In the Caucasus Mountains of Europe, kefir is the stuff of legend. Kefir is made from cauliflower-like white-yellow particles called “grains” that impart their properties to milk by the process of fermentation. The mountain tribal hung kefir sacks out in the sun during the day and brought them back into the house at night, where they were hung near the door. Any person who entered or left the house was expected to stir the sack to mix the contents. As kefir was removed, more fresh milk was added; making the fermentation process nearly continuous. For many centuries the tribals of ancient Europe held on the secret of Kefir, reaping its benefits in isolation. Strange tales spread of the sour beverage, said to have ‘magical’ properties.
In 2021, we know more about kefir than we ever have. Does it live up to the hype? Let’s find out!
What is kefir?
Packed with nearly 4 billion live gut-friendly bacteria per bottle, kefir is your friendly neighborhood yogurt’s bigger brother. The word “kefir” in Russian means “foam”; a reference to its foam-like appearance and consistency. The naturally occurring bacteria and yeast in kefir work synergistically to give superior health benefits when consumed on a regular basis.
Commercial kefir is loaded not just with vitamins, but also with bacterial byproducts that help the human body function better. Kefir works even if you’re lactose intolerant – the bacteria in the drink digest the lactose in milk and produce “lactase”, which makes drinking it a breeze even for individuals who don’t produce enough of their own lactase (the milk-digesting enzyme that your body produces, allowing you to drink milk and milk products).
Why is kefir awesome?
Kefir is a nutrient powerhouse
When it comes to nutritional superfoods, kefir is a straight up beast. The name comes from the Turkish word keyif, which means “feel good”. A 200ml serving of kefir contains, on average:
- 160 calories, with under 10 grams of carbohydrates and 5 grams of fat
- 7.5 grams of Protein
- 25% of the RDA for Calcium
- 25% of the RDA for Vitamin B12
- 22% of the RDA for Vitamin B2
- 8% of the RDA for magnesium
Kefir also contains a barrage of essentials like zinc, molybdenum, B6, and amino acids; but the values of these dietary components vary significantly from bottle to bottle. B vitamins are essential to keep the human body running in tip-top shape, both physically and mentally. They help convert food into fuel, keeping you energized. Tryptophan, a precursor to the mood-enhancing chemical serotonin, is found specifically in milk kefir and is responsible for better sleep and cognition.
Kefir puts yogurt to shame
Know that cousin of yours that’s super athletic, always comes out top of the class and gets all the girls? Well, that’s what plain old yogurt thinks of his superior cousin, kefir. To draw out a comparison, here’s a table:
Has 1-5 strains of bacteria
Has 20+ strains of bacteria
Has no anti-inflammatory or anti-allergic
Has anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic properties
Does not colonize the intestine (you need to keep taking it every day for the benefits)
Colonizes the intestine (keeps working for a while even after you’ve stopped consuming kefir)
The research shows that kefir trumps yogurt not just because it’s got more “good” strains, but because each of those extra strains has anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic and anti-anxiety properties that the strains in yogurt simply can’t contend with.
Kefir helps you kick the butt (and improves working memory and anxiety scores)
In a 2014 study Source, kefir had a potential effect on the treatment of nicotine cessation-induced depression, anxiety, and cognition impairment in mice. While studies in mice don’t always have the same effects as they would in humans, kefir shows promising results in helping ex-smokers stay off of cigarettes. What’s interesting is the effect Kefir had on the working memory of these mice, making them sharper than other mice who were facing withdrawal without the aid of Kefir.
Keeps your bones healthy
Osteoporosis (“porous” bones) is a very common disease in Western countries that are characterized by increased fragility of bones that are susceptible to fracture. Bone density starts to decline after 35 years of age, occurring faster in women than in men. Calcium supplements and Vitamin D are first-line treatments that can slow down the onset of this disease.
There’s good news: A study in 2015 concluded that among osteoporotic patients, kefir-fermented milk therapy was associated with significant improvements in bone density turnover and 6-month increases in bone mineral density, even beyond what regular calcium supplementation could offer. Source
Causes a five-fold increase in anti-cancer activity
Some of the bioactive compounds of kefir such as polysaccharides and peptides have great potential for inhibition of proliferation and induction of apoptosis in tumor cells (basically, anti-cancer properties). Multiple studies revealed that kefir can help fight cancers such as colorectal cancer, malignant T lymphocytes, breast cancer, and lung carcinoma by directly killing cancer cells. In one study Source, kefir water killed cancer cells directly. A significant reduction in tumor size and weight and a 5-fold substantial increase in helper T cells (anti-cancer cells) and a 7-fold increase in cytotoxic T cells (another set of anti-cancer cells) were observed in the kefir water-treated group.
The kefir-water group also showed a large boost in anti-inflammatory markers. Kefir does a marvelous job keeping inflammation at bay in healthy humans.
Allergies and wounds don’t stand a chance against kefir
Kefir is nature’s own immunoregulator (a substance that calms down the immune system) Source. A probiotic strain in kefir, Lactobacillus (L b.) Kefiranofaciens M1, shows strong anti-allergic properties. This strain is NOT found in Yogurt or most commercial probiotic supplements. In multiple studies, Lactobacillus (L b.) Kefiranofaciens M1 reduces the IgE response (also known as the allergic response) to pollen and dust mites. Who knew grains from the clean and clear mountains of the Caucus could help us keep our own airways clean, huh?
How to make kefir
The simplicity of kefir’s preparation allows you to make it out of the convenience of your home.
To make some homemade kefir, here’s what you’ll need:
- A tablespoon of kefir starter grain
- 200ml of coconut water or cow/goat milk
- A glass jar (Never bring kefir in contact with anything made out of metal)
- A wooden spoon to help you stir the kefir
- A slightly porous cover for the jar such as a cloth kerchief, towel, or paper coffee filter
- A rubber band to keep the kerchief in place
- A non-metal (ideally plastic) strainer to help you separate the Kefir grains from the milk
Here’s how you can get started:
1. Put the grains in the glass jar. For every 200ml of milk, put in 1 tablespoon of Kefir grains.
2. Mix the grains and milk well with a wooden spoon. Kefir must not come in contact with anything made of metal.
3. Cover the jar with the cloth kerchief, and secure it with a rubber band.
4. Place the jar out of direct light at room temperature.
5. Leave the mixture to ferment for 24 hours.
6. Strain the kefir using a plastic strainer, re-using the solid Kefir grains for your next batch. Store the liquid fermented drink in a refrigerator at 2-5 degrees Celsius.
It’s that simple! If you used coconut water, remember that the nutritional profile of the drink will be slightly altered (it will mainly contain less protein); but it’s still packed with all the goodness of live organisms.
If you regularly consume kefir or other fermented drinks, make sure you track your gut’s progress by using our gut kit. Consuming fermented foods is a great first step, but determining what bacteria managed to survive and thrive in your intestinal environment is a good foundation to understand what new powers you’ve gained from your efforts. If you are consuming kefir, for example, our tests can tell if Lactobacillus (L b.) Kefiranofaciens M1 (the anti-allergy strain) thrived; giving you a little more confidence the next time you clean your dust-filled attic!