by Heidi du Preez
Modern society has become reliant on pill-popping to stay healthy, whether it be conventional drugs or natural medicines. Why would you fork out an ‘arm and a leg’ for probiotics if you could instead enjoy a healthy inexpensive home-made drink providing the same benefits? Wholefoods provide us with all the necessary nutrients to maintain good health and by fermenting these foods, the health benefits are further increased.
What are probiotics and why do we need them?
The human body is like a complex ecosystem – a social network – containing trillions of bacteria and other micro-organisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. In fact, most of the cells in the human body are not human at all. There are 10 times more microbial cells in the human body than human cells! Nonetheless, this mixed community of microbial cells does not threaten us, but offers vital help with basic physiological processes – from digestion to growth to self-defence.
Although we do potentially harbour disease-causing pathogenic micro-organisms, the majority are beneficial bugs doing us good. It is important that these beneficial micro-organisms outnumber the bad guys. If this is not the case, we have an imbalance of micro-organisms that is referred to as a dysbiose, which could potentially lead to disease.
The beneficial flora (micro-organisms) are like our personal bodyguards, protecting us against unfriendly bacteria, viruses, pathogens and foreign invaders. They are therefore imperative to maintain a healthy immune system. Antibiotics kill the good flora and with our defence system down, we easily become infected by parasites and other unfriendly micro-organisms like disease-causing bacteria, yeast and fungi. When we take beneficial flora in supplemental form to boost our own good guys, we refer to them as probiotics. Probiotics can either be in capsule form or taken through eating a live wholefood product like kefir or fermented vegetables. Most friendly bacteria come from the Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium microbial groups. There are several different species of bacteria in each group. Some probiotics also consist of friendly yeasts.
Furthermore, beneficial flora plays a very important role in digestion, ensuring that we absorb the nutrients well from the food we ingest. Dysbiose will result in digestive upsets like rumbling in our digestive tract, gas, cramping, belching, constipation or diarrhoea. If digestion really gets bad, one will become malnourished and this sets the stage for degenerative disease.
What is kefir?
Kefir is a cultured, enzyme-rich food filled with friendly micro-organisms that help balance your inner ecosystem. It is a creamy, drinkable yoghurt style fermented milk that tastes something like buttermilk. It is believed that kefir was first developed in the Caucasus Mountains of western Russia. The shepherds there used to carry milk in leather pouches. Sometimes the milk would sit for several days and ferment. The fermentation gave it an effervescent taste that was cool and refreshing. They later found that kefir made a great natural medicine that was used to help digestive disorders, low energy and compromised immune function. The Caucasus peoples enjoyed longevity of over 100 years.
Traditionally kefir is prepared by fermenting milk with kefir grains. The word ‘grains’ is a bit misleading. They look like little cauliflower florets and have absolutely no relationship to cereal grains. Many refer to it as the kefir ‘plant’ instead. It is composed of clusters of beneficial micro-organisms held together by a matrix of a firm gel-like mass of proteins, fats and polysaccharides, and reproduced in a dairy medium. The organisms found in kefir can be divided into 4 genus groups: Lactobacilli, Streptococci-Lactococci, Acetobacter and Yeasts. Kefir, prepared with a kefir plant, contains as many as 35 different strains of beneficial bacteria and yeasts.
What is the fuss about kefir?
Kefir is more nutritious and therapeutic than yoghurt, it supplies complete and easily digested protein, essential vitamins and minerals, and valuable B vitamins. It can be used instead of probiotics to restore the inner ecosystem after antibiotic therapy, and is simple and inexpensive to make at home. Kefir is excellent nourishment for pregnant and nursing women, the elderly, and those with compromised immunity.
Because kefir is a balanced and nourishing food, it has been used to help patients suffering from AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, herpes and cancer. It has a tranquilising effect on the nervous system and is beneficial for people with sleep disorders, depression and ADHD.
Poor bacterial balance (dysbiose) can cause blood sugar imbalances, sugar cravings, weight gain, poor immunity, low energy and digestive disturbances among other things. Kefir addresses all of these problems by restoring balance to the micro flora of the body. Kefir`s active yeast and bacteria help assimilate nutrients in the gut and enhance the usage of certain trace minerals and B vitamins. Kefir promotes healthy bowel movements when used regularly, cures constipation and helps reduce flatulence. It can lower blood pressure, reduce food cravings and control blood glucose. The bacteria in kefir are potent detoxifiers.
Moreover, kefir grains produce a polysaccharide known as kefiran. Research in Japan found that rats with tumours, which were fed kefiran, had reduction in tumor size. Kefiran is also proving to have anti-inflammatory properties. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a naturally occurring fatty acid found in kefir that has been shown to possess anti-cancer activities in in-vivo animal models and in-vitro cell culture systems.
Nutritional value of kefir
In addition to beneficial bacteria and yeast, kefir contains minerals and essential amino acids that help the body with healing and maintenance functions. The complete proteins in kefir are partially digested and therefore more easily utilised by the body. Tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids abundant in kefir, is well known for its relaxing effect on the nervous system. Because kefir offers an abundance of calcium and magnesium, which are also important minerals for a healthy nervous system, kefir in the diet can have a particularly profound calming effect on the nerves. Kefir’s ample supply of phosphorus, the second most abundant mineral in our bodies, helps utilise carbohydrates, fats and proteins for cell growth, maintenance and energy.
Kefir is rich in vitamin B12, B1, and vitamin K. It is an excellent source of biotin, a B vitamin which aids the body’s assimilation of other B vitamins, such as folic acid, pantothenic acid, and B12. The numerous benefits of maintaining adequate B vitamin intake range from regulation of the kidneys, liver and nervous system, to helping relieve skin disorders, boost energy and promote longevity.
Can’t I just eat my yoghurt?
There are a lot of comparisons between yoghurt and kefir. Kefir, however, is considered the probiotic powerhouse for several reasons. It contains several major strains of friendly bacteria not commonly found in yoghurt: Lactobacillus Caucasus, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter species and Streptococcus species. It also contains beneficial yeasts, such as Saccharomyces kefir and Torula kefir, which dominate, control and eliminate destructive pathogenic yeasts in the body like Candida Albicans. They do so by penetrating the mucosal lining where unhealthy yeast and bacteria reside, forming a virtual SWAT team that housecleans and strengthens the intestines. Hence, the body becomes more efficient in resisting such pathogens as E. coli and intestinal parasites.
Yoghurt contains transient beneficial bacteria that keep the digestive system clean, but kefir organisms can actually colonise the intestinal tract, a feat that yoghurt cannot match. Kefir’s active yeast and bacteria provide more nutritive value than yoghurt by aiding digestion and by keeping the colon environment clean and healthy. Because the curd size of kefir is smaller than yoghurt, it is also easier to digest, which makes it a particularly nutritious food for babies, the elderly, and people experiencing chronic fatigue and digestive disorders.
What if I’m dairy or lactose intolerant?
If you are lactose intolerant, the initial 24-hour fermentation will remove about 50% of the lactose present in milk, which acts as food for the organisms. Ripening the kefir after straining for an additional 24 hours at room temperature or for several days in the refrigerator, will remove almost all the lactose. Many people who are lactose intolerant are able to drink raw milk even without fermenting, as the enzyme lactase is still present.
Those intolerant to dairy mostly react to the milk protein casein, which is predigested in kefir, thus sparking less of a reaction in sensitive individuals. Milk kefir grains can be used to ferment alternative milks such as soy milk, seed/nut milks, quinoa milk, coconut and rice milk. The grains will not grow in such mediums and will eventually stop fermenting, and kefiran is not produced. One does, however, reap all the other benefits, especially the probiotic benefits of fermenting milk. Another alternative is water or coconut water kefir. Water kefir grains are like squishy colourless crystals and are used to ferment sugar, water and fruits. The water kefir starter grains, sometimes called Tibetan Mushrooms or Kefir Fungi, are a little more difficult to obtain than milk starter grains.
Kefir and Candidiasis
Kefir can greatly aid in the elimination of Candidiasis. The beneficial yeast in kefir is able to deal effectively with pathogenic yeasts like Candida albicans in the body. Candida albicans is a normal part of microbial flora in the intestines and only causes problems when its growth gets out of control. Candida is normally a smooth rounded bud and is harmless in this stage. When the colony reaches a “critical mass” in the large intestine and is running out of food, Candida has the ability to morph from the round bud to a thread-like shape. It then migrates to the small intestine in search of food and this is where the threads are able to wreak havoc by poking holes in the small intestine. Instead of vital nutrients being absorbed by the small intestine, approximately 80 toxins produced by Candida are given direct access to the bloodstream. This phenomenon is called leaky gut syndrome. Undigested food particles, toxins and other chemicals all cause inflammatory reactions once outside the protected confines of the intestines and this inflammation is the cause of myriad diseases and syndromes. Unfortunately, mainstream medicine refuses to recognise the role of Candida in inflammation.
The beneficial yeasts and bacteria present in kefir and other lacto-fermented foods are actually able to displace Candida on the intestinal wall allowing these holes to heal. Once the leaky-gut is resolved and toxins no longer pass into the bloodstream and tissues of the body, healing can begin.
How to introduce kefir into your diet
Some people thrive on kefir right from the start, and others may need to proceed more slowly. Remember those with candidiasis lack milk-digesting bacteria, so may have to build up their “tolerance” of kefir. Start with about 100 ml in the morning on an empty stomach. Every second day increase the amount until you are able to drink a full glass.
Where can I find kefir grains?
Enquire at your local health shop or google for suppliers in South Africa – kefir grains or plants retail for anything from R50 to around R85. Make sure you purchase from a reputable source.
Commercial powdered starters are available but contain fewer organisms, while the commercial bottled kefir you buy in the store contains even fewer beneficial flora. Most bottled kefir contains only bacteria as the selling of beverages with live yeasts is usually not allowed. If you want kefir for its probiotic value, it makes the best sense to culture your own.
How to make kefir
Raw, organic full-cream cow, sheep, or goat milk are great mediums for kefir fermentation. Ideally, the animals should have been grass-fed. Milk from grain-fed mammals is highly inflammatory due to abnormal essential fatty acid ratios. The milk should preferable not be pasteurised or homogenised, as these processes damage the integrity of the amino acids and critical enzymes in the milk.
Add about ½ cup to 1 cup milk to a clean large mouth glass or ceramic jar with a lid. Use a plastic spoon to transfer the kefir plant into the milk. Lightly screw on the lid so that gasses can still escape and leave the jar for about 12 to 72 hours at room temperature (ideally between 18°C and 30°C). The fermentation time will depend on the temperature, but usually the longer the better. By ripening kefir for 48 hours, the content of folic acid is increased 116%. Ensure that it is not exposed to direct sunlight, as direct heat would kill the kefir plant.
When you see a line running horizontally on the side of the bottle or when it resembles the consistency of yoghurt, the kefir is ready to use. Remove the kefir plant with a plastic spoon or stain through a plastic sieve and transfer the plant to a clean jar with milk to ferment again at room temperature. Do not consume the kefir plant, only the fermented milk. Either consume immediately or store it in the refrigerator for up to 14 days.
If you are going on holiday or don’t want to make kefir for a couple of days, leave the kefir plant in milk in the refrigerator. This will slow down the fermentation process. However, change the milk every couple of weeks to prevent disintegration of the plant. Never touch the kefir plant with metal utensils, it will die. Only use plastic utensils and a glass or ceramic jar and work as hygienically possible. If properly cared for, the kefir plant will outlive you! The plant will grow and become bigger, with parts breaking off. Share the healthy kefir ‘culture’ by giving away to neighbours and friends.
Any or a combination of the following ingredients can be added to give the kefir more zing:
1 teaspoon unrefined oil such as flaxseed, hempseed or argan
Lecithin, which aids fat digestion, to taste
Fibre like oat bran, psyllium husk or apple pectin
Natural flavourings such as stevia, raw honey, unrefined sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon or vanilla extract
Fresh or frozen organic fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, bananas, kiwi or mango
Blend together for a delicious, nutritious breakfast, lunch or snack and enjoy!
How to Grow your Kefir
- store your jar of milk and Kefir grains at room temperature, clear of direct sunlight
- loosely fit the lid, to avoid any build up of gases
- within 12-36hrs the milk should start resembling a buttermilk consistency
- should the mixture separate to form curds and whey, a gentle stir with a thoroughly cleaned plastic spoon, will bring it back to a milky appearance again
- use the plastic strainer to empty the Kefir milk into a glass storage container, and to catch the grains
- add the grains to fresh full cream milk (min 200ml), in a clean glass container, and repeat the steps above
- as the grains multiply, a daily batch of Kefir milk can be strained.
Caring for your Kefir
- always handle your Kefir grains with clean, dry plastic utensils. Avoid contact with your bare hands
- contact with metal, chlorinated water and direct sunlight, are all extremely harmful to your Kefir grains
- raw organic cow’s milk, goat’s milk or fresh full-cream supermarket varieties can be used. It’s not possible to cultivate Kefir milk with UHT Long Life milk. If using coconut milk to make Kefir, then cultivate in dairy milk once in every three weeks to prevent the grains from disintegrating.