Kefir is one of the oldest and most healthful cultured milk products known to man. It has a tart refreshing taste and is filled with both good bacteria as well as beneficial yeast that work together to restore the inner ecosystem.

In addition to helping heal the digestive system, this enzyme rich fermented drink aids in the assimilation of important vitamins and minerals and has a very soothing effect on the nervous system.

Grains of the Prophet

The word kefir means “feel good” in Turkish, and it is in the Caucasian Mountains that this lacto fermented wonder is believed to have originated. The Prophet Mohammed gifted the orthodox peoples of the region with the magical kefir grain and instructed them how to use it.

These ‘grains of the prophet’ were passed down from generation to generation and were considered part of a family’s wealth. It is rumored that Mohammed forbade the Caucasians from sharing the grains with other cultures for fear it would diminish its healing power.

Russian doctors took notice of kefir in the late nineteenth century, but it was extremely difficult to obtain. Legend has it that members of the All Russian Physicians Society devised a plan to obtain the coveted grain from a local Caucasian prince, Bek-Mirza Barchorov.

The plan worked, and the first kefir grains were to taken to the Moscow Dairy in 1908. Large scale production began in Russia in the 1930s.

Today, kefir is the most popular fermented drink in Russia and is made available to Russian school children each morning. This natural probiotic is commercially produced in many other countries including Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, the United States, France, West Germany and Southeast Asia.

Health Benefits

As mentioned above, kefir contains beneficial bacteria (lactobacillus and streptococcus) and beneficial yeast (saccharomyces and torula) that work together to restore the intestinal flora and to produce antibiotic properties. That’s right; this fermented milk acts as a natural antibiotic.

Kefir is slightly mucus forming, but in a good way. The digestive tract is coated with clear mucus lining which produces a more conducive environment for beneficial microflora to colonize. This increases the effectiveness of probiotics taken through other foods and supplements.

Kefir is rich in minerals such as phosphorous and essential amino acids such as Tryptophan.

Tryptophan plays a crucial role in calming the nervous system as it is converted by the body (with the help of calcium, magnesium and vitamin B6 – all found in kefir) into the neurotransmitter Serotonin, which is essential for a healthy mental state and sound sleep.

Phosphorus, the 2nd most abundant mineral in our body, helps the utilization of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, which aid in cellular growth and maintenance.

The complete proteins found in this effervescent beverage are readily available to be utilized by the body as they are already partially digested by the beneficial bacteria during lacto-fermentation.

In addition to being mineral rich, kefir is also abundant in B-complex vitamins as well as vitamin K.

Vitamin K is essential for enhancing liver function, increasing vitality and promoting longevity.

B-complex vitamins are perhaps the most important factor for a healthy nervous system. Many people are deficient in this area and this leads to tiredness, nervousness, irritability, depression, anemia, neuritis and constipation.

Following is a description of the important B vitamins found in kefir along with their function:

  • B7 (bioton) – aids in the bodies absorption of proteins as well as other B vitamins such as B12, pantothenic acid(B5) and folic acid, required for healthy skin and hair
  • B12 – essential for the formation of red blood cells, builds immunity, increases energy, promotes longevity, works with folic acid to synthesize choline which helps regulate liver, kidney and gallbladder functions, aids in the absorption of vitamin A
  • B1 (thiamine) – helps maintain stomach acidity and regulates appetite, calms the nervous system, improves muscle tone of intestines, stomach and heart
  • B6 (pyridoxamine) – needed for metabolism of protein, helps maintain fluid balance

Lactose Intolerance

People who have trouble digesting dairy often do fine with milk kefir. The reason for this is that it contains lactic acid producing bacteria such as lactobacilli. These bacteria go to work by breaking down both milk sugars (lactose) and milk proteins (casein), thus making it much more easily digestible than typical dairy products.

If you are lactose intolerant and hesitant to start with milk kefir, an excellent alternative is to start with kefir made from the water of young coconuts. Young coconut kefir provides many of the same benefits and contains no dairy. As your digestive tract is strengthened, you will be able to transition to kefir made from milk.

How to make Kefir from Grains

Traditionally, kefir has been made by combining cow, goat, ox or sheep milk with a gelatinous white or yellow particle called a ‘grain’.
Kefir Grain
The grain is made up of a combination of bacteria and yeast, which are clumped together with casein (milk proteins) and polysaccharides (complex sugars). These grains look like pieces of coral or cauliflower.

To make kefir using a traditional grain, simply place the grain in a mason jar (approx. 16-32oz), and then pour milk (preferably raw or un-pasteurized) until the jar is about two thirds full.

Place the lid on the jar, then let stand for approx 24 hours at room temperature. A shorter fermentation period, say 12 hours, will result in a thinner sweeter tasting drink, while a longer fermentation period, say 36 hours, will result in a thicker more sour product.

Temperature plays a big role in the fermentation process. The warmer the temperature, the quicker the fermentation will occur and vice versa.

Note: if you let the contents stand too long, you will end up with cheese and whey!

Once the kefir is ready, open the lid and gently stir the contents. This removes the excess kefiran (polysaccharide substance that develops around the grains) and results in a more even consistency.

Gently remove the grain(s) with a spoon and immediately place in another clean jar. You will add milk to this new jar to start a new batch.

You may then immediately consume or store the batch you have just made. Kefir will last for weeks in the fridge as the cold temperature greatly slows the fermentation process.

How to make Kefir from Starter Culture

An alternative to using an actual grain, is to utilize a ‘starter’, that is a powder that contains the beneficial bacteria and yeast contained within a grain.

To make kefir using a starter (I recommend this one), simply fill the mason jar (16-32oz.) two thirds full with milk, then pour in the starter powder and stir.

Close the lid and let stand. Again, let the contents sit at room temperature for approximately 24 hours. You may regularly taste the mixture to determine when it has reached your desired tartness.

Once the kefir is ready, gently stir with a spoon to even the consistency.

Next, pour a small portion of the batch into a new jar to which you will add milk for the next batch.Instructions for the exact amount to transfer to the new batch are included in the starter package.

Consume the remaining kefir or store in the fridge.

Storing Grains/Starter

Kefir grains are constantly propagating, and you will notice that your culture will grow over time. You may carefully divide the grain in order to share with a friend, etc. To store an extra grain, simply rinse with water then place in a jar with approximately ½ cup of filtered water. Grains can be stored for weeks in the refrigerator or several months in the freezer.

Starter culture (packets) should also be refrigerated as per the directions on the package.

Which is better: starter or grain?

In my experience both work well. The advantage to a grain is that it lasts forever, thus saving money over the long haul, though it is a little messier to handle.

I have noticed that when using a starter, the kefir seems to take on a smoother consistency and perhaps a slightly sweeter taste. This could be due other factors such as the fermentation time though.

Additionally, a starter is a little easier to obtain.

I personally use and recommend the Body Ecology Kefir Starter.

How Much and When to Take

It is best to drink kefir on an empty stomach either in the morning and/or night. Drinking kefir before you go to bed is especially beneficial as the good bacteria have an easier time colonizing while the body is at rest in a horizontal position. Start with approx 4 ounces per serving, eventually moving up to approx 8 ounces per day.

Adding Sweetener

If you (or your child) don’t enjoy the tart taste of this effervescent drink, you can add a little sweetener or blend with acid fruits such as strawberries, lemons, limes, grapefruits, pineapples, or blueberries to make a delicious smoothie.

I would recommend a natural sweetener such as raw agave nectar or stevia as they do not wreak havoc on blood glucose levels the way sugar does. Stevia, has absolutely no effect on blood sugar and is therefore completely safe for diabetics.

A Word on Cleanliness

Remember that kefir is a living culture, and it is important to not contaminate it. Always use clean jars and utensils and make sure your hands are clean while handling the grain/starter.

Click here to learn about Coconut Kefir, a dairy free probiotic alternative.