‘I sorted my family’s
health problems with probiotic food’
Donna Schwenk and her
family were suffering from everything from diabetes to IBS— until she
discovered an ancient natural probiotic
I was 41 years old and
holding my new baby in my arms, but it wasn’t the beautiful experience I had
My little one was born
seven weeks prematurely and weighed only four pounds—and I was the cause. I had
had severe preeclampsia, my liver had started shutting down, and the doctor
said my daughter had to be delivered immediately. This is not how I had
imagined the experience. But the signs had been there. The pregnancy wasn’t
easy, and I had developed gestational diabetes.
But the birth was over, my
baby was going to be fine, and my diabetes disappeared. I thought everything
was returning to normal, but several months later, the diabetes returned and an
alarm bell went off in my head. I knew a lot about diabetes—I’d seen it
firsthand in my own family, and I learned a lot from my friends and family
members who work in the medical field. And as I looked at my beautiful baby in
my lap, I knew I had to change. I wanted to be vibrant and healthy for this
little one, and I knew I couldn’t raise her the way I wanted to if I had
Holli was 10-and-a-half
months old when she decided to stop nursing. Normally this wouldn’t have been
an issue, but it was a big problem for a baby born seven weeks too early.
Babies receive some immunity protection from their mothers during the last six
weeks in the womb. Premature babies like Holli don’t get that safeguard. When
she was born, the hospital staff stressed that the only way to protect her was
to nurse her as often as possible for a year or two.
Without the immunity
shield, preemies are more susceptible to all kinds of complications from
everyday colds and viruses. As soon as Holli stopped breastfeeding, I witnessed
this firsthand. She began having frequent colds and countless sleepless nights.
Then one afternoon in a
healthfood store, I stumbled upon a book called The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates. I picked up the book and
it fell open to a page on kefir and an explanation of kefir’s benefits. I was
intrigued. The next book on the shelf was Nourishing Traditions by Sally
Fallon. When I opened that book, I happened to turn to a page on kefir. Just
then, a store employee walked by. He stopped, turned to me and said, “That is
the most important book you’ll ever read. You should pay attention. It could
change everything you thought you knew.” Then he just strolled away.
I had never heard of kefir
and yet in the space of a few minutes, two books had opened to pages on it, and
a total stranger had told me to pay attention. So I walked over to the dairy
section, found kefir, grabbed a bottle and put it in my cart—along with those
Kefir is a fermented milk
drink that has been around for thousands of years. Because of its long history,
there are many claims and legends associated with it: people in the Caucasus
Mountains maintain that kefir is the reason for their legendary longevity. In
Turkey, scrolls from Abraham declared that his long life was due to fermented
milk products. It’s said that Muhammad claimed that kefir grains were a gift
from Allah and that Noah got his grains from angels on the Ark.
The consistency of kefir is
creamy, sometimes bubbly and similar to pourable yoghurt, but kefir is not yoghurt. Homemade kefir has between 30
and 56 strains of good bacteria, while yoghurt has only seven to 10. And the
types of bacteria in kefir are also quite different from those in yoghurt.
The bacteria in yoghurt
pass through the body within 24 hours, their main purpose being to sustain the
good bacteria that already reside in the digestive system. Kefir, however, is a
source of those good bacteria. The bacteria in kefir stay and take up
residence, creating a colony that remains in the digestive system.
I immediately began to add
one to two teaspoons of kefir to each of Holli’s bottles. What happened then
shocked me. In one month my baby had gained four pounds—a lot for a preemie.
She had colour in her cheeks and was sleeping through the night. She stopped
spitting up everything and she began to thrive. So we upped her kefir intake
and, in a short time, she became the healthiest person in the house.
I started drinking kefir
too and began noticing an interesting trend in my body. When I drank a glass of
kefir every day, my blood pressure would go down—and not just a little. It
dropped significantly, putting me back within the normal range. When I skipped
my kefir, my blood pressure would start creeping back up within three days or
so. I started doing experiments on myself to see if it was truly the kefir that
was making the difference. After many trial runs, I was convinced that it was
the kefir that was healing me.
A couple of months later, I
discovered that my personal experience was backed by research showing that
consuming fermented milk products can lower blood pressure in people with mild
hypertension.1 To combat high blood
pressure, doctors often prescribe what is known as an ACE inhibitor, a drug
that dilates blood vessels, resulting in lower blood pressure. But some strains
of probiotic food produce their own ACE-inhibiting substances during the
fermentation process; Lactobacillus helveticus, found in high concentrations
in kefir, was identified as the most effective.
Kefir may also have
properties that assist in controlling blood sugar because it’s loaded with
lactic acid and enzymes that regulate sugar metabolism. My blood sugar quickly
fell into the normal range when I added kefir to my diet. It was quite
miraculous to me—and I have noticed this phenomenon in others who attended my
In one study, researchers
discovered that giving a diabetes-prone breed of mice Lactobacillus casei—one
of the probiotic bacteria found in abundance in kefir—prevented the mice from
developing diabetes when the disease was induced by regulating immune
The basis of your
Inside each and every one
of us there is a whole world of living organisms that, for the most part, go
unnoticed and unacknowledged. This is the world of the human gut and its
These bacteria are
responsible for many of the biological processes that influence your life. They
supply us with necessary vitamins and protect us against disease-causing
invaders. They break down sugars and proteins and provide us with energy. The
breakdown of sugars is basically fermentation that happens in our colon, and
the end result is the production of short-chain fatty acids, which do a host of
great things. They prevent the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella
by making the environment in the large intestine more acidic. They are also
phenomenal sources of energy because they’re so easily absorbed by the body. If
the bacteria in our gut aren’t able to break down and process our food into
short-chain fatty acids, our bodies will simply excrete it without gaining the
benefit of the energy the food can provide, which can be up to 10 per cent of a
healthy individual’s daily energy needs.
Bacteria are also involved
in synthesizing hormones and vitamin precursors, plus they’re almost entirely
responsible for making our body’s supply of vitamin B12, a nutrient that
supports the health of the body’s nerve and blood cells.
These are just a few of the
millions of things that bacteria do every day inside of you. But they can’t do
this entirely on their own. It’s important to cultivate good gut bacteria so
they can crowd out and overpower the toxic ones. That’s what cultured foods do.
Foods like kefir are packed with powerful, beneficial bacteria that enhance the
flora in your gut. Ingesting these bacteria leads to colonization and so a
healthy immune force. Plus, experimental studies also suggest that ingesting
healthy bacteria may have other health benefits, like lowering blood sugar and
blood cholesterol levels (see box, page 66).
Many people wonder if
probiotic pills provide the same benefit, as they seem to be marketed in the
same way—as healthy bacteria for our gut. But probiotic foods work
significantly better because of their construction.
To get into the small
intestine and colon, where they do the work of breaking down and processing
food and powering up the immune system, the bacteria first have to move through
the stomach, but the stomach is filled with acid designed to kill bacteria.
When you eat a probiotic food, the food itself provides a protective armour
that helps shield the friendly bacteria. It also speeds its transport out of
the stomach, thus keeping the good bacteria intact. Probiotic pills are often
trapped in the acids of the stomach, sometimes killing the probiotics before
the body ever gets a chance to use them.
I saw a huge difference
between my two older children who didn’t eat probiotic foods as infants and the
one who did. My older children struggled with ear infections and doctor’s
visits due to illness. My youngest daughter, who was given kefir, has yet to
visit a doctor due to illness—and she was the one I was told had a shaky immune
system because she was a preemie. I have also seen this in myself. Since I
started eating cultured foods, I’ve been extraordinarily healthy.
My daughter Maci, who
didn’t grow up on cultured foods, went through some pretty miserable times
before I brought these foods fully into our lives.
When she was just 16, she
would wake up every morning, drag herself to the kitchen and say, “Mum, I don’t
feel good. I never feel good.” She was constantly tired, and suffered the pain
and discomfort of general digestive issues. She was unable to eat wheat and
every week the list of foods that hurt her got longer.
We took her to doctor after
doctor, each of whom came to the conclusion that she was probably dealing
with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but no one was willing to give a strict
diagnosis. Finally, one doctor suggested that she needed surgery to remove her
We had already found kefir,
but I hadn’t yet discovered the power of all the other cultured foods. When I
began researching, I found that these foods were great options for naturally
addressing Maci’s underlying problem, rather than merely treating the symptoms
by eliminating certain foods from her diet.
What I discovered was that
the lining of Maci’s gut was damaged. Stress and a lack of nutrient-dense foods
were destroying her: she wasn’t getting enough of the right bacteria and
enzymes to transform her food into the vitamins and fatty acids her body needed
to stay healthy. Years of antibiotics had stripped her of all her good
bacteria, so her food wasn’t being processed correctly and she felt ill because
of this. So I started her on a diet that would help bring the desirable
bacteria back and heal her gut.
Maci starting eating
cultured foods at every meal: kefir for breakfast, one to two tablespoons of
cultured (fermented) veggies at lunch and dinner, and coconut kefir to drink at
every meal. I also served her a lot of soups made from bone broths. (Bone
broths are healing to the digestive tract because of the collagen they
contain.) She also took coconut oil by the tablespoon, usually three
tablespoons a day.
All these foods are healing
to the gut, and each one plays a different part in the process. Today, Maci has
a fully functioning, pain-free digestive system. She can eat whatever she wants
and she has more energy than you can imagine.
Another benefit of kefir is
that the types of bacteria it contains help alleviate inflammation throughout
the gut.3 Controlling inflammation
is critical because many diseases are caused or affected by it.
If your body’s ability to
regulate inflammation is not working properly, you’re headed toward illness and
Finally, kefir enhances
digestion because its milk sugars have been predigested by the fermentation
process, making it extremely low in sugar: kefir is only 1 per cent sugar,
while yoghurt is 4 per cent. This predigestion also helps regulate the immune
system’s response, leading to less stress throughout the body.
I started my life with
kefir by drinking a good brand of kefir found in healthfood stores and many
large grocery stores, but eventually bought kefir culture starter packets so I
could start making my own. And finally, I purchased living kefir grains and
have been preparing kefir with these ever since. (These ‘grains’, resembling
tiny spongy cauliflower florets, are actually complex microorganisms composed
of bacteria, yeasts and enzymes.)
The store-bought variety
has only a fraction of the bacterial strains—10 for the retail type compared
with 30 to 56 for homemade. It’s also much less expensive to make it, plus you
can customize the flavours to suit your personal taste.
There are two ways to make
kefir. You can use live kefir grains that reproduce and last a lifetime if you
treat them right (I’ve had mine for more than 11 years!), or you can purchase
kefir freeze-dried culture packets.
If you’re not lucky enough
to have a friend with grains to spare, kefir grains can be purchased from a
number of reliable sources. I recommend raw (unpasteurized) goat’s or cow’s
milk for the maximum benefits, but as raw milk isn’t available everywhere, the
next best thing is pasteurized whole milk.
Skimmed and low-fat milk—as
well as almond and coconut milk—also work, but whole milk provides the most
food for the grains. Do not use ultra-pasteurized or lactose-free milk. And
never heat your grains or place them in a jar still hot from the dishwasher.
Heat and lack of food are the two things that will kill kefir grains.
Health benefits of
evidence suggests that kefir may have a host of health benefits:
1. Stimulates the immune system. Peptides formed during fermentation or
digestion appear to do the job, at least in animal studies.1
2. Stops tumour growth. Although most dairy products have been implicated
in the promotion of prostate and other cancers, a polysaccharide isolated from
kefir grains, whether in cow or soy milk, appears to inhibit a variety of
tumours, including lung cancer cells and melanoma—again in animal studies.2
3. Allows better digestion and tolerance of lactose in the
lactose-intolerant. Gassiness and
digestion has been improved in both animals and humans given kefir.3
4. Improves digestion generally. Studies in animals show that regularly
consuming kefir helps bacteria in the bowel grow significantly.4
5. Provides a natural antibiotic. Kefir has been shown to inhibit E.
coli and Streptoccocus bacteria.5
6. May help reduce cholesterol. Small studies show that blood triglycerides
are lower and good high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol slightly
increased in those consuming kefir compared with milk for four weeks.6 ?
You can use the method
below to make any amount of kefir you desire; just keep in mind that a good
rule of thumb is to use 1 Tbsp of kefir grains per cup of milk. So if you want
to make 1 cup of kefir, use 1 Tbsp of kefir grains and 1 cup of milk. For 2
cups of kefir, use 2 Tbsp of kefir grains and 2 cups of milk, and so on.
Step 1: Place the kefir grains in a glass jar that can be
securely sealed. I like canning jars with plastic lids, but you can use any jar
that closes securely.
Step 2: Using the 1 Tbsp to 1 cup ratio of kefir grains to
milk, add the appropriate amount of milk to the jar.
Step 3: Securely seal the jar, and leave it on your kitchen
counter away from direct sunlight or in a cabinet at room temperature for 24
Step 4: After 24 hours, remove the kefir grains using a
slotted spoon or mesh strainer. (The strainer can be stainless steel or
plastic.) Add the kefir grains to fresh milk to begin another fermentation or
Step 5: Transfer the strained kefir to your refrigerator. At
this point, it is ready to use. You can keep kefir in your fridge in a sealed
container for up to one year. But remember, the longer it’s in the fridge, the
more sour it will become because the bacteria eat the lactose in milk.
Almond/coconut milk kefir
is a great alternative to dairy kefir if you are avoiding dairy for any reason.
The probiotic content is just as high, and they also contain supercharged
Just keep in mind that kefir grains do not survive in
almond or coconut milk in the long term. They grow and thrive by feeding on the
lactose in dairy milk and, as almond and coconut milk have no lactose, the
grains will need to be refreshed in dairy milk once a week or more. Leave them
in a few cups of milk and let them eat the lactose. You can then reuse the
grains to make basic almond/coconut milk kefir. The same rule of thumb applies
as for dairy kefir: 1 Tbsp of kefir grains per cup of milk. So if you want to
make 1 cup of kefir, use 1 Tbsp of kefir grains and 1 cup of milk. For 2 cups
of kefir, use 2 Tbsp of kefir grains and 2 cups of milk, and so on.
Step 1: Place the kefir grains in a glass jar that can be
securely sealed, like a canning jar with a plastic lid.
Step 2: Using the 1 Tbsp to 1 cup ratio of kefir grains to
milk, add the appropriate amount of almond or coconut milk to the jar.
Step 3: Securely seal the jar, and leave the jar on your
kitchen counter away from direct sunlight or in a cabinet at room temperature
for 18 to 24 hours. Almond or coconut milk will culture faster than dairy milk.
Step 4: After 18–24 hours, remove the kefir grains with a
slotted spoon or mesh strainer. (The strainer can be stainless steel or
plastic.) Add the kefir grains to fresh almond or coconut milk to begin another
Kefir Cheese and Kefir
Makes 1 cup kefir
cheese and 1 cup kefir whey 2 cups basic kefir
Place a basket-style coffee
filter in a strainer and set the strainer over a bowl. Pour the kefir into the
coffee filter. Cover the strainer and bowl with plastic wrap and keep it in the
fridge overnight. The bowl will catch the liquid whey, which you can store for
future use. The next day you’ll have a beautiful chunk of kefir cheese.
Storage note: Kefir cheese can be stored in a covered airtight
container in the fridge for up to one month, as can the kefir whey too.
Strawberry, Lemon and
Basil Kefir Pie
The combination of
strawberries with lemon and basil is like a taste of spring. The basil doesn’t
overpower; it simply imparts a fresh, sweet flavour. It’s delicious any time of
year, but particularly scrumptious as a special Valentine’s Day treat.
You can make the
almond flour yourself by crushing almonds in a food processor.
For the gluten-free
cups almond flour
Tbsp melted butter
or 4 chopped dates
For the filling
Tbsp unflavoured gelatin
¾ cup milk
cup kefir cheese or cream cheese
tsp vanilla extract
or 6 basil leaves, chopped
and juice of 1 lemon
cup basic kefir
Tbsp honey, Sucanat or Stevia
cup chopped fresh strawberries
When I was a little girl, I
pretended we had elves in our house. I imagined they worked for us while we
slept, and in the morning we would find a new pair of shoes and breakfast
waiting for us. This recipe is like having elves. Just place the ingredients in
the fridge the night before, and the next morning you will have a thick creamy
kefir breakfast pudding... just like elves would make!
Makes 1 serving
1 cup basic kefir
cup fruit of your choice, plus extra for topping
¼ cup oatmeal of your
choice (old-fashioned, rolled, instant or steel-cut)
1½ tsp chia seeds
Honey, Sucanat or Stevia to
Put all ingredients except
sweetener in a 1-pint canning jar. Cap the jar and shake vigorously. Keep the
jar in the fridge overnight. When ready to serve, transfer the pudding to a
bowl and top it with more fruit and sweetener, if used.
from Donna Schwenk’s new book Cultured Foods for Life: How to Make and Serve
Delicious Probiotic Foods for Better Health and Wellness (Hay House, 2014).
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J Clin Gastroenterol, 2003; 36: 111–9; Karpa KD. Bacteria
for Breakfast: Probiotics for Good Health. Victoria, BC, Canada: Trafford
Publishing, 2003: 72
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