Our digestive tract houses roughly 100 trillion microorganisms that play a hugely important role in many aspects of our health.
Justin L. Sonnenburg, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University and author of “The Good Gut” calls the intestinal microbiota, “the control center of our biology.” These beneficial bugs help modulate our immune system, they affect our metabolism, brain chemistry, our weight, cravings, and much more.
Unfortunately, in many of us, our gut flora balance has been compromised. Medication, stress, poor diet, pollution, toxins all affect the health of our microbiome causing an imbalance: we are likely to be walking around with not enough good bugs and too many bad ones.
And this is why it is important to nurture your gut back to health and support the microbiome with diet and lifestyle strategies.
Eating probiotic foods is a great way to bring beneficial flora back into the gut and kefir is possibly one of the most potent probiotic foods available. It contains various types of beneficial bacteria as well as important vitamins and minerals such as B12, calcium and K2 (which plays an important role in calcium metabolism), magnesium, biotin, folate and enzymes.
Studies have shown that kefir helps to regulate inflammation, boost the immune system, reduce allergies, improve bone health, play a role in cancer prevention, heal inflammatory bowel disease and IBS, and that it has anti fungal and anti bacterial properties *.
What is kefir?
Kefir originated in the Caucasus Mountains many centuries ago and has since spread across the globe. It is a fermented milk product that can be made from the milk of any ruminant animal, such as cow, goat or sheep milk.
Kefir is made with special kefir grains, also known as a SCOBY (a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). By adding the kefir grains to good quality milk (preferably pastured / grass-fed) and letting it ferment for up to 24 hours you will have a healthy, tart, slightly carbonated yoghurt type drink that is quite enjoyable.
What if you are lactose intolerance?
Intolerance to dairy does not necessarily mean that you can’t enjoy kefir. By allowing the kefir to ferment for a longer period of time (around 24 hours) it becomes more or less lactose free. In fact, certain studies have shown that the consumption of kefir can help improve lactose intolerance*.
A process known as “second fermentation” can be used to further eliminate lactose, if still present after the initial fermentation. Second fermentation is done by removing the kefir grains after 24 hours and continuing to let the kefir ferment for another 6 to 12 hours. This second fermentation can also be used to add flavor to the kefir by adding citrus peels, or spices such as vanilla or cinnamon.
Depending on the state of your gut you may need to start by taking a very small amount of kefir at first, see how you tolerate it and gradually build this up. The more compromised your digestive system, the smaller the amount of kefir that you will be able to tolerate. Some people can only handle as much as a teaspoon at first.
If you have a casein (a protein found in milk) allergy or intolerance you could look into making kefir with coconut milk and there are also special grains available to make (coconut) water kefir.
Where can you buy kefir grains?
You can buy kefir grains in many health food stores or online. Here in Asia it is a bit harder to find and I personally brought some grains back with me to Manila from a trip to the US. Local health food stores may sell kefir powder, which is for one-time use only whereas the grains can be reused.
Alternatively you can ask a friend who has kefir grains to share some, as they do multiply. Ready-made kefir can also be found in local health food stores, which can be a good option if you don’t have the grains to make your own. Remember that most commercial kefir brands are not fermented for the full 24 hours and therefore may contain some lactose as well as a lower bacteria count.