Kefir: The Life-Changing Fermented Drink

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM; Carrie Lam, MD


kefir on a blue plateUnless you are an avid follower of natural approaches to health, you may not have heard of kefir. It is a unique cultured product that has been used in Europe and Asia for generations. It contains extremely powerful probiotics that can significantly aid in the healing process, especially in your gut.

Kefir comes from the Turkish word ‘keif’, meaning, “good feeling.”

This probiotic drink has been gaining in popularity in the United States as its healing properties become better known.

How Do You Make Kefir?

Kefir is made by mixing a combination of often over 50 strains of ‘good’ bacteria and yeast, which often come in the form of grains, with milk or water. Then it is left to ferment at room temperature for around 24 hours, at which point you strain out the grains. It makes a fermented drink that is packed with nutrients and beneficial bacteria.

The grains that make up this potent drink are made up of a symbiotic combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts in a matrix of polysaccharide-proteins. Milk kefir grains look a little like tiny cauliflower, while water kefir grains look like large salt crystals. The grains are living organisms and have to be fed (that is, given milk or water to culture) daily. However, starter culture powder is also available to make kefir in smaller batches.

The finished kefir has a tangy taste, smells a bit like rising bread, and is often fizzy like soda. The fermentation of the yeast gives kefir a slightly alcoholic content, anywhere from about .5% up to 2%. You can also add flavoring to the finished kefir and allow it to ferment for longer. It makes a drink that is very effective in boosting your gut health, immune system, and may aid in preventing some chronic health issues.

How Can Kefir Be Used?

In addition to making a delicious drink that is nutritious and beneficial for your gut, kefir can be used in other ways as well. Water kefir can be flavored and made into sodas, juices, and popsicles. Both water and milk kefir can also be used as the foundation for a variety of smoothies, salad dressings, and desserts.

Milk kefir can be made using coconut milk, as well as animal milks. It can be used as a substitute for butter or yogurt. It also can be made into a cheese by straining it to remove the whey. Cultured butter or a sour cream dressing can be made by adding milk kefir grains to cream.

Different kinds of flavorings can be added as well. Fresh, frozen, or dried fruits, spices or herbs, and natural sweeteners such as maple syrup or stevia are all excellent flavorings.

You can also just drink it plain.

To get you started, try this salad dressing recipe.

Kefir Ranch Dressing

Total time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups strained milk kefir
  • 2 tsp dried parsley flakes
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 to 2 tsp sea salt to taste
  • ¼ tsp black pepper

Method

  1. Combine all ingredients in large bowl and mix well.
  2. Set aside for 30 minutes to allow all ingredients to meld.
  3. Serve over a fresh green salad or as a dip for vegetables.

Health Benefits of Kefir

Kefir has a host of benefits for your health. In addition to packing vital nutrients and vitamins, the wide variety of probiotics gives a huge boost to your gut health, and your gut influences your entire body.

The first important way kefir can help you stay healthy is through reducing inflammation, which is the cause of a majority of chronic ailments.

Helps Soothe the Inflammation Circuit

woman with upset stomach that can be aided by kefirA series of changes at the molecular and cellular levels in your body results in inflammation. It is your body’s attempt to combat invading substances and typically brings on pain, swelling, heat, and redness. These are the side effects of inflammation doing its job of helping your body heal and get rid of whatever is harming it.

In general, the inflammation circuit is a normal bodily response to problems to keep your body working as it should.

Chronic inflammation, however, is said to be one of the main parts of many chronic illnesses. This occurs when normal inflammation goes unchecked.

Low-grade continuous inflammation may go on for years undetected. This is often a response to continuing stress and chronic infections. When this happens, your inflammation circuit is working overtime. A state of imbalance occurs that makes you more likely to contract illnesses and speeds the aging process.

Chronic inflammation not only affects the severity of any illness conditions you may have, but also the prognosis of those conditions. In some cases, the inflammatory response to chronic health conditions may become a cause of other chronic health conditions.

There are numerous potential causes of the chronic inflammation that can lead to an imbalance in your inflammatory circuit.

Inflammation causes may include:

  • Gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in your gut system. This can lead to your immune system overreacting to the microbes in your gut.
  • Chronic, mild allergies or sensitivities to foods.
  • A sedentary lifestyle and too little sleep.
  • Toxins from the environment. Pollution, chemicals added to the water supply, heavy metals, and the preservatives added to food are some of these toxins.
  • Consuming a lot of highly processed foods with high levels of preservatives. This, combined with lifestyle choices, is a major cause of significant health risks throughout your lifetime.
  • Chronic stress resulting in high levels of cortisol being produced for long periods of time can lead to more inflammation throughout your body. The inflammation circuit is one of the main responders to stress.

Adding kefir to your diet will help you reduce the amount of inflammation in your body. This is one way you can work to bring your inflammation circuit more into balance, thus improving your overall health.

Unclogs the Detoxification Circuit

Consisting of the liver, the interstitium, and the immune system, your detoxification circuit is one of the most important systems in your body. As its name implies, this circuit helps you get rid of toxins.

One of the main toxins that result from continuing stress is reactive metabolites. The source of stress is irrelevant. When this circuit is working well, stress is handled in the background and toxins are processed out of your body.

a plunger and sink sympbolizing the ability of kefir to unlcog the detoxification circuitMetabolites are a result of the metabolism of substances that enter your body. Everything that enters your body is broken down into its components. Some of those components are toxins from your daily environment. Foods that are filled with hormones, air that is polluted, stress that is continuous, all are sources of these toxins. When these metabolites begin building up in your body, symptoms develop.

Your liver is the primary organ responsible for dealing with these metabolites. Problems result when these toxins are introduced into your system in quantities too great for your liver to handle. This means the toxins are not excreted in the right way or fast enough. When these metabolites are active, they can react with other substances in your body and become toxic, or reactive metabolites.

These metabolites are transported by the extracellular matrix (ECM) located in the interstitium, a system of supporting cells in your body that provide a way for substances to be moved to the kidneys for excretion. If there is an overabundance of toxins and metabolites, this system can become clogged, resulting in some of the metabolites staying in your body and causing your immune system to become continually triggered, producing inflammation throughout your system.

Your immune system, along with your liver and interstitium, is a part of this detoxification circuit also. It has the ability to know when there are pathogens that become active if stress enters your body. The same is true if there is an increase in reactive metabolites due to clogging of your interstitium and ECM. This then triggers an inflammatory response to deal with any pathogens that might become active because of this increase.

Reactive metabolite overload (RMO) occurs when the level of reactive metabolites gets too high for your detoxification circuit to handle. This leads to a dysfunction of this circuit with accompanying symptoms. Some of these symptoms include brain fog, bloating, food sensitivities, insomnia, dizziness, tingling, and fatigue. These are all symptoms of AFS, as well.

When there is a state of RMO in your body, your liver can become congested, your ECM clogged, and your immune system goes on overdrive.

Fortunately, research has shown probiotics to be very helpful in dealing with the results of detoxification circuit dysfunction. They have been found to decrease inflammation, support your liver, and strengthen your immune system.

Kefir has been shown to be a very good source of probiotics needed to accomplish these tasks. Adding it to your diet will enable your detoxification system to achieve the balance it needs in order to function properly.

The probiotics in this drink will also help your gut system achieve the required balance between good and bad bacteria so that this system works well.

Immunity Booster

a cup of kefir and berry smoothie, good for the immune systemIt is important to have a strong immune system in this world where you’re faced with toxins, bacteria, and other invaders of your body. Your immune system fights these invaders to keep you healthy.

The probiotics in kefir work to replenish your immune system and to keep your gut healthy. This is great for both the inflammation and detoxification circuit. One probiotic that is unique to kefir is Lactobacillus kefiri. This probiotic fights against the bacteria E. coli and salmonella specifically.

Also contained in this compound is an insoluble polysaccharide called kefiran which works to fight against candida and has been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Improves Bone Strength

Another of the health benefits of kefir is an increase in the strength of your bones. As you age, you tend to lose bone mass to conditions such as osteoporosis. Most of the time, this occurs due to lowered consumption of milk or other forms of calcium. When you make kefir with milk, you get the benefit of calcium in the milk.

Most people think just adding milk to their diet will be sufficient to increase their calcium intake enough to prevent osteoporosis. This isn’t necessarily true. You also need to add vitamin K2 to your diet to increase the absorption of calcium into your system. Other probiotics and vitamins in kefir also aid in the absorption and use of calcium.

Cancer-Fighting Potential

Woman with boxing gloves, symbolizing the potential of kefir to fight cancerPossibly one of the most significant benefits of kefir is the potential for helping to fight cancer. Cancer is one of the deadliest killers in the world today.

Kefir has been shown to have the potential to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. This can prevent cancer from spreading once you have it. Some research has suggested the probiotics in kefir may even lead to the destruction of cancer cells in the stomach.

To this point, this potential for fighting cancer has been shown only in laboratory experiments. But the mechanism appears to involve the enzymatic conversions of cells from non-carcinogenic to carcinogenic. Animal studies at McGill University in Canada have shown the ability of kefir to reduce the number of breast cancer cells by 56% compared to a reduction of only 14% by yogurt strains.

Boosts Gut Health

More and more scientists are discovering the importance of gut health to your overall health. The gut is a major part of the inflammation circuit in your body. Inflammation can affect all the systems of your body in so many adverse ways. This makes it extremely important to support your gut in every possible way.

One of the best ways to do this is by ingesting probiotics. Drinking kefir will help you get the necessary probiotics to keep the bacteria in your gut in balance. The compounds contained in this drink will also aid in combating conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.

With the increase in usage of antibiotics, ingesting kefir and its probiotics will also help restore the gut system balance needed after taking these medications. It will also help you deal with diarrhea and other gastrointestinal effects that can accompany the use of antibiotics.

Helps With Allergies and Asthma

There seems to be a significant increase in the incidence of allergies and asthma today. This again plays into the inflammation circuit. Another of the health benefits of drinking kefir is its ability to help you deal with these conditions.

Research has shown the ability of this product to reduce inflammation which is the root cause of inhibiting the passage of air through the throat and lungs. The mechanism whereby this effect occurs appears to be in kefir’s ability to inhibit inflammatory markers of T-helper cells, IgE immunoglobulins, and interleukins.

Probiotics have been shown through research to improve subjects’ allergic symptoms. Some researchers think the ability to resist allergic reactions is due to a significant number of good bacteria in the gut. If so, drinking kefir will improve that number significantly.

Supports Skin Health

Your skin is the largest organ in your body. There are many ways it shows when it isn’t functioning at its best. When you get rashes, acne, psoriasis, or eczema, your skin is showing you something is wrong. Many times, that something is nutritional in nature.

Kefir is a great drink for supporting healthy skinBad bacteria on your skin that may trigger some skin conditions and can be countered by the lactic acid probiotics found in kefir. And, once again, an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in your gut system may be seen in flare-ups of skin conditions. Drinking kefir can help bring about a more beneficial balance in your gut and skin.

Kefiran, a carbohydrate found in kefir, has been shown not only to boost your immune function but also to improve skin and wound healing. There is even some evidence that it aids in protecting your connective tissue.

Aids in Improving Lactose Intolerance Symptoms

Lactose intolerance has been shown to be a significant problem in this country. This condition prevents those who are lactose intolerant from breaking down and digesting lactose, a milk sugar. This is the main sugar that is present in milk.

Kefir contains some bacteria and nutrients that are only found in it and that aid in breaking down lactose into lactic acid. The bacteria and yeasts feed off the milk sugar, leaving very little for your body to have to process, while contributing bacteria to your guts that can help you process lactose you have already eaten.

Even with these substances contained in kefir, you should only gradually introduce dairy products into your diet if you are lactose intolerant. Even if you use goat’s milk, for example, you may still have some problems with dairy products. If you want to determine whether you can use milk kefir, put a drop or two on the inside of your wrist, let it dry, then check it 24 hours later to see if there is any sign of inflammation. If there is, try water kefir instead. If there isn’t, you can then try a small amount on cereal or some other food and see whether you develop symptoms.

Great Source of Vitamins

Everyone needs vitamins in their diet daily. Drinking kefir is a great way to get those vitamins. K2 and B12 are a couple vitamins that not everyone gets in sufficient amounts. But these two vitamins are plentiful in kefir.

B12 is a vitamin that appears to be very helpful for your brain health. Research has shown people with Alzheimer’s disease have a lower level of B12 in their system than other people of the same age without the condition. All of us have more toxins and free radicals in our bodies than ever before. This comes from the environment, mostly. B12 is the vitamin that prevents nerve damage from these invaders.

K2 is the vitamin that aids in the absorption of calcium, thus reducing bone loss and improving the health of your teeth. It also helps your heart by reducing calcium build-up in your arteries. There has also been some evidence that K2 helps decrease your risk of prostate cancer and fights inflammation.

Tips for Handling Kefir

There are some tips you need to be aware of when you make your kefir drink. One is to use only filtered water to mix the drink, never tap water. Tap water contains chemicals such as chlorine and fluorine that damage the kefir.

Also use only pasteurized milk, never ultra-pasteurized milk, as this milk has been essentially cooked and kefir is unable to ferment it.

Be careful not to overheat your kefir. Don’t ever boil kefir. Overheating it will kill the good bacteria.

Avoid metal utensils or containers. Metal containers will react with kefir and create acids. Instead, try to use wooden or plastic utensils. Stainless steel spoons for mixing are usually okay as they only have brief contact with the kefir. Glass containers are good because they can be sterilized.

Freezing finished kefir will stop the fermentation process and may kill the good bacteria. Grains must be dried before freezing, are hard to ‘wake up’ after being frozen, and may be destroyed by the process.

Be sure to cover fermenting kefir with a cloth or unscrewed lid that prevents contamination, but that allows air to escape.

Don’t starve the grains. Grains need new food daily. If you’re going to store kefir grains, they can be kept in fresh milk in the fridge for up to two weeks, but they will need to be given fresh milk and allowed to ferment after that point.

The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Circuit and Kefir

 girl under stress and sleeping on laptop can use some kefir as a pick me upThe NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response model is a system of interrelated organs and body systems that respond to stress from any source. It is a comprehensive approach to understanding the symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) and allows healthcare professionals to get to the root of the symptoms. AFS is the collection of sometimes vague symptoms that occur once your adrenal glands become overwhelmed in the face of continuing stress. The adrenals produce cortisol, the stress fighting hormone, among others, to help you deal with the effects of stress. When they become fatigued, not enough cortisol is produced, thus setting the stage for increasingly significant symptoms.

Of the six circuits in the NEM approach, the two that appear to be most affected by adding kefir to your diet are the inflammation and detoxification circuits.

Conclusion

Kefir is an excellent source of the probiotics you need in order to keep all of your body’s systems working properly. It can be made with milk or water to make a tangy, fermented drink. It can be used for gelatins, cheeses, salad dressings, smoothies and more. Its health benefits are many, including reducing inflammation, protecting your gut, and helping you fight off the effects of toxins in your body. Kefir is a product that may be a significant benefit to your continued well-being and good health. You owe it to your body to try it and see.

 
© Copyright 2019 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Kefir contains a wide variety of probiotics and other nutrients to help balance your gut system, strengthen your immune system, reduce inflammation, promote detoxification, and fight against various chronic conditions. It can be used as a drink, in gelatin desserts, frozen in popsicles, or blended into smoothies.


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