Kefir: The Ancient Health Secret

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A fermented dairy drink that’s similar to but thinner than yogurt so you can drink it out of a glass, kefir is an ancient food that has made a modern comeback and now fills the shelves of health food stores and has become a buzzword in the health blogosphere.

Kefir is typically made by fermenting milk using kefir grains, which are not actually grains like wheat or oats, but are cultures of bacteria and yeast held together by a polysaccharide produced thanks to the beneficial bacteria Lactobacillus higarii. All those cultures provide your body with billions of beneficial bacteria which help to improve the balance of bacteria and fungi in your microbiome, or “gut garden,” where trillions of these bacteria and fungi help to regulate your immune system, hormones, brain, and even your genes.

The ways your microbiome controls your health are truly fascinating, so cultivating and nurturing your microbiome health can do great things for your overall health. Including kefir in your diet is a great place to start. But probiotics aren’t the only benefit of kefir. Consider these other kefir facts:

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1. Kefir is rich in vitamin K2

Kefir produces vitamin K2 as a by-product of its fermentation process that occurs because of kefir’s probiotic content. Low levels of vitamin K2 are linked (1) to all kinds of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer, but getting optimal vitamin K2 levels mean a better chance at a longer, healthier life.

2. Kefir contains B vitamins

Your body uses B vitamins for many different important functions. Your brain and nerves need B vitamins to function properly, and optimal levels increase your energy and improve your mood, too. B vitamins are also the key players in a biochemical process called methylation, which is needed to help your body detox properly. Fortunately, kefir is a good source of multiple B vitamins.

3. Kefir has tryptophan

You know that sleepy, relaxed feeling you get after a big turkey dinner? That’s thanks to tryptophan. This amino acid is also found in kefir. No giant dinner required.

4. Kefir improves digestive health

Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens M1, a specific bacteria strain from the kefir grain culture, has been shown (2) to help in cases of colitis, by balancing the immune system and calming inflammation in the body. Research has also shown (3) that kefir improves lactose tolerance, and has a larger variety of beneficial probiotics than yogurt. It’s a better and more efficient way to help promote healthy digestion and microbiome health.

5. Kefir has anti-tumor properties

Step off, cancer! Kefir was shown in one study to reduce (4) tumor growth and increase the body’s ability to fight cancer.

6. Kefir reduces cholesterol and blood pressure

Kefiran, a unique sugar produced by kefir grains, was shown in a study (5) out of the UK to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.

7. Kefir balances the whole immune system

Kefiran, the kefir sugar I just mentioned, also demonstrated the ability (6) to decrease allergic inflammation and calm the immune system. (Not all sugar is bad!)

By now you are convinced (I hope) that kefir is a great addition to a healthy diet….but which kefir should you get?

There are many varieties of kefir on the market today, and as with most mass-produced food items, many kefir brands are made to be low in fat and high in sugar, for mass appeal. Unfortunately, these alterations transform a healthy drink into an unhealthy one.

I advice always choosing a kefir drink without added sugar, which essentially cancels out kefir’s microbiome benefits. Also pass on the low-fat kefir because, as with any dairy, the bulk of the nutrients are found in the fat (this is why low-fat or non-fat dairy products have a bunch of synthetic nutrients added back in). I also suggest opting for grass-fed and organic kefir for higher levels of nutrients. Better yet, skip the store altogether and make your own kefir at home! You can purchase quality kefir grain cultures and kefir starter kits online. These come with simple instructions to DIY your kefir. It’s easy!

Also note that even though fermentation makes regular kefir tolerable for most people (including those who can’t eat dairy products), not everyone can or wants to consume dairy. You can use the kefir grains to make your own water kefir, coconut water kefir, or coconut milk kefir, all of which have benefits similar to the regular variety.

4 Ways To Incorporate Kefir Into Your Daily Life

1. Put it in your smoothies

Blend your kefir with berries, greens, and some ice for a yummy kefir smoothie.

2. Make it into popsicles

Freeze your kefir smoothie in a Popsicle mold for an icy treat that kids will enjoy. Keep in mind that the freezing may damage the beneficial bacteria, but the other health benefits will still be intact.

3. Use it for salad dressings

Any dressing recipe where you would use yogurt as an ingredient will be even better if you substitute kefir! (You probably won’t need to add as many other liquids such as water, since kefir is already thinner than yogurt.)

4. Make it into cheese

If you like cheese, try kefir cheese, which contains more beneficial probiotics than conventional cheese. Look for it in health food stores.

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  1. Juanola-Falgarona M, Salas-Salvadó J, Martínez-González MÁ, et al. Dietary intake of vitamin K is inversely associated with mortality risk [published correction appears in J Nutr. 2016 Mar;146(3):653]. J Nutr. 2014;144(5):743‐750. doi:10.3945/jn.113.187740
  2. Y.P. Chen, P.J. Hsiao, W.S. Hong, T.Y. Dai, M.J. Chen Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens M1 isolated from milk kefir grains ameliorates experimental colitis in vitro and in vivo Journal of Dairy Science Volume 95, Issue 1, P63-74, January 01, 2012. doi:10.3168/jds.2011-4696
  3. Hertzler SR, Clancy SM. Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103(5):582‐587. doi:10.1053/jada.2003.50111
  4. Liu JR, Wang SY, Lin YY, Lin CW. Antitumor activity of milk kefir and soy milk kefir in tumor-bearing mice. Nutr Cancer. 2002;44(2):183‐187. doi:10.1207/S15327914NC4402_10
  5. Maeda H, Zhu X, Omura K, Suzuki S, Kitamura S. Effects of an exopolysaccharide (kefiran) on lipids, blood pressure, blood glucose, and constipation. Biofactors. 2004;22(1-4):197‐200. doi:10.1002/biof.5520220141
  6. Furuno T, Nakanishi M. Kefiran suppresses antigen-induced mast cell activation. Biol Pharm Bull. 2012;35(2):178‐183. doi:10.1248/bpb.35.178

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Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.