactobacillus probiotic preparations and matched them to normal antibiotics in three animal models that are similar to humans. In this research, the university found that, “In all three animal diseases, we observed a positive effect in that the animals were significantly protected against infection.” In fact, the scientists found that probiotics functioned better than antibiotic therapy in not only eliminating the infectious means, but in curing symptoms!
The science, regarding kefir having the ability to balance your cholesterol levels, is non-conclusive. One study from the British Journal of Nutrition says cholesterol levels in hamsters were reduced radically after being fed kefir for eight weeks. However, another study in BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine looked at 13 people who had somewhat high cholesterol levels and found that kefir did nothing for them. That particular study said that, “Kefir had no effect on total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol or triglyceride concentrations.” To me, this is no big deal. However if you decide to try it, the fact remains that kefir is safe and definitely won't increase your cholesterol levels.
“Mutagens” can change your DNA and can be found virtually anywhere in our environment. Aflatoxins, for instance, are food-born mutagens developed by mold and can be found in many ground nuts (the reason non-organic, genetically modified peanut butter is allergenic and can be deadly), crude vegetable oils (like cottonseed, canola, and soybean), and grains (corn, wheat, and soy). Since kefir is high in lactic acid, it is known to kill aflatoxins and other harmful mutagens.
Animal studies have shown that ingesting fermented foods and beverages can potentially target several different forms of cancerous tumors. The Journal of Dairy Science, for instance, reported on research that assessed the immune cells in mice and revealed that steady kefir consumption helped to slow or even stop the growth of breast cancer.
At the end of the day, kefir has few side effects, but it has been known to cause constipation and cramping in some people. It’s important to know your body and listen when it is trying to tell you something.
If you drink kefir regularly, we want to know what health benefits you have experienced. Let us know in the comments below.
- Guzel-Seydim ZB, et al. Review: functional properties of kefir. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2011 Mar; 51(3):261-8.
- St-Onge MP, et al. Kefir consumption does not alter plasma lipid levels or cholesterol fractional synthesis rates relative to milk in hyperlipidemic men: a randomized controlled trial BMC Complement Altern Med. 2002;2:1. Epub 2002 Jan 22.
- de Moreno de Leblanc A, et al. Study of immune cells involved in the antitumor effect of kefir in a murine breast cancer model. J Dairy Sci 2007; 90(4):1920-8.
- Guzel-Seydim ZB, Kok-Tas T, Greene AK, Seydim AC. Review: functional properties of kefir. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2011; 51(3):261-8.
- Hertzler SR, Clancy SM. Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion. J Am Diet Assoc 2003; 103(5):582-7.
- Lopitz-Otsoa F, et al. Kefir: a symbiotic yeasts-bacteria community with alleged healthy capabilities. Rev Iberoam Micol 2006; 23(2):67-74.
- Liu JR, et al. Hypocholesterolaemic effects of milk-kefir and soyamilk-kefir in cholesterol-fed hamsters. Br J Nutr 2006; 95(5):939-46.
- Vinderola CG, et al. Immunomodulating capacity of kefir. J Dairy Rez 2005; 72(2):195-202.
- Lopitz-Otsoa F, et al. Kefir: A symbiotic yeasts-bacteria community with alleged healthy capabilities. Rev Iberoam Micol 2006; 23:67-74.
- Society for General Microbiology. “How Probiotics Can Prevent Disease.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090401200433.htm (accessed April 12, 2014).