Why Kefir May Be Just What Your Belly Needs

Is Kefir the New Yogurt?

Pitcher and glass of kefir
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Yogurt certainly gets it fair share of attention, but there is a new kid in town - a new kid that is actually centuries old. Here we will take a look at what kefir is, what its health benefits are, and what it can possibly do for your digestive health.

What Is Kefir?

Like yogurt, kefir is a fermented food, meaning that its preparation involves the cultivation and preservation of probiotic (good for you!) microorganisms.

Kefir differs from yogurt in that it contains a wide variety of probiotic bacteria and yeasts, as opposed to yogurt which has a more limited amount of bacteria strains and no yeast. With its thinner consistency, kefir is typically served as a drink, as opposed to yogurt which is typically eaten with a spoon. Kefir has a pleasant, yogurt-like, slightly tart taste.

Kefir is traditionally prepared using milk from cows, goats or sheep. Kefir can also be cultivated from milk substitutes such as coconut milk, rice milk, or soy milk. Fermentation occurs when the milk is blended with kefir grains, not a true grain, but rather a starter culture that contains bacteria and yeast. These grains increase in number during the fermentation process and are often strained from the kefir to be used again.

Health Benefits of Kefir

It is no fluke that kefir has enjoyed such enduring popularity. Ancient wisdom is now being backed by modern research.

Kefir's rich and varied microbial make-up results in a wide variety of health advantages to those who drink it regularly. In scientific studies, evidence has been mounting for the following health-enhancing effects of kefir. Specifically, it is believed that kefir:

  • Is an excellent source of many important vitamins, amino acids and minerals.
  • Helps to ward off harmful bacteria.
  • Plays an anti-inflammatory role within the body.
  • Helps to support the immune system.
  • Promotes healing.
  • Enhances intestinal health
  • May help to fight or reduce the risk of cancer.
  • May help to lower cholesterol.
  • May promote healing of peptic ulcers.

Kefir and Lactose Intolerance

Kefir may be the exception to the rule - a dairy product that can be enjoyed by people who have lactose intolerance. Kefir has a much lower level of lactose than milk. In addition, kefir appears to stimulate the actions of enzymes needed for the digestion of lactose. Of particular interest is a small study that found that kefir improved the ability of study participants who had lactose intolerance to digest and tolerate lactose.

Kefir and Constipation

Another small study examined the effect of consuming kefir on the symptoms of functional chronic constipation. (Unfortunately, those with IBS were not included in the study, nor was there a comparison control group.) Study participants drank kefir twice a day for a month.

Results indicated that drinking the kefir improved participants' stool frequency and consistency, decreased the amount of laxatives they used, and hastened the transit of stool through the colon. Results can only be viewed as preliminary, but certainly are promising.

Kefir for IBS

Unfortunately, there is not yet any research on the effect that drinking kefir might have on IBS symptoms. However, with the potential that it can promote a favorable bacterial balance in the large intestine, improve lactose digestion, and perhaps improve stool consistency, it may be something to consider if you are trying to get IBS under control. If you can tolerate kefir, it is likely that you will be enhancing both your digestive and overall health.

It is also unfortunate that kefir has not yet been tested by the researchers at Monash University for its FODMAP content. However, given the research indicating that kefir is a low-lactose food, it is very likely that kefir will ultimately be found to be low in FODMAPs.

If you have IBS and have found that your system is extremely reactive to milk products, you do have the option of trying a coconut milk kefir. Although coconut milk kefir has not been tested for its FODMAP content, coconut milk itself has been tested, with a 1/2 cup serving found to be low in FODMAPs.

Sources:

Hertzler, S. & Clancy, S. "Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion" Journal of the Academy of Nutrtion and Dietetics 2003 103:582–587.

Turan, I., et.al. "Effects of a kefir supplement on symptoms, colonic transit, and bowel satisfaction score in patients with chronic constipation: A pilot study" Turkish Journal of Gastroenterology 2014 25:650-656.

Leite, A., et.al. "Microbiological, technological and therapeutic properties of kefir: a natural probiotic beverage" Brazilian Journal of Microbiology 2013 44:341-349.

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