'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 hoped for.
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 diabetes.
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 two books.
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 cultured-food classes.
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 responses.2
The basis of your body
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 bacteria.
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 gallbladder.
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 premature ageing.
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 kefir
Preliminary scientific 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 hours.
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 for storage.
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
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 vitamin quantities.
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 fermentation.
Kefir Cheese and Kefir Whey
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 crust
1 1/2 cups almond flour
3 Tbsp melted butter
3 or 4 chopped dates
For the filling
2 Tbsp unflavoured gelatin
3/4 cup milk
1 cup kefir cheese or cream cheese
2 tsp vanilla extract
5 or 6 basil leaves, chopped
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 cup basic kefir
4 Tbsp honey, Sucanat or Stevia
1 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
1/2 cup fruit of your choice, plus extra for topping
1/4 cup oatmeal of your choice (old-fashioned, rolled, instant or steel-cut)
1 1/2 tsp chia seeds
Honey, Sucanat or Stevia to taste (optional)
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.
*****Excerpted 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).
References main text
Karpa KD. Bacteria for Breakfast: Probiotics for Good Health. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing, 2006; Am J Clin Nutr, 1996; 64: 767-71
APMIS, 1997; 105: 643-9
J Clin Gastroenterol, 2003; 36: 111-9; Karpa KD. Bacteria for Breakfast: Probiotics for Good Health. Victoria, BC, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2003: 72
References health benefits of kefir
J Dairy Sci, 2002; 85: 2733-42; Matar C et al. 'Biologically active peptides released in fermented milk: role and functions', in Farnworth ER, ed. Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2003: 177-201
Jpn J Med Sci Biol, 1983; 36: 49-53; Immunopharmacology, 1986; 12: 29-35; J Agric Sci Tokyo Nogyo Daigaku, 2000; 45: 62-70
J Am Diet Assoc, 2003; 103: 582-7
Lett Appl Microbiol, 2002; 35: 136-40
J Food Prot, 2000; 63: 364-9; Lebensm Wiss Technol, 2004; 37: 663-7; Indian Vet J, 01/2004; 81: 687-90
BMC Complement Altern Med, 2002; 2: 1