Deborah's gut healing journey with kefir
In April 2006, our founder Deborah tasted kefir for the first time. It was the beginning of Deborah's gut healing journey and adventure that changed her life and led to the founding of Nourish Kefir range of fermented kefir drinks.
If you have ever suffered with IBS, food poisoning, upset tummy or worse still, chronic gut problems such as IBD with Colitis or Crohn's, you may be interested to learn how Deborah went from suffering everyday for more than 10 years, to having a normal functioning gut and the ability to eat a normal diet again - all within a few months of discovering kefir grains!
This is Deborah's gut healing story: I began suffering with IBS symptoms when I was around 25/26 years old (around 1995). I'm not sure of the exact cause, but looking back I would say that I was anxious and stressed at that time. My symptoms appeared one day with a sudden urge to go to the toilet. That can happen to anyone at any time, but this was different, I was at work, at my desk, then someone rang me who, to be honest - I just didn't want to speak to. Then without any explanation I suddenly needed to go to the loo. From that first experience, the feeling of urgently needing to go to the toilet began to occur more regularly. It was accompanied by pains in my tummy. Inexplicable pains that I now know to be bloating and trapped wind - but unaware what it was at the time, these sharp pains took my breath away! I literally had to stop what I was doing and either go to the loo, or sit still and try to breathe through it until the pain subsided. When you look healthy and well with nothing obviously wrong with you it is difficult to diagnose the problem. When my IBS started about 26 years ago - there was no name for it - I was told -'there's nothing wrong with you' as the results showed nothing from the first barium meal x-ray of my intestinal tract. Although I was relieved it still didn't give me any answers to what was going on in my gut.
As I've got older and wiser I believe we all know our inner truth about what's going on for us if we stop to notice, but at 26 I didn't understand why my digestion wasn't working normally. When medical professionals and experts could not treat /help me, I did try to figure out what was going on to help myself. It is difficult for me to admit that I was feeling stressed age 26, being a single parent, trying to cope with a demanding job as a sales rep, having to use childminders, be on time for school runs, etc... because I felt I had to be able to do these things. I had an idea that my problems were in my head - I would never have called them mental health issues - because I think until recently mental health had a negative stigma attached to it. I would have called them emotional issues. But at that time I didn't understand the biological and physiological effect that stress was having on my gut. And I didn't appreciate that it was up to me, my choice or responsibility, to do something about my stress. I didn't notice that I probably rushed meals, ate on the go, and perhaps not always made the best food choices. I didn't appreciate that in my job I was putting myself under pressure and that was unfortunately making me ill. I had always been healthy, fit and well growing up - never sick and could not comprehend what was going on with my gut now!
I started reading up about stress - but in truth it has taken me many years since getting well to really understand what stress is doing to my body! I didn't know about cortisone or adrenaline - that these were stress hormones. I was more interested in trying to manage my symptoms so I could keep living my life as it was - which gradually increased to daily diarrhoea, cramps and bloating - my tummy usually looked big and felt solid!
I did have some periods of relief, say when I was on holiday, but instead of the IBS going away I simply learned to live with it. My diet became restricted, I dreaded eating out - as I might not even get through the meal without my bowel flaring up. I couldn't eat gluten, wheat, dairy, or drink alcohol without suffering. I did my best to manage the symptoms, some days were better than others, but if I felt really stressed my gut would let me know about it. The diarrhoea became a constant. Doctors thought I was exaggerating when I told them how many visits I made to the toilet each day (more than 15 sometimes)! I quit my job (actually I got fired) about a year after the symptoms began and decided to become self employed and work from home. Although that was riskier financially to not have a regular income, it was better because I was closer to the loo (and I didn't have to feel the embarrassment of needing to go so often when I worked in an office! The staff used to think I was going to the loo to make personal phone calls!). If I needed to stay in bed longer I could without having to explain myself, it was much easier to do the school run and I didn't need a childminder! I really wanted the IBS to stop and to just be normal again, but it didn't. When I was diagnosed with crohn's disease (in addition to IBS) I was devastated.
There is a range of medication prescribed to ease symptoms and inflammation for Crohn's sufferers, but there is no cure. I tried many different types of medication available, including steroids, chemotherapy drugs, anti inflammatory tablets - the full range, under supervision from the hospital Gastroenterology Consultant. I didn't get on well with the medication. I had rashes, bruises, my hair was falling out! The side effects were in my memory as bad as the disease - but now I also had a weakened immune system. With consent from the consultant I stopped taking medication and started trying alternative natural therapies. Some of these included Kinesiology, Vega testing, a blood test to identify foods I had become intolerant to - which led to an elimination diet cutting out gluten and dairy- which did help. I also needed vitamin and mineral supplements, including B12 injections and taking L-Glutamine for a leaky gut. This helped also, but I still had daily diarrhoea, bloating and pain!
What I think happened to my gut is that adrenaline and cortisol were being produced in excess - because of my anxiety of trying to do too much. I never managed to reverse the effects. I was unable to digest my food and was not getting nutrition into my body -so I was weak and tired. I then probably ate the wrong food types. Whatever bacteria I had in my gut at that time I believe the bad bacteria took over. I believe it caused the trapped wind, foul gas and pain in the descending colon. I believe they also affected the millions of villi that line the walls of the intestine so that they did not work to digest food - my intestines, which is a muscle was in spasm and food could pass through from mouth to anus in 30 minutes on a bad day. But I wasn't aware of this at that time. I accepted that I had a leaky gut and food intolerance, but I didn't realise that the bad bacteria in my gut - were most likely the cause of this.
A chance conversation in April 2006 led me to ask a friend what was in the jug covered with a tea towel, in his living room. He said it was kefir - like I should have known what it was. I asked what's that? He said something like - it's a culture that you put in milk and it changes the milk, you drink it and it's good for you! There's another symptom not much talked about,that is how this disease affects a persons confidence and mood. I found it really knocked my confidence. Having a bowel disease was just not something I could easily talk about or explain to family and friends. I found it very embarrassing and socially debilitating for me especially with unpredictable, immediate urges to go to the toilet. This friend didn't know I had Crohn's disease! When I left my friend I googled the word kefir and was amazed at how much information was immediately available about how kefir was super healing for gut problems -including Crohn's disease! Next day I called and asked if I could 'borrow' the kefir grains. I got them, with basic instructions to cover them with milk, leave them in the room for 2 days, put the kefir grains in fresh milk and drink what remained! Then repeat. It was simple to do. I was so very excited to see if this would help me!
At that time I was on a dairy free diet. There's some information about a negative effect of drinking milk when you've not had any for 6 months or longer that even a small amount can flare up the bowel. So with my first home brew of fermented kefir ready I drank it. When I say drank - after removing the kefir grains what was left was thick and lumpy. The taste was so sour - really awful! But I didn't care. I believed what I had read about kefir - so I wasn't put off by the taste! My tummy did not react badly. It was the beginning of getting well - healing my gut at long last!
It's emotional for me to even write this because crohn's is a chronic illness with no cure and the thought of having to live with it is not great. So to be able to digest some super sour milk without having to rush to the loo was an amazingly positive step for me. I had such a good feeling about the kefir. Truly it gave me hope - like nothing else had done in 10 years of living with IBS and IBD. I continued my fermentation -with my strong brew of kefir (can I also say, I didn't even know that what I was doing was fermentation - it was so new to me). I drank my home brew every day. I fermented over 2 days and divided up my batches to be able to have some every day. As the kefir grains grew I instinctively added a little more milk. At one point I was drinking around 500ml a day of super sour home made kefir.
A personal miracle happened!
Over two months, I experienced a gradual improvement and reduction of symptoms such as bad wind and urgency to go to the loo. I managed to digest food better, absorb nutrients and put on weight, and yes eventually my bowel started functioning normally again! I was obsessed with my bowel movements - you can imagine what a relief it was to not have diarrhoea!!
Over April and May I kept to my exclusion diet - but kept drinking kefir. Then one day I decided to see if I could eat bread without suffering. I had a slice of buttered toast - it was delicious, and even better I digested it without any problems. Over June and July I began to return to a normal diet no longer excluding foods. By August I was so excited about how kefir had transformed my gut health that I decided I wanted to sell kefir in the UK. At that time kefir was only sold in Polish supermarkets and maybe some in independent health food shops. It just wasn't widely available. I was really passionate about this. The transformation I experienced, from poor gut health and being told I have a life long illness - with no cure - to a complete reversal back to proper digestion and normal bowel function needed to be shared. I wanted the whole world to know that there is a cure for Crohn's disease - it is natural, and available to everyone at low cost. I really believe that anyone suffering IBS or IBD can get better - there really is HOPE.
Deborah's steps to a healthy gut
1. I had to accept I had a gut problem
2. I accepted it was my responsibility to do something about it - it was in my POWER to change.
3. I began to closely watch my diet - know which foods made my bloating worse - or caused me pain, bad wind, diarrhoea.
4. I began to notice if my gut problems happened at the same time as emotional stuff - such as having to have a difficult conversation, having to go to a job I didn't really want to do. Hanging out with fake friends (yes this did happen) - that made me feel uncomfortable. In fact I became more aware of anything that made me feel uncomfortable - and I tried to avoid it.
5. How I actually ate food - I started noticing did I eat food that I enjoyed? Did I actually chew the food before I swallowed it? It takes some concentration and awareness to chew a mouthful for 20-30 chews before swallowing. Saliva in the mouth helps the food to break down as it enters the stomach. I used to unconsciously stuff food down - I'm an emotional eater - If I was upset I would want to eat high carbohydrate foods like bread or cake. I really had to have more awareness about this. I began to be more conscious of what I was eating.
6. Don't eat and have an argument at the same time! I began to notice family meals where the conversation was NOT harmonious. Don't eat when you are cross, angry, frustrated or upset - it is not good for your digestion.
7. Make time for myself - I am still learning here. I still want to do more things than there are hours available in the day - but I have become aware that rushing around is not good for me! I am still learning to RELAX
8. I made Kefir - make your own from grains, from our starter cultures - which are originally made from grains, or our kefir drinks - only made from real live kefir grains. Fermenting kefir is an act of loving yourself - because you are making kefir - an amazing healing food - that is going to support you!
9. I continuously fermented my kefir grains at home. I let it ferment for 2 days so it was nice and strong. It tasted more sour than Nourish - but I didn't mind at all. My gut needed this to get back to normal, I never regretted it. In the early days the friend who gave me the grains originally, tried my brew and he said what I made didn't taste right! But it didn't matter to me, because I knew - that this extra strong kefir was healing my gut!
10. I drank kefir 3 times a day - first thing before breakfast. Glass of water, then kefir - about 75 to 100ml - small glassful. Then have breakfast around 10-15 minutes later -let the kefir get in first. Second small glass was when I was making dinner - so again before my meal. The final amount was last thing before bed also with a glass of water.
Caffeine - I learned that I had to avoid trigger foods and one of these was caffeine. I love a real coffee - but my gut doesn't! I have a lot of adrenaline and I just don't need any extra from coffee. Even now I know can only have a real coffee a few times a week. I switched to decaf tea and decaf coffee and only have one caffeine drink a day! I started drinking herbal teas instead!
Cow's milk - As a child I recall that I didn't like butter, yoghurt or cheese. I sometimes couldn't drink milk as I thought it had a funny smell. Now, since healing my gut I can drink whole organic cow's milk, eat cheese and love real butter. But I can't put milk in tea. It's the one thing from my food exclusion period when I stopped having dairy for about 6 months, I switched to soya milk in my cup of tea - and have not been able to switch back to cow's milk - I just don't like the taste.
Sugar - We all know that we need to cut back on sugar! To be honest - I never fully cut sugar out of my diet! Even in my worst days of gut problems I still had foods that contained sugar. I cut down, but never gave it up - and I probably had a little bit of dark chocolate every other day! However, I did notice that the more I drank my home made kefir, that sweet foods - especially bars of chocolate - were exceptionally sweet . Drinking kefir was changing my taste buds. In the past 14 years of being well I have had time to research and learn more about what is going on in the gut. Here's my take on it... sugar is ACID forming in the gut. Bad bacteria love this acid forming sugar as it keeps them alive and helps them to grow and thrive in the gut and take over and cause us misery. Kefir on the other hand, with it's beautiful sour, tart taste is an acidic food that is ALKALINE forming in the gut. Alkaline forming kefir actually helps to kill off bad bacteria - they don't like it! I believe this is one of the ways that kefir helped to heal my intestines! I need to get the bad bacteria (which I believe are the cause of all the problems)- OUT! What a miracle that kefir could do this! It could create the right environment in my gut that was antagonistic to bad bacteria - so I managed to eliminate them. It repopulated my gut with good bacteria, and allowed the villi - responsible for absorbing nutrients from my food- were able to work normally again.
Colonoscopy - I have had several colonoscopies over the years. This medical examination is not for the faint-hearted and patients are usually sedated during the procedure. The last one I had - (before I found kefir) I was not sedated. I was able to see on the small monitor, images of the ulcerations in my intestines - there were a lot of them. It upset me to see this as I was really trying to get better; although blood test results kept showing I had a lot of inflammation. I was afraid. It took several years of medical examination for doctors to definitively diagnose me with Crohn's. They were umming and ahhing between this and ulcerative colitis - I'm not sure which is worse? Crohn's is END to END. Mouth to anus - so I'll take it that this is worse!
I believe the bad bacteria were causing the ulcerations in the lining of my gut. I also believe that the alkaline forming kefir had the powerful effect of changing the acid levels in my gut to become more alkaline - and that created an environment that was antagonistic to bad bacteria and started to kill them off. The intestines can be as long as 15 meters of folded tube like digestive muscle. I believe that the bad bacteria that arrive in the gut form colonies along this tube. Not everyone has gut problems. How do they come about in the first place? Before we are born we are incubated in a sterile environment of our mothers womb. As soon as we are born bacteria cover our infant selves. Bacteria are everywhere. So tiny we just cannot see them. They are on our skin, in our noses, our mouths, our guts... everywhere. As we grow we develop a unique, individual gut microflora or microbiome ... hopefully most of these will be good - but we can assume we will get a variety of good and 'bad' bacteria. For more bacteria to get into the gut they have to find a way into our bodies.
Teeth and mouth health - I believe this is one of the primary areas to support our health and we want to look after our teeth, gums and mouths to maintain good overall health. I ate loads of sweets as a kid. I was also notoriously bad at brushing my teeth and because I had very poor mouth hygiene I have had to have lots of fillings, several crowns and a root canal treatment. In the years of being 'ill' -before I found kefir, I had a VEGA examination. This involved holding metal probes and standing on a metal mat and the vega machine scanned my body. The result of the scan said that my problem (my bad gut) started in my head - and most probably my jaw. Looking back now, with my knowledge of kefir and bacteria, I would say this was an accurate analysis that my gut problems started in my mouth! The root canal may have been the main problem. If any bacteria remained in my gums after this treatment they would still be present. They would still be kept alive by the foods I eat - and with every mouthful I would be swallowing them down into my stomach and intestines. I can believe that bad bacteria that reside in our mouths can continue to be swallowed down into our bodies. If our immune system is strong and our digestion is good there will not be any problems - our bodies will attack and fight off these putrefactive bacteria so that they do us no harm. I would say that, if we ignore the dental work that needs doing, we are potentially exposing ourselves to future health problems, caused by bad bacteria in our mouths. Scientists have already made this association for Dementia and Alzheimer disease, though as with all things the scientific work takes years to become adopted into society as the truth. We have all seen the rise of probiotics and how they are being suggested as a good thing to have as part of our overall health maintenance and disease prevention - they are! But we need to learn which ones are actually working - as there is wide variation between what it says on the label and how effective it might be for the individual.
I made a conscious effort to look after my teeth and gums better. I will swill kefir in my mouth - squeeze it up into my gums as a sort of good bacteria cleanse. I know now that I should have looked after my teeth better when I was a child - there is nothing I can do to undo that. All I can do is stop making it worse, start where I am, accept that my mouth health is very important to my overall health and do what I can to reduce formation of bad bacteria in my mouth and gums in the first place!
Food Supplements I have been taking food supplements for a few years. My favourites are:
Magnesium; I have this in several forms from bath salts, cream for my skin, a spray - also for skin and I spray in my mouth, tablets - though I'm not sure how well these are absorbed. I don't take calcium and magnesium together - I believe I get enough calcium from kefir and dairy products. I love magnesium because I learned that our body is made up of lots of different types of muscles! The intestines is a muscle, the heart is a muscle. We have magnesium in every cell of our bodies. It is known to help in times of stress. When I can't switch off and sleep at night I will take a magnesium supplement to help me.
B- vitamins; Again the B vits are known to be helpful with stress related conditions -to help the brain process what is going on, to soothe nerve endings. When I was on my exclusion diet I became anaemic as I had stopped eating meat for 6 months. My vit B12 levels became dangerously low that I was prescribed 3 monthly injections. I was told I would need them for life - but I don't have them anymore as I feel I am managing my B12 requirements through food and supplements that are readily available. Cod liver oil and water- having had diarrhoea for years, kefir quite quickly improved this by slowing down the transit of food - allowing my villi to absorb the nutrients from the food I ate. This worked so well I occasionally experienced a more slow moving bowel and a bit of constipation. How I have manage this is by eating fibrous fruit and veg - almost every day! I pile the veg high on my plate because I know my intestines needs them. Fibrous foods like veg have good amounts of vitamins and minerals, are low calorie, usually freshly grown and natural and the fibre part of them, which we do not digest is really helpful at maintaining a normal bowel movement!
A Korean doctor told me the bowel needs 3 things to help with constipation - WATER - drink lots of it, OIL - take cod liver oil it is amazing, and MOVEMENT : walk, dance, exercise - a sluggish bowel is like a sluggish body! Constipation is a sign of being stuck - food waste is stuck in the large bowel. These things - as well as kefir and vegetables are my go to solution if ever I feel that I my bowel movement is not regular enough.
When I was starting to get better - I didn't need a doctor to tell me. My intestines was starting to form normal stools. I was not needing to go to the toilet 10-20 times in the day! I no longer had terrible wind. Interestingly when I was suffering I was so conscious of every twinge in my intestines, so obsessed with my toilet habits and so worried about having an embarrassing situation being out and about. As the kefir worked it's miracle and healed my gut these things dissolved away. I forgot about them quickly. I observed how quickly we forget about pains... until them come back, and then we remember how awful it was!
Ongoing use of kefir. From feeling so much better in a couple of months, by around July or August of 2006 I was now able to eat normal food - gluten, wheat and dairy. I gradually reduced my kefir consumption to smaller quantities, sometimes just taking it a few times a week.
Starting Nourish Kefir - My healing was so profound and had such a positive impact not only on my body, but also my emotional state of being, that by August 2006 I quit the self employed work I was doing and decided I wanted to start a kefir business in the UK. I knew in my heart that it could help me it could and would help others, and I was very passionate about wanting to do that - and still am 15 years later! By September I had an agreement with a specialist authentic kefir producer in Slovenia to make our kefir from grains (I didn't yet know how to make it on a large scale), and I set about getting the business going and researching into the scientific studies on kefir and what makes it so good.
I chose the brand name Nourish, (inspired by Innocent drinks) because that is exactly what I believe our kefir does. It Nourishes our insides to help them to work normally again. Kefir is nourishing - it contains nearly all the essential amino acids found in milk, it is rich in protein, carbohydrates, fats and fat soluble vitamins and minerals ADE& K, it contains calcium -good our our bones, and it helps get rid of bad microbes and supports our digestion and metabolism, and it is naturally abundant in billions of a diverse range of live bacteria. It is a superfood.
With the help of an expert from Slovenia I learned the artisan craft of fermenting kefir grains to produce our drinks for large scale production. Our traditional fermentation process takes more than 5 days of different stages of grains fermentation to produce each batch. Our small dairy is very hands on. Production is demanding, we even stir the kefir by hand with a very long and heavy metal 'spatula' because kefir is very delicate and needs to be stirred gently. Without a doubt it has been a big challenge - as well as a BIG blessing. I am so grateful to have kefir in my life as it truly is the main thing that helped me to get well again! I am also grateful for our community of customers, who have become our friends and have shared their experiences of how kefir is also helping them to get well and stay well.