Kefir – the wonder probiotic drink
By Shann Jones
If you’ve been hearing about a strange “wonder drink” called kefir, but aren’t exactly sure what it’s all about, you’re not alone! Read on to get the facts about this traditional fermented drink, to decide whether it could provide a valuable health boost for you and your family…
What is kefir? Kefir (pronounced ke-feer) from either the Arabic “keyf” (joy and pleasure) or the Turkic “kopur” (milk) is a fermented drink that originated with shepherds of the North Caucasus region. Kefir is a natural probiotic drink, similar to – but stronger than – active yogurt.
How is it different to yogurt? Both kefir and yogurt are cultured milk products …but they contain different types of beneficial bacteria. Yogurt contains short-lived beneficial bacteria that provide food for the friendly bacteria that reside there. It’s a “one-shot deal” – only aiding digestion while the yogurt is actually in your system, so you need to keep reintroducing it to see any benefit.
But kefir contains live active, growing living cultures of very strong strains of normal flora; these will actually permanently repopulate your digestive tract with good bacteria, powerful enough to overtake harmful organisms – a feat that yogurt can’t match!
Kefir’s active yeast and bacteria provide more nutritive value than yogurt by helping digest the foods that you eat and by keeping the colon environment clean and healthy. Because the curd size of kefir is smaller than yogurt, it is also easier to digest, which makes it a particularly excellent, nutritious food for babies, the elderly and people experiencing chronic fatigue and digestive disorders.
In addition to repopulating the digestive tract, kefir also adds enzyme stores to in the body.
I’m sensitive to milk – is kefir ok for me? The cultures on Kefir are active and growing when they enter your body. They thrive in dairy and use up the lactose and partially digest the proteins, making it a product that most people can ingest and will benefit from. Even people with milk sensitivities can usually drink kefir. The same is not true with yogurt. Kefir can be made from any milk: goat, cow, ox, sheep, etc. Goat’s milk in particular is easily tolerated by many people because of its molecular similarity to human milk; raw goats milk is more widely tolerated still because of its naturally probiotic nature. So kefir made with raw goats milk is the most powerful – and the most widely tolerated – of all fermented milk probiotics.
I’m already taking probiotics – how is drinking kefir different to taking a probiotic in pill form?
Probiotics are capsules or tablets that contain some of the same healthy bacteria found in kefir. The differences between kefir and probiotics are significant, however. While probiotics contain good organisms that can repopulate the digestive tract, they need to be kept dormant (refrigerated) and are not actively replicating and growing when they arrive in your intestines. In addition, they are not in any medium that will coat the digestive tract and help them to become established, but rather they are in the process of being dormant and are actually slowly decreasing in population as they die off over time.
Kefir, on the other hand has massive quantities of healthy normal flora that are in the process of growing, increasing in number, and thriving. They are eating the medium in which they are thriving, (ie the milk) which will coat the digestive tract and help them to establish residence there. This is a tremendous boost to your system and will repopulate your digestive tract more quickly, more efficiently, and more thoroughly than probiotics.
What strains of probiotic bacteria are actually in kefir? Kefir contains several major strains of friendly bacteria not commonly found in yogurt, Lactobacillus Caucasus, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter species, and Streptococcus species. It also contains beneficial yeasts, such as Saccharomyces kefir and Torula kefir, which dominate, control and eliminate destructive pathogenic yeasts in the body. They do this by penetrating the mucosal lining where unhealthy yeast and bacteria reside, forming a virtual “clean team” that housecleans and strengthens the intestines. So your body becomes more efficient in resisting such pathogens as E. coli and intestinal parasites.
If kefir is so great, why haven’t I heard about it before? The benefits of kefir are extremely well known around the world. Presently, kefir is the most popular fermented milk in Russia. Various reports have stated that it accounts for between 65% and 80% of total fermented milk sales in Russia, with production of over 1.2 million tons per year in 1988. Currently kefir is being manufactured on a commercial scale in Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and various of the former soviet union states, Denmark, the United States, France, West Germany, Canada and parts of southeast Asia. But kefir is only now becoming widely appreciated in the UK.
What exactly are the benefits of kefir? The kefiran (a water-soluble polysaccharide) in kefir has been shown to suppress an increase in blood pressure and reduce serum cholesterol levels. Kefir is a strong source of digestible protein. The proteins are heart healthy, without the usual drawbacks of bad cholesterol and artery-clogging that comes with meat-based proteins. What’s more, this anti-oxidant contains compounds that inhibit mutation. Because of naturally occurring sugars within kefir, it is a good tool for regulating blood sugar for those who struggle with diabetes. Kefir boosts the immune system to effectively fight external germs and potential diseases. It treats constipation, diarrhoea, colon cancer, ulcers, respiratory conditions, eczema, psoriasis, acne and diseases bourne from gut dysbiosis (a destructive imbalance of microbial flora which is linked to e.g. inflammatory bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome). Being high in lactase (because the bacteria and yeast within the kefir interact in such a way to form this enzyme) it absorbs the lactose that results after the cultured process therefore those who are lactose-intolerant can still consume kefir without getting the usual symptoms that come from ingesting dairy products such as yogurt, milk or cheese.
Kefir is teeming with vitamins and minerals that are easily absorbed by the body such as vitamins B and K, folic acid and phosphorous. Particularly abundant are calcium and magnesium. Reported benefits are a substantial decrease in bloating, wind, discomfort in the abdominal area and thrush.
Problems occur when the ratio of yeast to friendly flora escalate out of control. Kefir helps keep the yeast in order down to twenty percent, propelling the good flora to an eighty percent colonisation for the digestive tract to do its job optimally and correct digestion is the key to unlocking the cells to receive the nourishment from food eaten, i.e. it facilitates the fuel getting to our engine.
The functioning of liver, gallbladder, circulation, heart activity, metabolism, oxygen supply to the cells, blood circulation to the brain improves and stabilizes. Also so-called senility does not occur or is even reversed and the elasticity of the blood vessels and joints is restored.
Is there any reliable science behind it? Russian bacteriologist, Ilja Iljitsch Metschnikow, won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for citing the life-extending properties of kefir. He researched the connection between the relatively high age of Bulgarians and Rumanians and their regular consumption of sour milk (Kefir or lactobacillus bulgaricus).
Six times Nobel award-nominated doctor, Johanna Budwig, says that kefir spun in a blender with cold-pressed flaxseed oil creates a newly structured power-housed nutrient which can actually help the immune system to prevent and degrade cancer. This is not surprising since there is a strong linkage between candidosis infection (which kefir helps kill) and cancer formation. Consumers of a Western diet are reported to have about three kilograms of mucoid plaque stuck to the walls of their intestine, which harbours bad bacteria.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MMedSci (neurology), MMedSci (nutrition), founder of the GAPS diet and the Cambridge Nutrition Clinic, writes extensively of the benefits of kefir in her book Gut And Psychology Syndrome. Natural Treatment Of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Depression And Schizophrenia.
How is kefir made?
Kefir is made by fermenting “kefir grains” in milk. The grains acidify the milk until it becomes fizzy and sharp tasting. At this level of acidity, harmful pathogens like E coli and Salmonella are unable to survive in the milk, rendering it as safe as pasteurizing – but a whole lot better for you!
Where do kefir grains comes from? The origin of Kefir grains themselves is unknown, a bit romantic and mysterious! You can’t make kefir grains – new kefir grains can only be obtained from propagating and dividing existing kefir grains.
Amongst the people of the northern slopes of the Caucasian Mountains there is a legend that Mohammed gave kefir grains to the Orthodox people and taught them how to make kefir. The ‘Grains of the Prophet’ were guarded jealously since it was believed that they would lose their strength if the grains were given away and the secret of how to use them became common knowledge. Traditionally, kefir was made with cow, sheep or goat’s milk, fermented in sacks made from animal hides. Usually the kefir sacks were hung in the sun during the day and brought back into the house at night, when they were hung near the door. Everyone who entered or left the house was expected to prod the sack with their foot to mix the contents. As kefir was removed more fresh milk was added, making the fermentation process continuous.
Kefir grains were regarded as part of the family’s and tribe’s wealth and they were passed on from generation to generation. So, for centuries the people of the northern Caucasus enjoyed this food themselves, but didn’t share it with any outsiders!
Other people occasionally heard strange tales of this unusual beverage which was said to have ‘magical’ properties. Marco Polo mentioned kefir in the chronicles of his travels in the East. But kefir was largely forgotten outside the Caucasus for centuries, until news finally spread of its use for the treatment of tuberculosis in sanatoria and for intestinal and stomach diseases. Russian doctors became convinced that kefir was beneficial for health and the first scientific studies for kefir were published at the end of the nineteenth century. But kefir was extremely difficult to obtain, and commercial production was not possible without first obtaining a source of grains. A beautiful young Russian woman named Irina Sakharova was sent into the heart of the Black Caucasus to get hold of some grains. After a harrowing adventure which included being kidnapped by the prince who controlled the grains, and barely escaping a forced marriage to him, Irina came back with 10 pounds of the grains. In 1973 the Minister of the Food Industry of the Soviet Union sent a letter to Irina Sakharova thanking her for bringing kefir to the Russian people.
Hope this helps,
Horning Chiropractic Center
Dr. Jeffrey Horning
127 Ark Road
Mt. Laurel, NJ 08054