15 evidence-based health benefits of kefir

Michael Mc Laughlin, SATI STAFF

Kefir is getting everybody excited in the health world at the moment and for good reason. Probiotics have long been lauded for their health and immune system benefits; supermarkets are filled with a large range of yogurts that boast various strains of it. Probiotics are said to do everything from reducing stress, fighting inflammation, protecting against food-borne illness to beating allergies and colds. The health food panacea that is the probiotic is said to restore the good bacteria in your digestive system enabling you to boost your defences against a litany of threats. Kefir is considered the king of probiotics and has been around for centuries in the North Caucasus Mountains.

Kefir is a fermented milk or water drink that is made with kefir grains added to either water or milk. Traditional kefir is fermented at room temperature, generally for 24 hours. Fermentation yields a sour, carbonated, slightly alcoholic beverage, with a thickness and taste like a thin yogurt.

It is commonly drunk in Eastern and Northern Europe and has been consumed in Russia and Central Asian countries for centuries, and is now growing in popularity in Japan, the United States and Europe.

1. Full of nutrients

Kefir has entered the ranks of superfood in part due to its full quotient of essential nutrients. Kefir is a fermented drink, traditionally made using cow’s milk or goat’s milk. The kefir grains are not grains in the conventional sense, but cultures of yeast and lactic acid bacteria that have the appearance of miniature cauliflowers. Over a period of 24 hours or longer, the microorganisms in the kefir grains multiply and ferment the sugars in the milk and transform it into kefir. After that, the grains are removed from the liquid they can be used again in another batch. A 175 ml (6 oz) serving of milk kefir contains the following ingredients:

Protein: 6 grams.
Calcium: 20 percent of the RDA.
Phosphorus: 20 percent of the RDA.
Vitamin B12: 14 percent of the RDA.
Riboflavin (B2): 19 percent of the RDA.
Magnesium: 5 percent of the RDA.
A decent amount of vitamin D.

This is with about 100 calories, 7-8 grams of carbs and 3-6 grams of fat, depending on the type of milk that is used (1).

2. More of a probiotic than yogurt

Yogurt is the best known probiotic food in the Western diet, but kefir is a much more powerful source. Kefir grains contain around 30 strains (2) of bacteria and yeasts, making it a very valuable and diverse probiotic source. Other fermented dairy products are made with much fewer strains and don’t contain any yeasts. While the simplicity of fermentation is a benefit of kefir, the main reason of all to ferment kefir over yogurt is due to the differences in the bacterial cultures in each. Yogurt, for example, contains between 2 and 7 strains of beneficial bacteria, called probiotics. Yogurt also contains no beneficial yeasts. Yes, believe it or not, there are yeasts that support good health, they help keep pathogenic yeasts in the gut, for example, candida at bay.

3. Beneficial microbes in kefir beat yogurt

Kefir contains high levels of vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K2, biotin, folate, enzymes and probiotics.

Milk kefir is different from yogurt as they colonize the intestinal tract and don’t just migrate with a short-term benefit. Some of the strains in kefir are aggressive in nature meaning they attack and destroy pathogens reasserting dominance and control of the intestinal environment. This is the reason why eating a bunch of kefir when you have a gut imbalance can trigger a temporary healing crisis when pathogens die off on mass in the gut. Eating a lot of yogurt rarely causes this type of reaction to happen as the effect on your digestive health is less severe. Additionally, kefir contains a wider selection of bacteria, as well as beneficial yeasts. Below is a list of the typical strains of probiotics and beneficial yeasts in fermented kefir (3).

4. Lactose intolerance

Kefir can help people tackle lactose intolerance, suggests a small study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2003 (4). In the study, 15 healthy adults with lactose intolerance were provided with a series of meals that had milk and either kefir or yogurt. Results concluded that kefir helped improve lactose digestion and tolerance. Moreover, both kefir and yogurt appeared to cut down abdominal pain and diarrhea among participants. Even if you’re extremely lactose intolerant, you can still drink kefir milk if you take a lactase enzyme beforehand. A lactase enzyme will support your digestive system with the required amount of lactase to completely digest the lactose. Discuss the use of this supplement with your doctor before using it.

5. Bone density

Kefir has proven to be a natural means of improving bone mineral density (BMD). In a six-month study the effects of kefir supplemented with calcium bicarbonate to calcium bicarbonate alone in people with osteoporosis, researchers reported that the kefir treatment was associated with increased hip bone mineral density. Short-term treatment-related changes in bone turnover markers, especially bone formation, were strongly associated with subsequent changes in BMD. Results from the PLOS study suggest that serial measurement of bone turnover shortly after initiation of kefir therapy may be helpful in assessing the ultimate therapeutic response to kefir-fermented milk (5).

6. Kefir has potent antibacterial properties

Several studies have shown that kefir and its components have antimicrobial, antitumor, anticarcinogenic and immunomodulatory activity. The word kefir is derived from the Turkish word keyif, which means “feeling good” after its ingestion (6) Chifiriuc et al. (2011) (6) observed that all milk fermented with kefir grains had antimicrobial activity against Bacillus subtilis, S. aureus, E. coli, E. faecalis and S. Enteritidis, but did not inhibit P. aeruginosa and C. albicans. These studies indicate that kefir antimicrobial activity is associated with the production of organic acids, peptides (bacteriocins), carbon dioxide, hydrogen peroxide, ethanol and diacetyl. In brief, Kefir contains the probiotic Lactobacillus kefiri, and the carbohydrate kefiran, both of which can protect against harmful bacteria (6).

7. Kefir can lower the risk of osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is defined by the deterioration of bone tissue and is a massive problem in Western countries. Osteoporosis occurs when there is an imbalance between new bone formation and old bone resorption. The body may fail to make enough new bone, or too much old bone may be reabsorbed, or both. Two essential minerals for normal bone formation are calcium and phosphate. Kefir made from full-fat dairy is not only an excellent source of calcium but provides vitamin K2. This nutrient plays an important role in calcium metabolism, and supplementing with it has been shown to reduce the risk of fractures by as much as 81 percent (7).

8. Kefir grains good for your micro biome

Did you know that over three-quarters of your immune system are stationed in your digestive system? Indeed, trillions of good bacteria and fungus kill the bad microorganisms, which keeps you alive and well. So what happens when you take good bacteria-killing antibiotics or regularly use antibacterial lotions and soaps? You destroy the good bacteria, and the bad ones come to power. This, in turn, disrupts the symbiosis (balance) of your microbiome which will lead to digestive issues and immune reactions. (8)

Studies have linked everything from autism and chronic diseases to leaky gut syndrome and improper digestion. The bottom line is that if you can’t absorb the nutrients in your food because you don’t have enough beneficial bacteria in your gut, your body will never run efficiently because it lacks the essential fuel.

9. Kefir helps you sleep

Tryptophan is that sleepy, relaxed feeling you get after a large turkey dinner. Tryptophan the amino acid is found in kefir, which means it can have a powerful relaxing effect. Maybe that’s where that “good feeling” name originated? There is evidence that tryptophan has natural sedative properties that can help you sleep better, and as a result it can help improve overall health. (9) A lack of sleep is a risk factor for problems like depression, reduced concentration and memory, muscle aches, weight gain, and more. Tryptophan offers a natural remedy for getting a better quality sleep and reducing problems associated with sleep apnea or insomnia. Tryptophan can be used to help you stick to a healthy diet and lose weight. Increased serotonin levels promote tranquility, clarity of mind, control over cravings or impulses, and even better metabolic functioning, which all boost weight loss.

10. Great source of protein

Kefir is a good way to include more protein in your diet without fewer calories. A single serving of plain, non-fat kefir has less than 100 calories (10) but provides 10.5 grams of protein, which can help you feel fuller without the extra fat. If you go to the effort of making your own, you can avoid some of the supermarket varieties that are laced with added sugars, which will up the calorie content. Because kefir comes from milk, the protein is composed of a combination of whey and casein. Consuming dairy sources of protein, such as kefir, may help you accelerate weight loss and retain lean muscle mass. A study in the Journal of Nutrition, published in July 2011, found that obese women who consumed a high-protein and high-dairy diet experienced greater fat loss and lean muscle gain than those consuming less protein and dairy (10).

11. Reduced cholesterol

Kefiran is what binds the milk kefir grains and makes them slimy and gummy. When you touch milk kefir grains, healthy ones have a clear viscous coating that is similar in consistency to a thin honey. A study on the effects of kefiran in animals showed that kefiran significantly suppressed the increase in blood pressure and reduced the serum cholesterol levels in SHRSP/Hos rats when subjects consumed excessive dietary cholesterol. Kefiran supplementation demonstrated that it could significantly lower blood glucose in KKAy mice. In another study (11), cholesterol content in the liver of the kefiran group was statistically lower than in the control group. Galactose content of βVLDL derived from the kefiran group was higher, and the lipid peroxidation level was much lower than in the control group.

12. Reduced flatulence

Friendly bacteria in kefir reduce flatulence by promoting the motility of the bowels and offer relief to upset stomachs. And, the benefits continue long after you’ve polished off a batch (12). The bacteria and yeast in kefir as distinct from those in yogurt can colonize your gastrointestinal tract and stay there for a long period. Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso are rich in probiotics and help minimize unhealthy, gas-causing bacteria. So there is no need to play the digestive percussion any longer. The good bacteria also plays a role in the digestion of food, as it lines the intestine wall and aids with the digestion of starches and sugars. If you lack these essential bacteria, then food can decay in your gut which can cause flatulence, bloating, diarrhea and it encourages further bad bacteria growth. Interestingly, there has been a lot of press about the cause of constipation being a lack of good probiotics in the stomach as they line the gut and help food to pass through more easily.

13. Kefir may be protective against cancer

Cancer is one of the world’s leading causes of death. In 2016, an estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States and 595,690 people will die from the disease (13). It occurs when there is an uncontrolled growth of radical cells in the body, for instance, a tumor. The probiotics in kefir are believed to inhibit tumor growth by reducing the formation of carcinogenic compounds, as well as by stimulating the immune system. This protective role has been demonstrated in several test tube (14) studies. One study reported that kefir extract reduced the number of breast cancer cells by 56 percent, compared with only 14 percent for a yogurt extract (15).

14. Kefir may improve symptoms of allergy and asthma

Allergic reactions are caused by the body’s inflammatory responses to harmless environmental toxins. People with overly-sensitive immune systems are susceptible to allergies, which can provoke conditions like asthma. In animal studies, kefir has been shown to suppress inflammatory responses related to allergy and asthma (16). Human studies are still required to further explore these effects but are thought to offer great potential for the future treatment and prevention of asthma and allergic symptoms.

15. It is cheap to make

To make Kefir all you need is a clean sterilized glass jar, some milk, kefir grains, a paper towel, and a rubber band. Kefir grains can usually be picked up for free at your local health food store or organic shop. A simple google search for Kefir grains will bring up forums and community pages in your area where people are happy to share their excess grains. To get the same benefit from store bought kefir or regular yogurts you would stand to pay substantially more for a fraction of the benefits. As the grains multiply rapidly you can increase the quantity you produce. Before you know if you will have enough for having with fruit or cereal in the morning and as a healthy snack later in the day. When you have kept the grains for several months you will be in the fortuitous position of being able to share them with friends and family.

The Sati line

For years probiotics have been hailed as a super food essential in everyone’s kitchen. T.V. advertisements convinced us that to properly fight off colds, the flu, and airborne diseases we need a store bought probiotic to stand any chance. What they didn’t tell us was that kefir which can be acquired in your local health food store is far better than any yogurt you can buy. What’s more is that all you need is some milk or even water. If you are buying milk and this is recommended as it has more yeast and good bacteria than the water grains make sure you get organic milk. The benefits of kefir are undoubtedly good ranging from improved sleep, boosted immune system and digestion to reduced cholesterol the advantages of consuming this natural probiotic are wide ranging. The other great thing about kefir is that the grains grow quickly.

References

1. Analy Machado de Oliveira Leite et al “Microbiological, technological and therapeutic properties of kefir: a natural probiotic beverage” (2013); 44(2): 341–349
2. ”Composition of milk kefir grains: bacteria & yeasts” (2014)
3. Sarah “Why Kefir is a Healthier Choice than Yogurt” (2016)
4. Cathy Wong “The Benefits of Kefir” (2017)
5. Min-Yu Tu et al “Short-Term Effects of Kefir-Fermented Milk Consumption on Bone Mineral Density and Bone Metabolism in a Randomized Clinical Trial of Osteoporotic Patients” (2015)
6. Braz. J. Microbiol “Microbiological, technological and therapeutic properties of kefir: a natural probiotic beverage” (2013)
7. James J DiNicolantonio “The health benefits of vitamin K” (2015)
8. Dr Axe Food is Medicine “7 Kefir Benefits and Nutrition Facts that Boost Immunity & Heal the Gut” (2015)
9. Dr Axe Food is Medicine “Get More Tryptophan for Better Sleep, Moods & Fewer Headaches” (2015)
10. Andrea Cespedes “Kefir For Protein” (2015)
11. Uchida M1, Ishii I et al “Kefiran reduces atherosclerosis in rabbits fed a high cholesterol diet” (2010)
12. Keri Glassman “Why Is Kefir Good for Me?” (2015)
13. Cancer Statistics (2016)
14. Khoury N1, El-Hayek S1 et al “Kefir exhibits anti‑proliferative and pro‑apoptotic effects on colon adenocarcinoma cells with no significant effects on cell migration and invasion” (2014)
15. Chen C1, Chan HM et al “Kefir extracts suppress in vitro proliferation of estrogen-dependent human breast cancer cells but not normal mammary epithelial cells.” (2007)
16. Lee MY1, Ahn KS “Anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic effects of kefir in a mouse asthma model” (2007)