7 Kefir Benefits and Nutrition Facts that Boost Immunity & Heal the Gut

July 21, 2017
Kefir benefits - Dr. Axe

You may have heard of coconut kefir and wondered just what in world it is. Well, kefir is a unique cultured dairy product that’s one of the most probiotic-rich foods on the planet, and kefir benefits are incredible for healing issues like leaky gut.

Its unique name comes from the Turkish work “keif,” which means “good feeling.”

For centuries, it’s been used in European and Asian folk medicine due to the wide variety of conditions it’s been known to cure. When made correctly, it’s one of my favorite drinks and, after reading this article, I hope that you consider including it into your regular natural health regimen.

You can give your alimentary canal, or the main digestive passageway in the body, an easy boost with kefir. This nutrient- and probiotic-packed drink holds the key to helping improve many immune and digestive linked health issues. Tabbed as an “it” health food of the 21st century, kefir is a probiotic food that contains many bioactive compounds, including as many as 30 strains of good bacteria that help fight against tumors, bacteria, carcinogens and more. 

Kefir is made using starter “grains,” which in reality are a combination of bacteria and yeasts that interact with the milk to make the lightly fermented drink that even lactose intolerant people can drink! (1) It can be made from any source of milk, such as goat, sheep, cow, soy, rice or coconut. It can even be made using coconut water. Scientifically speaking, kefir grains contain a complex microbial symbiotic mixture of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts in a polysaccharide–protein matrix. Read on to see how this can benefit your health.


Top 7 Kefir Benefits

There are many benefits to probiotic foods, and kefir is no exception. Kefir benefits range from topical to systemic and can impact the state of your daily life and health dramatically. The following are some of the top kefir benefits around.

1. Boosts Immunity

Kefir contains many compounds and nutrients, like biotin and folate, that help kick your immune system into gear and protect your cells. It has a large amounts of probiotics, the special forces of the microbial world. One in particular that’s specific to kefir alone is called Lactobacillus Kefiri, and it helps defend against harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. Coli. This bacterial strain, along with the various others handfuls, helps modulate the immune system and inhibit many predatory bacteria growth. (2)

Kefir also contains another powerful compound found only in this probiotic drink, an insoluble polysaccharide called kefiran that’s been shown to be antimicrobial and help to fight against candida. (3) Kefiran has also shown the ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

2. Builds Bone Strength

Osteoporosis is a major concern for many people today. The deteriorating bone disease flourishes in systems that don’t get enough calcium, which is essential for bone health. Kefir made from whole fat dairy has high levels of calcium from the milk. H

However, perhaps more importantly it holds bioactive compounds that help absorb calcium into the body and stop bone degeneration. (4) Kefir also contains vitamin K2, which has been shown to be vital in improving bone health, density and calcium absorption, while vitamin K deficiency can lead to bone issues. The probiotics in kefir improve nutrient absorption, and the dairy itself contains all of the most important nutrients for improving bone density, including phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K2.

3. Potentially Fights Cancer

Cancer is a serious epidemic impacting our country and the world today. Kefir can play a big role in helping your body fight this nasty disease. It can be a seriously effective weapon against the spread of these multiplying and dangerous cells. The compounds found in the probiotic drink have actually shown to make cancer cells in the stomach self-destruct. (5)

Kefir benefits in the fight against cancer are due to its large anti-carcinogenic role inside the body. It can slow the growth of early tumors and their enzymatic conversions from non-carcinogenic to carcinogenic. (6) One in-vitro test conducted by the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at the Macdonald Campus of McGill University in Canada showed that kefir reduced breast cancer cells by 56 percent (as opposed to yogurt strains that reduced cells by 14 percent) in animal studies. (7)

4. Supports Digestion and Combats IBS

When it comes to bacteria in the gut, it’s a tricky balance. Kefir milk and kefir yogurt help restore that balance and fight against gastrointestinal diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s and ulcers. (8) Drinking kefir, loaded with probiotics, also helps your gut after taking antibiotics. The probiotic compounds help restore the lost flora that fight against pathogens. The probiotics also aid against disruptive diarrhea and other gastrointestinal side effects caused by these types of medications.

5. Improves Allergies

Various forms of allergies and asthma are all linked to inflammatory issues on the body. In certain studies with mice, kefir was shown to reduce inflammatory cells disrupting the lungs and air passages as well as mucus buildup. (9)

The live microorganisms present in kefir help promote the immune system to naturally suppress allergic reactions and aid in changing the body’s response to the systemic outbreak points for allergies. (10) Some scientists believe these allergic reactions are the result of a lack of good bacteria in the gut. Researchers from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center performed 23 different studies with almost 2,000 people, and in 17 of those studies, test subjects taking probiotics showed improved allergic symptoms and quality of life. (11)

6. Heals Skin

When your gut is out of whack, it can send signals to your skin that disrupt its natural balance and cause all sorts of problems like acne, psoriasis, rashes and eczema. Kefir helps bring good bacteria back to the forefront and level out the homeostasis for your largest organ, the skin. Not only does it help with systemic based skin issues, but kefir benefits skin as burn and rash treatment

The carbohydrate found in kefir known as kefiran, aside from aiding in the immune system, has also been tested and shown helping improve the quality of skin wound healing. It’s even been shown to be protective for connective tissue. (12)

7. Improves Lactose Intolerance Symptoms

The good bacteria found in many dairy products is essential for a healthy gut and body. However, there are many out there who cannot tolerate dairy because they have an adverse reaction to digesting lactose, the key milk sugar that’s active when it’s digested. The active ingredient in kefir helps break lactose down into lactic acid, making it easier to digest. (13) Furthermore, kefir has a larger range of bacterial strains and nutrients, some only specific to kefir, that help remove almost all of the lactose in the dairy.

Research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics even showed that “kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose malabsorption.” (14) As a disclaimer, although I’ve found most people do very well with goat milk kefir, a small percent of people may still have issues with dairy.

If you have had lactose intolerance, my advice is to try it first by placing a small drop of the kefir on the inside of your arm or wrist and let it dry. Then wait 24 hours and see if you have any inflammation. If you do, then steer clear of it. But if not, then try adding just a drop or two to a beverage or some food and see if you have any reaction. You can then increase the amount until you’re certain that you’re not reacting to it.

As with any food or diet, make sure to listen to your body.

 

Kefir benefits and more - Dr. Axe

 


Kefir Nutrition Facts

Kefir is a fermented milk product (cow, goat or sheep milk) that tastes like a drinkable yogurt.

What’s the nutritional value of kefir? First, it contains high levels of vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K2, biotin, folate, enzymes and probiotics.  Because kefir does not have a standardized nutrition content, the content values can vary based on the cows, cultures and region where it’s produced. Yet even with the range in values, kefir has superior nutrition.

For example, one cup of store-bought whole milk kefir has about: (15)

  • 160 calories
  • 12 grams carbohydrates
  • 10 grams protein
  • 8 grams fat
  • 300 milligrams calcium (30 percent DV)
  • 100 IU vitamin D (25 percent DV)
  • 500 IU vitamin A (10 percent DV)

In addition, kefir contains plenty of probiotics, which is where many of the kefir benefits come from. Kefir is one of the highest probiotic foods you can eat with several important probiotic strains, and homemade kefir far outranks any store-bought variety.

Beneficial bacteria and yeasts may include the following: Kluyveromyces marxianus/Candida kefyr, Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus casei, Kazachstania unispora, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium lactis, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. and Saccaromyces unisporus.

In a 2015 study published in Frontiers in Microbiology, kefir was recognized as a potential source of probiotics and molecules with several healthy properties. According to the authors, “its biological properties suggest its use as antioxidant, antitumor agent, antimicrobial agent, and immunomodulator, among other roles.” (15b)


Types of Kefir

You’ll be happy to know that even if you cannot tolerate having any dairy, there are types of kefir that are still rich in probiotics and have plenty of healthy kefir benefits but are completely lactose- and dairy-free. There are essentially two main types of kefir, and they differ in multiple ways.

The two types of kefir are milk kefir (made from cow, sheep or goat milk but also from coconut milk) and water kefir (made from sugary water or coconut water, both of which do not contain any dairy).

While the base liquid used in different types of kefirs varies, the process for making kefir is still the same, and the kefir benefits are thought to be present in both types. All kefir is made using kefir “grains,” which are a yeast/bacterial fermentation starter. All types of kefirs are similar to kombucha (another healthy probiotic-rich drink favorite) in that they must have sugar either naturally present or else added in order to allow the healthy bacteria to grow and for the fermentation process to take place.

However, the end result is that both kombucha and kefir are very low in sugar, because the live active yeast essentially “eats” the large majority of the added sugar during the fermenting process.

Here is more information about how the different types of kefirs are made and how their tastes and uses differ:

Milk Kefir

Milk kefir is the kind that’s most well-known and widely available, usually sold in most major supermarkets and nearly all health food stores. Milk kefir is most often made from goat’s milk, cow’s milk or sheep’s milk, but certain stores also carry coconut milk kefir, which again means it does not contain any lactose, dairy or real “milk” at all.

When buying milk kefir made from goat, cow or sheep milk, you want to always look for a high-quality organic brand to ensure you get the most kefir benefits and avoid any harmful substances found in conventional dairy.

Traditionally, milk kefir is made using a starter culture, which is what ultimately allows the probiotics to form. All probiotic-rich beverages use a starter kit of “live” active yeast, which is responsible for culturing the beneficial bacteria.

Once fermented, milk kefir has a tart taste that’s somewhat similar to the taste of Greek yogurt. How strong the taste is depends on how long the kefir fermented; a longer fermenting process usually leads to a stronger, tarter taste and even yields some carbonation, which results from the active yeast.

Milk kefir is not naturally sweet on its own, but other flavors can be added to it in order to boost the flavor and make it more appealing. While some people prefer to have kefir plain, many like to have vanilla- or berry-flavored kefirs, similarly to how you will find yogurts flavored and sold.

Most store-bought kefirs are flavored with additions like fruit or cane sugar, but you can sweeten and flavor your kefir yourself at home by adding pure raw honey, pure maple syrup, pure vanilla extract or organic stevia extract. Also try adding pureed fruit to your plain kefir (like banana or blueberries) to boost the nutrient content even more.

Beyond just drinking milk kefir, there are other ways to cleverly use it in recipes. Milk kefir can make a great base for soups and stews that would otherwise call for regular buttermilk, sour cream, heavy cream or yogurt. You can substitute plain or flavored kefir for any of these in ingredients in your favorite recipes for baked goods, mashed potatoes, soups and more in order to boost the nutrient content and get all the wonderful kefir benefits.

Coconut Kefir

Coconut kefir can be made either using coconut milk or coconut water. Coconut milk comes directly from coconuts and is made by blending coconut “meat” (the white, thick part of the inside of a coconut) with water, and then straining the pulp out so only a milky liquid is left.

Coconut water is the clear liquid that’s held inside coconuts naturally, which would come out if you were to crack open the coconut.

Both types of coconut kefirs do not contain any dairy. Coconut water and coconut milk are said to be the perfect base for creating fermented kefir because they naturally have carbohydrates present, including sugars, which are needed to be consumed by the yeast during the fermentation process to create healthy bacteria.

Coconut kefir is made in the same way as milk kefir. It contains live active yeast and bacteria that combine to make a traditional starter culture.

It becomes more tart and also carbonated once fermented, and tends to be sweeter and less strongly flavored than milk kefir.

Both types of coconut kefir still taste like natural coconut and also keep all of the nutritional benefits of unfermented plain coconut milk and water (potassium and electrolytes, for example).

Water Kefir

Water kefir tends to have a more subtle taste and a lighter texture than milk kefir, and it’s normally made using sugar water or fruit juice.

Water kefir is made in a similar way as milk and coconut kefirs. Just like milk kefir, plain water kefir can be flavored at home using your own healthy additions and makes a great, healthy alternative to drinking things like soda or processed fruit juice.

You want to use water kefir differently than you use milk kefir. Try adding water kefir to smoothies, healthy desserts, oatmeal, salad dressing, or just drink it plain. Since it has a less creamy texture and is less tart, it’s not the best substitute for dairy products in recipes.

If you’d like to drink water kefir on its own, make sure you buy a kind that’s low in sugar and then consider adding your own fruit or herbs to give it more flavor. Try having water kefir with fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juice, mint, or cucumber to flavor your water kefir naturally, or make a healthy soda alternative by combining water kefir with club soda or seltzer for a virtually sugar-free carbonated drink.

No matter the type of kefir you choose to consume, look for a high-quality brand that’s preferably organic. Choose kefirs that are low in sugar and added flavors, and then try flavoring it yourself at home where you have control over the amount of sugar being used. All types of kefir should be refrigerated, and it’s best to keep them in glass bottles, so that plastic or any BPA that might be present cannot leach into the kefir and offset kefir benefits with harmful toxins.


How to Make Homemade Kefir

You might be wondering now: How exactly does one make homemade kefir to get all these kefir benefits? It’s easier than you think! Goat’s milk is one of the original ways to make kefir, and I highly suggest goat’s milk, which is naturally homogenized and contains less casein than cow’s milk. Goat’s milk is also easier to digest even before the fermentation process begins.

It will result in a thinner kefir than cow’s milk. You don’t want to buy any milk that’s ultra-pasteurized, or UHT milk, as it will not work to make kefir.

To make goat milk kefir at home, simply:

  1. Place the grains in a clear glass jar large enough to hold more than 2 cups, typically a liter size. For every 2 cups of milk, put in 2 tablespoons of grains.
  2. Mix the grains and milk well with a wooden or bamboo utensil.
  3. Cover the jar with a coffee filter or cloth, and secure with a rubber band.
  4. Place the jar out of direct light in a room-temperature place.
  5. Leave to ferment for 1–3 days depending on the level of fermentation and sourness you prefer. Temperature also factors into the fermentation. A cooler climate will take longer to ferment so adjust accordingly. A shorter fermentation leads to a more mild flavor, and the longer it goes, the zestier it will be. Ideally, leave for around 24 hours.
  6. Strain the kefir using a plastic strainer, catching the kefir in a cup or container. Immediately place the grains in a new batch of milk to start over, or see storage instructions.

Dairy-free versions of kefir can be made with coconut water, coconut milk or other sweet liquids. These will not have the same nutrient profile as dairy-based kefir and will not carry the calcium to promote bone health — however, they still promote many of the same healing kefir benefits and hold much of the same bacteria strains.

For dairy kefir, remember that valuable whey is the liquid that’s left after the milk cultures, especially when milk kefir over-cultures — separating into curds and whey. Whey can be used to create cheese, in soups or as a starter culture for other fermenting foods.

Once you make your kefir, you can add it to so many things, such as smoothies, spreads, in sourdough bread, in soups, ice creams and more. There are actually tons of ways to use kefir on an everyday basis and take advantage of all these remarkable kefir benefits.


How to Choose and Use Kefir

If you want to make your own kefir, you can buy powder starters. These powders typically contain roughly seven to nine strains of bacteria and are good for people who don’t want to have a continuous batch of kefir grains to maintain (I’ll explain more shortly). Unlike packets or store-bought kefir, kefir grains are self-sustainable since they actually grow and make new grains at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent each time they’re fed. Genuine kefir grains themselves carry over 40 strains of probiotics and must be transferred immediately from batch to batch to remain active and alive. Another unique positive to making your own kefir (aside from big cost savings) is homemade kefir is often carbonated as opposed to the packaged kind.

You may also use water kefir as a substitute for traditional milk kefir if you’re a vegan. Water kefir uses crystal or salt-like grains instead of the white, cloudy type and feeds off of sugar instead of lactose. It provides most, if not all, of the same kefir benefits but has a slightly different, fizzy taste and mouthfeel. It’s clear or colored by juice as opposed to milky in appearance as well, and it’s in the family of kombucha.

It’s important if you’re buying grains online for both milk and water kefir to buy from a reputable dealer who packages them fresh and has not previously dehydrated the grains. If you purchase the grains, they should be shipped overnight or express.

If you want to take a break from your kefir making, you may also store the grains in the refrigerator or a cool place, covered with sugar water or fresh milk. Change out the milk every couple of weeks. It’s important not to squeeze out the grains or wash them with soap or detergent. Transfer and store them using non-metallic surfaces, utensils and containers. You may also rinse off the grains if they begin to go bad, but only use cold spring water. If you’re considering storing them, please note you will have to spend a few days “waking them” back up with a process of sugar feedings.


Kefir vs. Yogurt

So how does kefir stack up against probiotic yogurt? Let’s take a look:

Culture Starters:

  • Yogurt cultures come from thermophilic strains and need to be heated to be activated in a yogurt maker. There are also strains from mesophilic as well.
  • Kefir comes solely from mesophilic strains, which cultures at room temperature and does not require heating at all. 

Probiotics:

  • Yogurt contains two to seven types of probiotics, good bacteria strains.
  • Kefir contains 10–34 strains of probiotics, also contains beneficial yeast strains as well. 

Activity:

  • Yogurt contains transient bacteria to help clean and line the gut, giving food to the good bacteria. They go in and don’t stay.
  • Kefir bacteria can actually attach to the walls and colonize to stay and regulate. They’re also aggressive in nature and can actually go out and attack pathogens and bad bacteria in your gut. 

Making It and Flavor:

  • Yogurt is generally made heating milk and adding a bacteria starter in powder form. You can then extract a mother strain and use that to make more batches of yogurt.
  • Kefir is made from kefir grains, which are actually clusters of bacteria and yeast that are added to room-temperature milk, then strained and used for another batch within 24 hours. 
  • Yogurt is thicker and milder and is dependent on the starter one uses to make the yogurt. You can strain it further to make it extra thick (a la greek yogurt).
  • Kefir is generally thinner and sold as drink. Kefir tends to be more sour than yogurt and has a slight buttermilk taste with a hint of yeast. 

History of Kefir

Kefir, derived from the Turkish word keyif, or “feeling good,” comes from the Eastern European Caucasus Mountains. It’s thought that sheep herders accidentally fermented milk in their leather flasks. The potency and powerful effects of the mixture soon spread around the tribes and was later picked up by Russian doctors, who heard of its legendary healing benefits and used it to help treat ailments like tuberculosis in the 19th century. 

There are various myths as to how the grains were founded, including notable religious tales that the prophet Muhammad brought the grains to the mountain tribes (they’re also called “grains of the Prophet” by some), and they were also specifically mentioned in the Old Testament as the “manna” that fed the Israelites in the desert for so many years. (16)

Highly consumed in the Eastern European countries, it was traditionally made in skin bags and hung above doorways to consistently knock the bag to mix the concoction of milk and kefir grains. Mass production of kefir didn’t begin until the mid-1900s in Russia and produced 1.2 million tons of the fermented product by the late 20th century. 

Kefir is reaching a worldwide phenomenon at this point. Sales in the United States alone by Lifeway, which accounts for 97 percent all Kefir sales in the U.S., reported a growth from $58 million in 2009 to over $130 million in 2014. (17)


Potential Side Effects of Kefir

There are not many side effects for drinking kefir as it’s considered very safe and actually helps the body recover from many things. Some possible kefir side effects include initial use problems, such as constipation and intestinal cramping, if your system is worn down, severely compromised or not used to having these certain types of yeast and bacterial strains in them.


Final Thoughts on Kefir Benefits

  • More and more people are learning about and loving the amazing qualities of kefir and kefir benefits, a true probiotic powerhouse. Kefir is more potent than yogurt and has the ability to stay in your gut to heal and attack pathogens.
  • Kefir has been around for centuries and is extremely easy to make in your own home. The success and power of your kefir relies on the quality of the grains, so it’s paramount to find reputable dealers selling top-rate, fresh grains in order to optimize kefir benefits.
  • The integrative effect of kefir on the bacteria and flora in the gut has a systemic impact and can vastly improve your digestive issues, allergies, as well as fight carcinogens and pathogens.
  • Kefir benefits include its ability to to boost your immune system, build bone density, fight cancer, improve digestion, fight IBS and IBD, improve allergies, boost skin health, and improve lactose intolerance symptoms.

Read Next: Amasai: Probiotic Beverage that Boosts Immunity & Gut Health


From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.

Josh Axe

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