Kefir is a fermented dairy product made out of the milk of cows, goats or sheep. However, it can also be made from coconut, soy, rice, or almond milk. There is a common belief that it originated in the Caucasus, Tibetan, and Mongolian mountains, but it has been made and consumed all over the world for centuries. Kefir and a slice of homemade bread has been a common part of shepherds' and small farmers’ healthy field lunch for generations.
Most kefirs sold in the U.S. are made from cow or goat milk. Kefir can be made plain (my favorite) or with a fruit flavor—most commonly, strawberry or blueberry. Kefir is similar to Greek yogurt, but has a different composition of beneficial bacteria. Yogurt is made with bacteria, but kefir is made with bacteria and yeast and is believed to be more beneficial for our health.
Research data indicate that our gut produces more than 90 percent of serotonin, the “feel good” substance in your brain, much more than the brain does (Yano, J.M. et al. 2016). That’s why it’s sometimes called “the second brain.” Your gut’s health is also essential for your immune system. Your gut health depends on the amount and diversity of “good bacteria" it receives, which is essential for the proper working of your intestines and the entire body. Good bacteria in our gut fight the “bad bacteria” that get in there and this is why we can stay healthy.
When we age or have medical problems, especially if we have to take antibiotics, the amount of good bacteria diminishes and the amount of bad bacteria tends to rise, which can cause more health problems. Therefore, we need to supplement the good bacteria in our intestinal system with probiotics. Kefir is one healthy product that contains plenty of good bacteria. (Always read the labels before you buy anything you might eat or drink.)
Kefir is a probiotic, which means that it contains live microorganisms (“good bacteria”) that support digestive health and keep our gut healthy. Kefir has more than 30 different and unique species of good bacteria. Its microorganisms produce organic acids and bacteriocins which interfere with pathogenic bacteria and improve gut health.
Kefir has plenty of health benefits. It has antifungal, antibacterial, anti-oxidant, and cholesterol-lowering properties. It also improves the blood sugar level by reducing plasma glucose, helps with constipation, may support cardiovascular health, and may have some weight-loss benefits. Kefir is also a good source of protein (especially for vegetarians), vitamins, and minerals. It contains vitamins C, K, A, B1, B2 (riboflavin), B5, B7 (biotin), folic acid, and carotene.
Kefir is rich in calcium and magnesium, which are important minerals for a healthy nervous system. It also contains phosphorus, which is important for our bone health, and zinc, which supports our immune system. However, kefir, like any food that contains probiotics, may have some digestive side effects such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea, especially if you first consume them.
Kefir, which has a slightly sour flavor, is most commonly consumed around the world as a breakfast, lunch, or dinner beverage for supporting digestive health. It can be eaten alone or with herbs and spices. It can be used as a healthy salad dressing for summer salads. It works well with granola and fruits as a healthy breakfast or a snack and as a final addition to cold or hot vegetable soups or stews. It mixes well with fruits and veggies for a healthy smoothie and can be an addition to a desert with pastries and sweets or made into popsicles.
Research indicates that it can be consumed by lactose-intolerant people as long as it is raw and not cooked (Gavare, V. at al 2011). Kefir can be bought or you can make your own; there are many recipes for doing it yourself on the internet.
Kefir has important health benefits. The consistency (thickness) and the taste of kefir differs significantly around the world, by region and by brand. Therefore, if you taste one and do not like it, please do not give up; try another brand or do it yourself and you may be in for a nice surprise.
Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.
Image Provided by Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D.