Our understanding of how good nutrition can make a big difference has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. One area that has certainly captured the imagination in recent times is the gut microbiome, particularly how this has a big impact on overall health and well-being.
Your gut microbiome is a complex community of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes, that reside in the gastrointestinal tract. It is sometimes referred to as the gut flora or gut microbiota.
This community is incredibly diverse and contains trillions of microorganisms, including thousands of different species. It plays a crucial role in various aspects of our health, immune function, metabolism and even mental health. Small changes to your diet can make a big difference to this microbiome.
We now know that the gut and brain communicate through a complex network known as the gut-brain axis, and the gut microbiome may influence brain function and behaviour by producing and interacting with various chemicals and neurotransmitters.
Maintaining a healthy gut is important, and strategies such as eating a balanced diet rich in fibre, and consuming probiotics and fermented foods, including kefir, can help promote full diversity and has many beneficial functions. Similarly, eating too many processed foods can adversely affect the microbiome and make us more prone to stomach problems and issues such as inflammation.
What is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented dairy product that is similar to yoghurt but has a thinner consistency. It is made by fermenting milk with kefir grains, which are a combination of bacteria and yeast that form a symbiotic culture. These grains resemble small cauliflower florets and have a gelatinous texture.
Kefir is known for its probiotic properties, as it contains a diverse range of beneficial bacteria and yeast strains. These microorganisms help support a healthy gut microbiome and contribute to digestion and overall gut health. Kefir is often consumed for its potential probiotic benefits, as it may aid in improving digestion, can boost the immune system and helps promote overall good gut health.
In addition to its probiotic content, kefir is an amazing source of various nutrients, including protein, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin K2. It is typically consumed as a beverage, either plain or flavoured, but it can also be used as an ingredient in smoothies, salad dressings and other recipes.
Kefir is now more widely available in many supermarkets, but it can also be made at home using kefir starter cultures or by obtaining kefir grains from someone who already has them. Homemade kefir allows for customisation of the flavour and provides the opportunity to experiment with different types of milk or plant-based alternatives like oat milk.
The Benefits of Kefir
Kefir has several potential health benefits due to its unique composition of beneficial bacteria, yeasts and nutrients. While scientific research is ongoing, here are some of the potential benefits we already know about:
- Probiotic properties: Kefir is rich in probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that support a healthy gut microbiome. These probiotics can help improve digestion, alleviate symptoms of lactose intolerance and enhance nutrient absorption.
- Gut health: The diverse array of bacteria and yeasts in kefir can also help restore and maintain a healthy balance of microorganisms in the gut. This certainly contributes to improved digestive function (something you may notice in around a week of consuming it), reduced inflammation and enhanced immune response.
- Improved lactose digestion: Kefir contains enzymes, such as lactase, that break down lactose, the sugar present in milk. This makes it more easily digestible for individuals with lactose intolerance, potentially allowing them to enjoy dairy without previous discomfort.
- Enhanced immune function: The probiotics in kefir stimulate the immune system, promoting a stronger defence against harmful pathogens and reducing the risk of certain infections. Recent research shows that it has an impact on macrophage production and boosts the activity of proinflammatory cytokines
- Anti-inflammatory effects: Some studies suggest that kefir may possess anti-inflammatory properties, which could be beneficial for individuals with conditions influenced by chronic inflammation. These include digestive disorders and autoimmune conditions.
- Nutritional value: Kefir is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin K2. These nutrients play essential roles in maintaining overall health, for example, supporting bone health and improving energy levels.
- Potential mental health benefits: Emerging research suggests a link between the gut microbiome and mental health. As kefir can help maintain a healthy gut microbiome, it may indirectly support mental well-being. However, more research is needed to fully understand this relationship.
- Lower cholesterol: More recent research has shown that kefir may aid in reducing high levels of cholesterol. A small study gave the drink to 13 individuals over 4 weeks and found that LDL and HDL cholesterol was reduced between 10.64 and 6.9% respectively.
It’s worth noting that individual responses to kefir may vary and its benefits can depend on factors such as the specific strains of microorganisms present, overall diet and an individual’s current health status. It’s always a good idea to consult with a nutritionist for advice regarding your specific health needs and how a drink like kefir may help.
How to Make It
To make kefir, the kefir grains are added to milk, typically cow’s milk, but it can also be made from goat’s milk or plant-based alternatives like coconut milk or almond milk. You can now buy kefir grains online from various health stores. Once you receive your grains, all you need to do is add milk to a jar and leave it to ferment for about 24 hours.
The grains metabolise the lactose (milk sugar) in the milk, converting it into lactic acid, carbon dioxide, and a small amount of alcohol. This fermentation process gives kefir its tangy flavour.
You can either drink kefir on its own or add it to things like smoothies for a refreshing yoghurt drink. Adding it to your diet every day should produce positive results and, combined with a healthy diet, can greatly improve your gut biome and overall sense of well-being.