Gut Health Gurus Blog

Kefir, Kombucha and Fermented Vegetables With Donna Schwenk

Kefir, Kombucha and Fermented Vegetables With Donna Schwenk


Within recent years, fermented foods rich in probiotics have become household names. But what are the differences between them and what is the best way to take? I had the pleasure of speaking with Donna Schwenk of Cultured Food Life and she shared a lot of her knowledge. We will be going over three of the main “good” bacteria sources: Kefir, Kombucha, And Fermented Vegetables. Do they help your mental health? Are they easy to make? How do you improve your gut health? All these questions and more are answered below!

Donna found herself pregnant with her third child at 41. Her daughter was born 8 weeks early to save her life. Donna had all types of health problems including diabetes and high blood pressure. Three weeks after her daughter was born premature she was looking for answers in a health food store. She then pulled two books off of the shelf: 

1st Book Body Ecology by Donna Gates- She opened up the page and it was talking about Kefir

2nd Book was Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon- She opened up this book and it was also talking about Kefir.

At that very moment, a store employee said that's the most important book you will ever read make sure you pay attention. And he just walked away. She bought both of the books and then went to find Kefir at the store. She gave it to her daughter and in 3 weeks she saw her infant transform. She started sleeping, gaining weight, she seemed super healthy. Donna was drinking it as well and she remembers the day that she realized it was helping her too. 

She felt so good, her blood pressure and blood sugar went back to normal. This started her journey experimenting on herself and her friends with these good bacteria. She watched everyone around her get better. The answer to all her prayers was in this jar that had billions of microorganisms in it. 

When you get well you attract that into others. When you do that you change everyone's world around you. They are taking notice. 

“What you seek is seeking you”

What you are seeking is always trying to find its way to you, but you have to open up the channels. When someone is well, they are a lighthouse and it changes everyone around them. Getting yourself well is the best way to help others. Some people may think it's selfish to look after yourself but I disagree. I think that it's very important to be the best version of yourself because then you can serve others so much more effectively. Now Donna is a beacon in the world spreading knowledge about kefir, kombucha, and fermented vegetables.

We have a group on facebook with more than 11,000 members and a lot of them have attributed their health to Donna. I have so much gratitude for Donna for her to make the world a better place. Buried down within her were treasures that were covered with sickness and disease. Things she didn't want to do and things she couldn't do. Had she not gotten sick and found her way to health and wellness, then she would have never become an author of three amazing books:

-Cultured Food in a Jar

-Cultured Food for Health

-Cultured Food for Life

How Does Incorporating Kefir, Kombucha, and Fermented Vegetables Help Your Mental Health?

Before I started this journey I was feeling discouraged, I didn't feel well at all. I think my gut flora was off balance and I didn’t know it. The gut is your second brain. There is a nerve called the vagus nerve that goes up from your stomach to your brain and it all connects. All of the neurotransmitters that are in your gut are also connected to your brain. And your mood greatly depends on the flora in your gut.

For Example, I had a lady in one of my Kefir making classes that was in the front row crying. She was on 7 antidepressants and once she started incorporating kefir into her lifestyle she got off of them. She was so grateful and it changed her life so dramatically. This is not a rare case, I have seen this many times over. Once I found the art of fermentation, I went from real depression to great joy. I felt such gratitude, everything got better. I felt like the chains have fallen off of me. I wasn't scared of the flu anymore and I had an overall sense of well being.

When you feel good, you do good

All the trillions of bacteria are inside of us for a reason. There’s a reason that we have more than 2x more bacteria in our bodies than cells. We are basically just a sack of bacteria walking around. You need to pay attention to them to make sure you are treating them correctly. Once I started paying attention to that, I started to heal my body and my mind. I'm so glad I got sick because now I know the joy and I know I was meant to help people.  

Kefir for Gut Health 

Kefir for Gut Health

Kefir has the most benefits out of each of the items we are going to be talking about today. It is also the easiest and fastest to make. But there are a couple of different Kefir varieties you can make. So which is better?

Milk Kefir vs Water Kefir

A lot of people are freaking out about milk these days. But when you ferment milk, it completely changes the food. It adds in Vitamin C, B Vitamins, Probiotics, you remove the Lactose. You transform the food by fermenting it. It ends up being a completely different food than dairy. You can make kefir with non-dairy milk as well but it does not have the same attributes. 

In Water Kefir, there are 15 different types of good bacteria and Milk Kefir has over 50 different types! Donna experimented last year and she took out all fermented foods out of her diet. She had many issues starting to pop up after about 6 weeks. She wanted to see what would happen. A lot of these bacteria are transient, which means most of it doesn’t stay in the body very long. The transient bacteria that only last in the body 2-3 days are usually the ones that you will need. 

“I suffered from depression and anxiety that almost led me to take my own life. Kefir really makes you feel a lot better. Kefir means to feel good in turkish and that's exactly what it does.”

How to Travel While Also Feeding Your Gut Microbiome With Milk Kefir

When you travel pack Milk Kefir in your bag, because just a day or two without it will not be that great. Your immune system won't be up to par, you won’t get the beneficial nutrients or that transient bacteria. When you drink Milk Kefir daily, it also makes you feel more nourished and not as hungry. It helps you digest everything that you eat with it and you will realize that you don’t eat as much. You have to remember that it does different things to different people. Not everyone is going to get the same benefits out of it. 

Example: If Donna’s daughter doesn't have it every day then she gets acne. If her son doesn’t have it every day he has an ulcer that will flare-up. It also keeps her husband's blood pressure low & keeps him from having acid reflux.

Last year I connected myself up to a glucose monitoring system for 24/7 for 7 days. I found that just by having Kefir every day, my blood glucose levels were lowered. Kefir Milk is great for diabetics because of this reason. There is almost zero sugar in it as well, which means you won't have a spike when you have it.

Thoughts on Milk Kefir Fermented Anaerobic(lid on) vs Aerobic(lid off)?

I have always done it with the lid on and I have heard a lot of people having problems when they do it with a cloth and a rubber band. What will happen is: 

  • The yeast will get in
  • It will make a paste on the grains 
  • Then it starts to taste funny. 

  • No one has a problem when they use a lid. Sometimes when you don’t use a lid you will get white fuzzy stuff on top of your Kefir. This is harmless, it’s known to ferment but it ruins the flavour. The kefir can start acting funky. Besides this, the benefits are also better when you use a lid. When fermenting Milk Kefir with the lid on you are going to increase the Lactobacilli in the Kefir. 

    What Are Some Products for Making Kefir?

    You can make your kefir with basic products but there are a lot of good ones on the market that can help you along. One part of the process is straining the Kefir. You can use a stainless steel strainer for Kefir (but NOT for Kombucha!) It can degrade metals but it does not degrade stainless steel. The Kefir breaks down toxins inside of you but it can also break down the containers you use. Use quality glass, plastic lids, and strain with stainless steel.

    Kefirko has GREAT tools for making Kefir. They put a lot of love into their products. I recommend them because of their high-quality glass, BPA Free Plastic strainer on the lid, their great lids, and they are easy to strain. Check them out HERE. They also have another great product for Kefir Cheese as well. The designer is a perfectionist when it comes to the aesthetics of the products. Kefir making is repetitive and tedious. It’s handy to have something that looks beautiful sitting on your benchtop rather than a tea towel and a glass jar. Kefir cheese is a great way to use up all your extra Milk Kefir. 

    How to Boost Grain Growth for Milk Kefir?

    You have to remember that the Kefir Grain is an organism so the more you feed it the more it’s going to grow. You can use a prebiotic to feed Kefir, it's called Prebio Plus or Nourishme Organics Milk Kefir Growth Premix. It’s a fertilizer for Kefir but it can also be used for you in your food! You can add it to your coffee or tea in the morning (start slowly if you are going to try it because it does tend to work REALLY fast.)  I have even put it in my ketchup bottles and everything that my family eats without them knowing it. Prebio Plus is a great way to encourage growth but the best way without it is to just make it every day and to not let them over ferment. If they over ferment they are going to turn into curds. Get them before they do that! 

    Keep the grains in about 21C degree temperature, it will make your grains grow like crazy. If they aren't growing then there is something wrong. They should double every week. If they don’t then:

    They have gotten cold

    You aren't feeding them as often as they need

    Something happened to the grains

    You can feed your grains every single day with the Prebio Plus. It’s made from the peels of lemons and fruits, the grains eat those fibres then double and grow even more. The first day you feed it to them they don’t grow that much because they have so much food. BUT the second day they double and grow twice as fast!. Inulin (check it out HERE) is also GREAT for the growth of grains. The key to maintaining good kefir grains is to be consistent. Check on your grains! These are live organisms, you have to treat them like pets they need to be fed to keep them happy. 

    Sometimes we get questions from our customers saying “my grains are not working” and this is one of the reasons. Most of the time people have neglected their grains, left them in the fridge or cabinet too long. Then they came back to try and make them and the grains were not performing like they were before. Constant maintenance is very important! Side Note: They do not grow well in non-dairy. You have to give them more food because most non-dairy substitutes like coconut milk have a very low amount of carbohydrates. There's nothing for it to make probiotics from. If you are going to try to grow them in non-dairy I recommend giving them date paste, but even then, they will not grow like they would in a dairy environment. 

    These grains are very picky. If you kept them in the fridge for a few days you have to remember that they don't like this environment. It makes them sluggish and tired and it takes them a few days to come back. That’s a BIG reason why they slow down on producing. The top two reasons would be that it’s either too cold or they don’t have enough milk to use. 

    A little shaking of the jar goes a long way so the organisms aren’t stagnant. It distributes the milk because a lot of times what happens is that the bigger kefir grains are the milk hogs. The little ones are the new ones so they are the strongest in the jar. BUT the big grains will try to take the food from the smaller ones. Bacteria is an ecosystem and you can imagine the big grains saying “we are the big ones so we get more” So if you don’t redistribute the milk then the little ones don’t get any and they stay little. Once the big ones attract the milk to cling to them you need to shake things up.

    One thing that you should not do rinse your grains in water! It rinses off the bacteria and damages them. It can completely kill the kefir grains. The bacteria and yeast are clinging to them and that is its protection. So if you rinse it off, it’s rinsing off its protection. It’s like a person went outside naked in a snowstorm. This protection keeps them strong and healthy. 

    What is the best strategy if you are going out of town and you won't be able to look after your Kefir Grains?

    For Example: Let’s say you made kefir grains and you put them in 1000mL of milk every day to make kefir. You will usually use 30-60g of grains to 1000mL of milk. If you are going to leave for a week you put them in that 1000mL of milk. If you are going to be gone 2 weeks then you need to double it. Now in times where you are going to be gone for a really long time. They CAN be frozen, they do not like it but they come out of it and will be fine. If you do it once or twice a year they will be fine. BUT you can't freeze and thaw a lot because it starts to kill them. Just remember that it will take them about 2-3 days to come back “to life” after doing this because they have basically been asleep.

    Kefir is an amazing way to ingest your probiotics. It is full of bacteria and it is really easy to make. 


    Kombucha for Gut Health

    Kombucha For Gut Health

    Kombucha is another great product that you can make for Gut Health. There is special yeast in Kombucha called Saccharomyces boullardi and it is the number 1 probiotic used in hospitals worldwide. It’s really fantastic, it cannot be killed by antibiotics because it’s a probiotic yeast. And that is one of the things that makes Kombucha stand out and do its job effectively. It acts as a pathogen in the body and attracts pathogens to it and then destroys them. That is one of the most powerful things that Kombucha does. This is SUCH a benefit to us. If you have to take an antibiotic, Kombucha is a great thing to help keep your body in balance. But you have to remember that it only lasts a few days in the body. Make sure you are drinking it daily for the benefits 

    Working with fermented foods you need to remember that they are producing gases! And sometimes with built-up gas, this can cause an explosion if you aren’t careful enough…...

    Do you remember the first time you had an explosion in the kitchen?

    It was with Grape Kombucha, second fermented. Remember that the warmer the bottles are, the faster they ferment. The kitchen was cold before this so I ignored that and was not checking them often. I opened the bottle and it hit the ceiling. I did this 3 or 4 times and ended up leaving stains on the ceiling for a while. But It has been 10 years since that has happened!

    All of this could have been prevented if:

    1. I didn’t over ferment.
    2. I used a quality bottle!

    A trap that many people fall into is that they buy cheap bottles from a dollar store and they blow up. You need good bottles made for brewing! 

    Shop second ferment bottles

    Kombucha and Degrading?

    I am sure you are thinking “Kombucha can degrade things, then why do I drink it?” Which is a great question but first let’s see why we shouldn’t use metal strainers. Metal is not the best strainer for Kombucha, stainless steel is okay but is still not the best option. Companies that sell Kombucha use high-quality stainless steel because it doesn’t oxidize. But if you use any other types of metal with Kombchua at all it will degrade it.

    Kombucha does this inside of you too. It likes to assist your liver in removing heavy metals that your normal digestive system doesn’t handle very well. For Example: If you are exposed to mercury our normal digestive system only has one thing that can digest it, Candida. That's why we have candida in small amounts in our bodies. But you DON’T want this to grow out of its bounds. So the best way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to have a lot of good bacteria which can be found in Kombucha. It will push the candida over to the corner (the only way to get candida to explode is to give yourself an antibiotic and then it will have room to multiple.) The heavy metals in our body are hard on us because our digestive system can’t get rid of them on their own. That's why we have yeast that can break them down. 

    Kombucha can greatly assist the body in breaking them down. It helps increase your ability to degrade from those toxins. They are often stored away in your fat tissues to keep them away from your organs. That is just one thing that Kombucha is great at! But you have to remember that it does that in the containers that they are in as well! So if it’s in metal it will degrade it. Use glass, strong food-grade plastic, or porcelain that's not lead-based.


    Fermented Vegetables for Gut Health 

    Fermented Vegetables For Gut Health

    Fermented vegetables are another item you can add to your daily gut healing journey. Lactobacillus plantarum is the main probiotic bacteria that is in cultured vegetables. This bacteria helps to stimulate your digestive system, fight off disease-causing bacteria, and also helps your body to produce vitamins! How can you produce fermented vegetables?

    Making Fermented Vegetables using Caldwells Raw Cultures?

    You can make fermented vegetables with salt but you need to use enough salt to drop the pH. What I have found is that people ferment their vegetables for 6 weeks and the good bacteria start to diminish. Once it runs out of food to eat then it’s going to diminish. A microbiologist tested this theory and we saw that they will diminish over time. We only recommend to ferment vegetables for 6 days then put them in the fridge to preserve them. BUT we also found that when we didn’t use a starter culture we’d have 75% fewer probiotics than what we would get if we used a starter culture. We designed the starter culture to be the exact thing that naturally occurs in cultured vegetables, PLUS a little bit more to give it strength. In my early days, I noticed that when I used a starter culture:

    - I got rid of colds and the flu faster

    - My family stayed well longer

    I noticed this right away. I also noticed that my vegetables would be fresher even if I had them in the refrigerator for 9 months. I also got more of that yeast on my vegetables when I didn’t use a starter culture. BUT the beauty of this whole process is that if people do not want to buy a starter culture, they don't have to! Make the fermented vegetables one way or another. I want you to get better and even though I think the starter culture helps if all you have is salt then use that! 

    The vegetables know what to do, I just like to give them a little boost. The other thing that happens when you use a starter culture is it takes that disappointment factor out. Sometimes you may get mould spoilage, a product that's not aesthetically pleasing, or it may taste bad. The starter culture also keeps your vegetables crunchier. You can use the brine from that jar to use for another jar because it already has that starter there! There are many benefits in using a starter culture vs salt. 

    Recommended salt ratio for cultured vegetables?

    Double what you would use with a starter culture, possibly even 3 times. It makes it salty but it drops the pH. This is mainly for cabbage but with other vegetables, it varies. You can find a lot of different recipes HERE.

    If someone can do one thing to improve their gut health what would it be?

    Kefir! It has the most probiotics and it's the most versatile. You can make cheese, soda, dips, and it's the easiest to make. It is also the most life-changing!

    There you have it, fermented foods can truly help you improve your mental health. I hope you learned a lot of valuable information about making Kefir, Kombucha, And Fermented Vegetables. Join the Gut Health Guru’s Facebook page to get more information and to be connected with like-minded individuals. All of Donna’s fermenting secrets can be found HERE. Remember to feed your kefir grains, use good quality products, and ingest fermented foods DAILY for the full benefits. Share this with a friend that you can start your fermented journey with! 

    Author: Kriben Govender

    Food Scientist and Founder of Nourishme Organics



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