If you've been doing your research on gut-friendly foods, you've likely come across kefir as a good option. Kefir is fermented milk or coconut water that provides a wealth of healthy probiotic bacteria. These bacteria help balance gut microbes, reduce inflammation in the gut, and promote healthy digestion. But the health benefits of kefir don't stop there.
Kefir is a potent superfood that offers many other benefits you might not know about. The good bacteria in kefir are the primary reason it's considered a superfood. They help support a healthy immune system, may promote wound healing, and can ward off toxins lurking in everyday food items. Let's delve into what kefir is, how it's made, and the myriad health benefits this fermented beverage has to offer.
What Is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented beverage that's made either out of dairy products (usually whole milk), coconut water (usually called water kefir), or dairy milk alternatives like rice milk, oat milk, or coconut milk. It has its origins in Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, and tastes sour, kind of like yogurt (1).
If you've ever had a mango lassi at an Indian restaurant, that's basically the same flavor and thickness as kefir. However, lassis are made using yogurt. While yogurt is among the more well-known probiotic foods in Western culture, kefir is a lot more potent in the way of beneficial bugs.
These are the bugs that help fortify your gut bacteria and keep your gut wall impermeable. Not only is there greater diversity in the friendly bacteria present in kefir (as many as 61 strains, including the lactobacillus found in yogurt), kefir also contains beneficial yeasts, which offer gut protection even if you've taken an antibiotic that wipes out all the good bacteria (2).
Where Can You Find Kefir?
Due to its rise in popularity, most grocery stores carry at least one version of dairy kefir in the yogurt section. You can most commonly find it made from whole cow's milk, but you may also find goat's milk kefir or the non-dairy varieties if you shop in more specialized health food stores. Like yogurt, kefir comes in a variety of flavors.
But also like yogurt, the flavored options have more sugar than the plain ones. If you're watching your sugar intake, be sure to read the label before buying flavored varieties. You might be better off getting plain kefir and then adding your own fruit at home. Alternatively, you can make kefir at home. Making a batch only takes 24 hours.
Whether you're making milk kefir or water kefir, the process is the same. You start with kefir grains, which are little translucent clumps of yeast and bacteria that look like clusters of small tapioca pudding pearls or cooked cauliflower florets. You can either order them online or get them from a friend who's already making kefir at home.
To make kefir, all you have to do is add the kefir grains to your chosen liquid and leave it unrefrigerated for 24 hours. Use a glass jar and cover it with a breathable top like a cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Use one teaspoon of kefir grains per one cup of milk or coconut water, and over those 24 hours, the fermentation process will take place.
The microbes in your kefir grains will eat up all the sugar in the liquid and convert it into kefir. Strain out the grains, keep them for your next batch, and enjoy your fresh kefir. Refrigerate whatever you don't drink immediately. If you don't plan to make another batch right away, refrigerate the grains as well.
The grains will continue to thrive and multiply as long as you keep using them. If you don’t plan to use them continually, you can store them in the fridge for up to three weeks and in the freezer for up to three months — then you’d want to start using them again so that they don’t starve.
Health Benefits of Kefir
You know yogurt is good for gut health, and now you know that kefir is even more powerful than yogurt. But what else can kefir do? The health benefits of kefir are numerous.
This is due in large part to the bugs that live inside. But in addition to these healthy bugs (both bacteria and yeast), kefir also contains beneficial compounds like peptides (bacteriocins), organic acids, carbon dioxide, hydrogen peroxide, ethanol, and diacetyl, which may help reduce food-borne illnesses in addition to helping treat GI issues and vaginal infections (1)(3). And the benefits of kefir don't end there. Here are seven more ways that drinking kefir can benefit your health.
1. Kefir May Help Improve the Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance
This might sound crazy, but it's true: A milk product could help you overcome lactose intolerance. In a study on 15 lactose-intolerant volunteers, subjects were given either yogurt, kefir, or milk after a 12-hour fast.
Those who drank kefir had less gas and bloating than those who drank the milk (4). Other in vitro and animal studies have also supported these results (5). This small human study certainly needs some follow-up work, but the results and the accompanying data from other studies are promising.
2. It May Reduce Symptoms of Hay Fever and Asthma
We know that probiotics support a healthy immune system, not only by mediating inflammation but by contributing to a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut and keeping the gut lining healthy. Allergies like hay fever are often a result of an overactive immune system.
A review of 23 studies with a total of almost 2,000 subjects showed that probiotics help reduce the symptoms of hay fever (6). Two other studies used a major component of kefir grains called kefiran to better understand the effects that kefir may have on inflamed airways due to an allergic reaction (allergic bronchial asthma). Kefiran offered a clear anti-inflammatory effect, showing reduced inflammatory markers after the allergen was introduced (7)(8).
3. It Offers Antimicrobial Properties
Kefir has been the subject of numerous studies observing its antimicrobial and antifungal properties. These properties can offer protection against harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, two dangerous types of bacteria often found in susceptible foods that have been poorly stored or accidentally exposed (9)(10).
One study looked at four different types of kefir preparations and their antimicrobial effects on eight food-borne pathogens. Kefir exhibited antimicrobial action against all eight strains. Researchers attribute this activity to the acidity (low pH) of the kefir in addition to the antimicrobial substances that form during the fermentation process (11). More work is needed to better understand what those substances are.
4. Kefir May Help Improve Bone Mass
Post-menopausal women are subject to an increased rate of bone loss over time, due to hormonal changes. In a study on rats who were surgically forced into menopause, researchers looked at kefir and its effects on bone mass over time. After 12 weeks of consuming kefir, the rats had not only increased bone mass and density, but the chemicals that induce bone loss decreased as well (12). Human studies are needed, but these results show a lot of promise for people experiencing osteoporosis and bone loss.
5. It Could Help Fight Certain Cancers
A review of the research on kefir's effects on certain cancers, including colorectal cancer, malignant T-cell lymphocytes, breast cancer, and lung carcinoma, show that it could be beneficial in the fight (13). In addition to the beneficial bacteria, which offer anti-inflammatory benefits (something that's great for reducing cancer risk in general), the peptides and polysaccharides in kefir may be the active ingredients that bolster the anti-cancer claims. That's because they offer antioxidant benefits. One study even showed that kefir killed gastric cancer cells in vitro (14).
6. It Can Neutralize Harmful Mold in Foods
A type of mold called aflatoxins can be found in peanut butter, corn, soy, wheat, and vegetable oils like cottonseed, soybean, and canola oil. While most healthy immune systems can fight off tiny amounts of these toxins, they can create problems over time.
It's a good idea to avoid foods that may be contaminated and stick with brands you trust, but drinking kefir can also help. The lactic acid bacteria in kefir help fight off aflatoxins by binding to them and neutralizing them in your system (15).
7. Kefir May Help in Wound Healing
We know that wounds heal more quickly in a warm, moist environment where new skin cells can grow and reconnect the tissue. That's why you use bandages and ointments to promote healing. Unfortunately, those same conditions also promote the growth of harmful bacteria, which is why keeping wounds clean as they're healing is essential.
That said, researchers tested the use of a topical gel that contained kefir against two other therapies and a control group who didn't receive any treatment. The kefir gel had a greater effect on inflammation, scarring, and new skin growth than all of the interventions tested as well as the control group (16).
The Are Many Benefits of Kefir
Your digestive health is at the center of your overall health and well-being, regulating your immune system, your mood, your ability to heal, and your ability to assimilate nutrients. The effects of kefir on your digestive health are mainly due to the healthy gut bacteria that live inside the liquid. But the other constituents of kefir also play a vital role.
The antioxidant, anti-inflammatory action of the peptides and polysaccharides in kefir may offer cancer-fighting benefits. And the acidic nature of the fermented drink may also be at least partially responsible for its antimicrobial properties. Consider mixing your kefir in a breakfast smoothie or stirring in some granola for a midday snack to try to get it into your daily diet.
By eating or drinking fermented foods and beverages every day, you're fortifying your gut health and improving the diversity of your microbiota. This is especially important if you're dealing with health issues that have a root cause in your gut.