Kefir: Love Your Guts
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
I have a close friend in New York who strains the milk out of almonds, sips on lurid green juices and grows bacteria in her cupboard. To drink.
It all looks like it belongs in a laboratory. I used to wince and mock, but guess what? Now I’m the one growing bacteria in my cupboard. To drink.
It was one conversation with Dr Anna Moore that made me do it. She’s a highly trained, mind-bogglingly knowledgeable nutritionist and she’s the one who first told me in detail the benefits of drinking kefir.
Kefir (pronounced kuh-FEAR) is milk that has been fermented with grains that are a combination of live bacteria and yeast. The grains look like miniature cauliflower florets. I have a tablespoon of grains that I pop into a jar of organic dairy milk and leave in a cupboard. 24 hours later the grains have fermented the milk and it’s frothy with bacteria. Then I drink it. And my kids drink it too (though admittedly I blend it with fruit so it makes it past their picky palates).
Why? I’ll leave it to Dr Moore to explain. And I’ll be surprised if you don’t soon find yourself growing bacteria in your own cupboard.
THE GUT MICROBIOME
Inside our intestine, we have an ecosystem of microbes – 100 trillion microorganisms – that we rely on to stay healthy, happy and energized. A gut microbiome with a diverse array of “good bacteria” can have a positive effect on our immune function, inflammation, allergies, metabolism, weight and appetite. If our intestinal tracts are not biodiverse and are tipped in balance to favour “harmful bacteria” we can find ourselves suffering physically and mentally. Poor diet (processed foods, sugar etc), antibiotics and stress are some of the ways we can harm our gut microbes - probiotics can help restore a healthy balance.
KEFIR IS KEY
You want a lot of diversity in your microbiome. Kefir is one of the fermented foods that we can include in our diet and has really significant levels of probiotic bacteria and yeasts – 30 strains of them, including Lactobacillus kefiri that’s only found in kefir. If you drink kefir or eat fermented foods, you can increase the number of bacteria in your diet by about 10 thousand times. Bacteria that are generated by the kefir fermentation process are more able to withstand the acid in the stomach and carry on down into the small and large intestine. Probiotic capsules, Yakult and Actimel may not be as good at surviving that journey. Kefir is an ancient drink – more than 5000 years old – and is commonly drunk today in Eastern Europe because of its many health benefits. It means ‘good feeling’ in Turkish.
KEFIR’S HEALTH PROMOTING EFFECTS
The effects are very wide-ranging but include:
Immune Modulation – changing your immune responses, so that your body accepts the good and rejects the bad (bad responses can lead to food intolerances and allergies).
Combating Pathogens - if you’ve eaten something that might cause food poisoning or gastroenteritis, the probiotic bacteria would help defend you against it. Kefir has been shown to inhibit the growth of salmonella and E. coli which are both pathogens that can cause problems in both adults and kids.
A Digestive Aid – probiotic bacteria help break down foods that some people find hard to digest, like fibre.
Mood Enhancement – many experiments have been conducted that show bacteria has a powerful impact on the brain, reducing inflammation and therefore reducing depression.
Appetite Suppression – when the probiotic bacteria break down some kinds of fibre they produce organic acids in the gut that effectively reduce your appetite.
Weight Loss – with fermented dairy in your diet you are much less likely to have intra-abdominal fat, the dangerous fat that pushes up your blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol and can result in chronic disease.
Vitamin Production – the bacteria synthesize vitamins, like Vitamin K and B12.
Suitable for those with Lactose Intolerance – the kefir grains feed on the lactose in milk and convert it into other things (hence the sweet taste of milk is replaced by a sour, tart taste of kefir), so it’s more easily tolerated, even by those who are lactose intolerant. This is especially helpful for lactose intolerant kids, who might otherwise miss out on the necessary calcium in cows milk.
Bone Strengthening – kefir has calcium-absorption enhancing bioactivities and has been shown to increase bone growth.
Anti-Inflammatory - One of the key drivers of disease – such as diabetes, heart disease, mood disorders, obesity and any joint problems like arthritis - is inflammation. Probiotic bacteria have an anti-inflammatory effect in the gut and that effect would be transmitted throughout the body as well. If you can reduce the inflammation in the gut you can reduce depression, simple as that.
Mitigating Antibiotics – antibiotics are not discerning in the bacteria that they kill - they will knock out the good with the bad. Probiotic bacteria can be destroyed by antibiotics. If you have to take antibiotics, take kefir at the other end of the day to flood your system with healthy bacteria.
KEFIR FOR KIDS
Microbial colonies are established at birth and continue to evolve until a child reaches 3 years of age when they have a fully developed microbiome. The problem we face is that children in western societies are brought up in very clean houses, don’t play outside enough, and are often deficient in vitamins and minerals that they may need. Kids are not exposed to the variety of bacteria seen in more rural communities, so their immune systems can be shockingly underdeveloped – resulting in eczema, asthma and hayfever. Kefir can restore this balance, and provide vitamins such as K and B12. You can start giving kefir to kids when they eat solid food, like yoghurt (although you don’t want to give a child a probiotic food if they have a compromised immune system as they may not be able to handle the bacteria in a normal way). Adding pureed fruit is a good way to make the kefir more palatable to kids.
PREBIOTICS FEED THE PROBIOTICS
None of these bacteria takes up permanent residence in your gut (in fact, their average lifespan is only twenty minutes) so it’s like the Battle of Britain in your colon: the more good bacteria are introduced the greater chance they have of grabbing some land. You need to have a flow of good bacteria to tip the balance. Eating the right foods will feed the good bacteria too, such as banana, onion, fibre-rich wholegrains (oat, bran, rye, barley and spelt), vegetables and fruit.
DO’S AND DON’TS
For it to be effective, you should drink half a cup to a full cup of kefir regularly, i.e several times a week. It’s essential that it’s complemented with a healthy diet, rich in prebiotic foods. Homemade kefir will have the richest population of bacteria and the grains can be easily bought online. Be aware that there are other types of kefir – water kefir and coconut milk kefir – but these don’t contain calcium (coconut milk contains high levels of pro-inflammatory saturated fat too).
In the nutritional desert that many of us find ourselves in - through changed farming practices, poor food choices and lack of time and energy to cook - kefir is a simple addition to your diet that could make a significant difference to your health and that of your family.
Dr Anna Moore, www.thenutritiondoctor.co.uk. Appointments can be made with Dr Moore through Moore Medical Practice, 272 Kings Road, London, SW3 5AW; 020 7349 1490.