Is Kefir a Good Natural Source of Probiotics?
Have you heard of probiotics and considered using them to support your body’s gut health and immune system? In most cases, getting you vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients such as probiotics from the food you eat is a better choice than popping a supplement pill.
Oftentimes, nutrients from food are absorbed more easily by your body. In addition, the presence of complementary vitamins and minerals adds to the positive effect overall. When it comes to probiotics, Kefir is definitely a great place to find them. In this article, I’ll discuss the potential health benefits of kefir, where to find it, and how it can be used.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are microorganisms that are often consumed for their health benefits. Unlike the bugs that cause infection, there are several strains of bacteria and yeast that are widely described as being “good” and actually protect our bodies. They can be found in many supplements and also occur naturally in fermented foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt (source).
What are Probiotics Used For?
The idea behind using probiotics for health is that the good bacteria contained in supplements and probiotic foods like kefir help to overrun bad bacteria in the body. This makes infections such as gastroenteritis or food poisoning less likely.
While the main focus of this effect is in digestive tract, it can also provide balance throughout the body. Science is definitely coming around to the idea that what goes on in the gut on a microbiotic level is rather important to our wellbeing overall. Probiotics taken orally can potentially help balance microbiota throughout your body, including in the mouth, skin and vaginal region (source).
What is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented drink that is typically dairy based. It is also commonly known as “milk kefir” or “bulgaros”. It’s similar in taste and appearance to yogurt but more liquid. It is produced by adding kefir grains to milk and allowing the quickly ferment at room temperature. Fermentation occurs overnight, which is faster than most fermented foods.
This healthy drink more than likely originated in the Caucasus Mountains where kefir grains would be added to cow or sheep milk inside of bags. These bags would be placed by the door to be jostled by everyone who used the door to ensure the kefir was thoroughly mixed.
The fermentation process leaves kefir slightly carbonated and possessing a mild alcohol content. Unlike many fermented dairy products, kefir utilizes varieties of both bacteria and yeast in the fermentation process.
The fermentation process behind kefir means that it has lots of natural probiotic bacteria and yeasts. Because of this, the drink is rising in popularity in the United States as a health drink. The ingredients in basic kefir are fairly simple, but there are many supermarket kefir drinks that contain flavorings, sweeteners, and other added ingredients (source).
The Nutritional Value of Milk Kefir
If the probiotic content of milk kefir don’t interest you in the slightest, there are plenty of other health benefits associated with kefir consumption. First off, it retains most of the vital vitamins and minerals found in the milk from which it is made.
Kefir is a nearly nutritionally complete dairy food product. One six ounce serving contains approximately 6 grams of protein, 20% of the calcium the average person needs, about 20% of the phosphorous you need, plus a couple different B vitamins, magnesium, plus more nutrients.
Great Diet Food
Because much of the milk sugar, or lactose, is consumed by the yeasts and bacteria during the fermentation process, kefir contains less sugar than unfermented dairy products.
Kefir is fairly low in fat, carbs, and calories, comparatively speaking. It is also extremely nutrient dense. In a culinary sense, kefir makes a great substitution for fattier buttermilk, and it can be used to make sourdough bread. It can also be used in lieu of milk in cereal, milkshakes, or homemade frozen treats.
Powerful Probiotic Strains
I’ve already explained why probiotics are so good for you. But not all probiotic-containing foods and supplements are created equal. As a general rule, the more strains of microorganism present, the better. Many probiotic supplement pills contain just a single strain. Kefir, on the other hand, contains several varieties of probiotic bacteria and yeast.
Which strains exactly depends on the kefir grains used in the fermentation process. Some common probiotic strains found in kefir include lactobacillus acidophilus, candida humilis, and streptococcus thermophilus.
Probiotics and Antibiotics
Antibiotics are used to eliminate bacterial infections in the body. The only issue with that is that they don’t differentiate between the bacteria that are causing you illness and the good bacteria that your body needs. This leaves your system more vulnerable to other infections in the future. Probiotics, like those in kefir, may help restore good bacteria levels after a course of antibiotics.
Probiotics for Chronic Digestive Issues
Recent research has begun to reveal a link between gut microorganisms and chronic digestive conditions. Although the exact connection is not yet understood, one study showed that patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) experienced an improvement in symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation after taking a probiotic (source)
Use of probiotics in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's and ulcerative colitis is controversial. Evidence is anecdotal in most cases, however there have been some promising results with probiotics containing a few very specific bacterial strains (source).
If you suffer from any of the above conditions, it’s best to talk to your physician before attempting to use probiotics to relieve your symptoms. He or she will be able to advise based on your own particular circumstances and disease stage.
Like the digestive tract, the vagina has its own complex array of yeast and bacteria that work to maintain a balanced environment. If you’ve ever suffered from a vagial yeast infection, you’ll know how big an impact a microbial imbalance down there can have!
Probiotics may help to reduce the frequency or severity of vaginal yeast infections, which are often caused by an overgrowth of candida albicans, a type of yeast. One of the noted bacterial strains for this problem is the lactobacillus acidophilus frequently found in kefir (source). As in the gut, probiotics may help maintain the appropriate levels of good bacteria in the vagina to keep infection at bay and provide optimal vaginal health.
Another potential health benefit of kefir is improvement in skin conditions. Probiotics have been lauded for their ability to act as a supplementary treatment for eczema, acne, rosacea, and signs of aging. Probiotics used both internally and topically may help with these conditions (source).
Getting adequate amounts of calcium in our diets is a great way to help our teeth stay healthy and strong. Kefir and other dairy products are great sources of this vital mineral. Kefir may have additional oral health benefits too.
The mouth contains a complex matrix of bacteria just like the gut (source). We know that the probiotics found in kefir may help to maintain these good bacteria colonies, so it stands to reason that drinking kefir may help maintain this balance, especially since they are introduced locally to the mouth.
May be Helpful to Immune Function
Your gut plays a significant role in your immune system (source). The lining to the intestines, or mucosal lining, acts as a selective barrier. This helps to prevent illness-causing bacteria or viruses from entering the body. It also has its own immune system that attacks perceived invaders.
Strengthening the immune system that resides in your gut by using probiotics may help you to avoid illness. Research has shown that taking probiotics like those found in kefir may help people to get sick less often (source).
Asthma Symptom Reduction
Kefir has shown to be promising in reducing lung inflammation. Kefiran, a probiotic found in kefir, is thought to be useful in the treatment of some types of asthma (source).
Lactose Intolerance and Kefir
The health benefits of kefir stretch beyond the nutritional and probiotic benefits listed above. Kefir contains very little lactose as I’ve already mentioned. This means that it may be a good milk substitute for those who suffer from lactose intolerance.
Research has shown that kefir may even help lactose intolerant people to increase their tolerance to lactose, thus reducing the symptoms of lactose intolerance like gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort. An enzyme present in kefir is thought to be responsible for these improvements (source).
Where to Find Kefir
You can find ready-made kefir at your local health food store, grocery, or even at online. Check the dairy case, or I’ve even found it in the produce section at my local grocery store. There are lots of kefir products available. Find a product with a high probiotic count for the most intense kefir health benefits.
Making Your Own Kefir
You can also make your own kefir at home. It doesn’t require any complicated equipment like yogurt making because kefir ferments at room temperature. You’ll only need kefir grains, milk, an airtight container, and about a day to wait.
To make kefir at home, simply add the package-recommended amount of kefir grains to milk in an airtight container. Make sure that the container isn’t full as the fermentation will produce gas that takes up space. A simple glass jar works perfect for kefir making. Shake the mixture frequently.
Shopping for Kefir Grains
Dairy-Free Kefir Options
Water kefir grains are made to ferment in sweetened water or coconut milk. This type of kefir grain provides a dairy-free alternative for vegetarians, those with dairy allergies, or those who find milk kefir unpleasant.
This type of kefir is just as simple to make. The yeasts and bacteria are merely designed to feed off different sugars than the ones formulated for milk kefir.
Why Dietary Probiotics Rather Than Supplements?
Dietary probiotics like those found in kefir and other fermented foods are a good way to know that you’re taking in live active cultures that can do the most good. Since probiotic supplements aren’t regulated in the same way as medications, false claims abound in the supplement industry.
Should Anyone Avoid Kefir?
People with autoimmune disorders or weakened immune systems should be leery of supplements or foods with high probiotic counts. Introducing bacteria could be harmful to these people and could cause serious complications.
It’s important that you talk to your healthcare provider before making any big changes in your diet, supplements you’re taking, or physical activity. They will be able to advise you on whether any of these changes are a healthy choice in your particular situation.
Is kefir a good natural source of probiotics? The answer is a definite yes. Kefir contains a wide variety of beneficial microorganisms that can improve the health of your gut and beyond. Even if you disregard the probiotic powers of kefir, it’s worth drinking for a multitude of other reasons that I’ve discussed above.
While evidence about the effectiveness of probiotics to treat any conditions or diseases is not conclusive, many health care providers believe in probiotic health benefits so an occasional glass of kefir milk is likely to do your body good.
Here's an interesting infographic from culturedfoodlife.com