The lowdown on the long-standing “superfood”
Amidst the myriad of health food supplements, “superfoods” and “wonder diets” that flood our inboxes and social media feed, we are continuously searching for the one antidote to our declining vitality and energy levels in our fast-paced environments. Concerns about the levels of chronic health conditions, obesity and mental health are increasing each year. It is often suggested to look back at the diets of our ancestors, and their long-standing traditions, in order to investigate how we could adapt or supplement our current way of eating to maximise our health.
The consumption of fermented food and drinks has occurred globally for thousands of years. It’s been linked to many health benefits such as lowered heart disease, enhanced digestion and, improved mental health. Two health issues currently faced by a large proportion of the population, depression and diabetes, are amongst the conditions impacted in a positive way. One such fermented drink that has gained popularity over the last decade is kefir. The reported health benefits from drinking kefir may be a result of a number of factors. High levels of probiotic micro-organisms (gut friendly bacteria and yeast) being one of them.
This article will encapsulate the information you need on:
* What is kefir?
* What are the possible health benefits?
* Is kefir beneficial for everyone?
* Where to source kefir and how to incorporate it in your diet.
* Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years.
* Possible health benefits include lowered heart disease and depression, and improved digestion.
* Health benefits linked to probiotic content of the foods.
What is kefir?
Kefir is traditionally a homemade fermented dairy drink that originated in the Caucasus region and Eastern Europe. The word kefir is derived from the Turkish word keyif, meaning pleasure. It is a slightly viscous drink, with a tart and acidic flavour, along with a slight effervescence. The beverage is traditionally made by incubating cow’s milk with kefir grains (N.B. these grains are not actually grains, but a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast within a protein capsule). Milk from other dairy sources can also be used, and more recently, soya, nut-milk and even water kefir are possible (special grains are required for water kefir).
The fermentation process results in the natural lactose sugars being broken down by the bacteria and yeast, into smaller molecules such as lactic and acetic acid, resulting in its slightly acidic flavour. Carbon dioxide is released throughout the process, resulting in the slight fizziness of the drink. The bacteria and yeast within the kefir are what are known as probiotic bacteria, which we more commonly refer to as our ‘good bacteria’ in our digestive system.
* Kefir is traditionally a homemade fermented dairy drink.
* Kefir contains a symbiotic community of probiotic bacteria and yeast.
* Fermentation process breaks down the sugars into lactic and acetic acid, alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Proposed health benefits?
There are a number of health benefits and properties assigned to the probiotic micro-organisms and the products of their fermentation: anti-inflammatory, cholesterol lowering, anti-microbial activity, tumour suppression, and improvements in lactose intolerance, digestive health, immune system, and mental health. An impressive list!! Before we get too excited and all start our own kefir fermenting kitchen labs, however, it is worth noting that a large number of these findings have resulted from lab and animal experiments and can’t therefore be directly translated to humans. Clinical studies are growing in number though, so it is hoped to have these results confirmed in humans soon too.
A large proportion of the beneficial properties are believed to be due to the probiotic micro-organisms residing in the fermented milk. These are then bioactive in the gut. Here they play their biggest role in helping to establish a healthy environment.
Elements of the Standard American Diet, or Western Diet (low fibre, high refined carbohydrates, high saturated fat), have been suggested to disrupt our natural gut microbiome (collection of micro-organisms in the gut). By introducing some ‘good bacteria’ into the system, it is proposed that beneficial health markers will improve.
One example of this is a large US study that discovered individuals had a lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes when they consumed a greater amount of yoghurt (yoghurt contains probiotics, albeit a lower concentration compared to kefir). This link was absent with unfermented dairy, suggesting that the probiotic micro-organisms may have been causing this improvement. A large study investigating individuals, with and without diabetes, also showed a trend towards the consumption of fermented dairy products (cheese, yogurt, fermented milk) and a reduced incidence of diabetes.
At some point in our lives, most people will have suffered from digestive issues such as discomfort, bloating and flatulence. When investigating digestive health, individuals suffering from constipation have been shown to have increased stool frequency and improved bowel satisfaction, in a preliminary study, following 4 weeks of kefir supplementation. Kefir has also been used to successfully improve lactose digestion, and reduce the unpleasant flatulent symptoms, in individuals who suffer with lactose maldigestion, a common syndrome for many people. This occurs due to the presence of an enzyme, beta-galactosidase, that breaks down the offending lactose sugars. This, however, is a different mechanism to that involved in dairy allergies, and those allergic individuals should carry on avoiding all dairy products.
* There are multiple health benefits related to kefir.
* Research was initially animal and lab based; however, human studies are becoming more established.
* Kefir has been shown to decrease risk of Type 2 Diabetes, and to improve digestive health in individuals with chronic constipation, and lactose maldigestion.
Probiotics and mental health
In recent years, scientists have discovered bidirectional links between the gut, microbiome (micro-organisms in the gut), and the brain (gut-microbiome-brain axis), that affect the immune system, inflammation and mental health amongst other factors.
A meta-analysis (analysis of a collection of similar studies) showed that when probiotics were consumed either in tablet or yoghurt form, there was a significant reduction in depression scores in both healthy and depressed individuals. This suggests that the probiotics may be altering the communication pathways between the gut and the brain, leading to increased mood. Human studies investigating depression and the consumption of kefir have yet to be carried out, however, similar results would be expected due to the high concentration of probiotic microorganisms.
* There is a connection between the brain, gut and microbiome.
* Probiotic consumption has been reported to lead to reduced depressive scores.
* Kefir may be able to improve depressive mood.
Where can you find kefir, and how do you incorporate it in your diet?
Ok, maybe you’re now convinced about the potential health benefits of kefir and want to get your hands on some? Most supermarkets and health food shops will stock ready-made bottles of plain and flavoured kefir in their fridge cabinets. Be advised to check the sugar content though as sometimes this can be quite high in the flavoured versions. A more economical approach to take is to start your own little kefir factory in your kitchen. You can buy live kefir grains or freeze-dried starter culture sachets on the internet (amazon.co.uk). There are a multitude of You Tube videos and websites to help you learn what to do, and before long you will have an endless supply! It’s worth noting that kefir grains are not all identical, and they vary in their probiotic make-up due to differing points of origin, different strains etc. This may lead to varied results as is sometimes reported in the scientific studies.
How do you incorporate kefir into your diet?
Start slowly! Not everyone reacts the same to consuming these health-promoting little bacteria. Begin with about 100ml kefir for the first couple of days, on an empty stomach, and build up to about 250ml. You can drink it on its own, in smoothies, on your cereal, or even add it to salad dressings! For those suffering with lactose maldigestion, traditional kefir may still be suitable due to the lactose molecules being broken down (see proposed health benefits above). However, if you find you’re still experiencing digestive issues, stop using traditional kefir. Water kefir is a non-dairy based alternative, however, still contains the probiotic micro-organisms and their beneficial fermentation products and is perfect for those with dairy allergies. Immune suppressed individuals, and those with severe GI conditions, should consult their GP before consuming any fermented foods.
Aside from the expensive probiotic supplements, it would appear that kefir provides a good dose of probiotics along with many other beneficial factors. The research is looking very promising towards the fact that fermented foods, like kefir, should be a staple element incorporated into everyone’s diet.
Time to take control of our health, from the inside out!