Milk Kefir: Probiotic King

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As a full-time working mom, I don’t find much time to blog anymore–but I DO still have time to make one of the most probiotic-rich foods on the planet: milk kefir. If you’ve read much about health and nutrition in the past few years or perused the health foods section of your grocery store, you’ve probably heard about this popular “drink” that costs a fortune by the bottle. Make it at home, though, and it’s super affordable and super healthy.

So what is milk kefir, and why do I refer to it as a “drink” (in quotation marks)? Milk kefir is a fermented milk beverage that contains several beneficial strains of yeasts and bacteria at a far greater potency than store-bought yogurts, which really don’t have quite the probiotic boost most people assume they do. Traditionally, milk kefir is consumed as a drink; however, I tend to use it as a yogurt and sour cream substitute instead. My girls and I love to eat it mixed with fresh or frozen berries as pictured above, and it also adds a refreshing tang to fruit smoothies or frozen banana “ice cream” (unless you’re adding peanut butter to your “ice cream,” in which case it might taste a little odd!).

I also substitute milk kefir for approximately half the amount of yogurt or sour cream required in recipes such as fruit or pasta salads, adding a flavorful and probiotic kick to our sides. Doing so requires a richer, thicker milk kefir made with extra creamy milk, so I recommend using the creamiest whole milk you can find (I use cow’s milk, but you can also use goat’s milk or coconut milk). If you don’t think your kefir is turning out thick and creamy enough, you can add a few tablespoons of heavy cream when you prepare it as instructed below.

To make your own milk kefir, you can either purchase kefir grains from a company such as Cultures for Health (using grains will give you the greatest probiotic benefit), but if you’re like me and don’t have time to babysit the grains, you can purchase a starter powder that will work just as well (although it will have fewer strains of beneficial microbes). I’ve used various brands of starter powder with success, but I like body ecology kefir starter the best. Although it seems expensive at around $25 per box, it will last you for months because you can use the milk kefir made with a single packet to make up to 8 quarts of kefir (there are 6 packets per box).

Instructions for an initial batch

  1. Heat 1 qt. whole milk in a saucepan to 92 degrees Fahrenheit (about skin temperature–it should feel warm but not hot).
  2. Pour the milk into a 1-qt. glass jar with a plastic lid (if you don’t have a plastic lid, use a coffee filter under the lid to prevent the kefir from reacting with metal); screw the lid on only partway to allow gases to escape.
  3. Stir in one packet of starter powder and allow to ferment at room temperature away from direct sunlight for 24-48 hours, until you notice the liquid whey beginning to separate out; give it a gentle shake every 12 hours or so to keep the cream from settling on the top.
  4. Refrigerate for up to 1-2 weeks (it won’t spoil after 2 weeks, but it will lose it’s probiotic strength).
  5. Shake before using.

Instructions for subsequent batches

  1. Follow the same steps as above, but rather than open another packet, use about 6 tablespoons from your prior batch of finished milk kefir to create a new batch.

Since the starter culture does 99% of the work, it takes very little time and effort to keep milk kefir on hand. If you find yourself using up your milk kefir quickly, you can make a new batch as soon as your prior batch has finished fermenting. If you find yourself using it less quickly, just make sure to start a new batch within a week of finishing a prior batch, otherwise the refrigerated milk kefir will lose its potency and no longer be useful for jump-starting new batches (which means you’ll end up using a single packet for a single batch rather than getting more batches for your money).

If you use raw milk to make your milk kefir, it’s best to heat it to a higher temperature first (145 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended), then let it cool back down to 92 degrees before adding the powder or grains. This essentially pasteurizes the milk, which is a necessary step to prevent the microbes in the raw milk from competing with the milk kefir starter and screwing up your batch (I’ve tried to skip the pasteurization step and ended up with failed batches about 50% of the time, so now I always pasteurize it first). You can also include this step with pasteurized milk that is reaching the end of its shelf life; it might not be good for drinking anymore, but you can culture it into kefir and still make use of it!

For instructions on using kefir grains, refer to the Cultures for Health link above. It requires a few extra steps, but if you have the time, it would be worth the effort for the increased probiotic benefit.

 

Relief without Rx

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Most of my few followers have signed up for my blog after reading one of my recipes. Well, what goes in must come out, so today’s post is about the other end of the digestive tract. This may be TMI for some folks, but warm-water enemas have become one of my new favorite home remedies for a variety of symptoms. I’d read about the benefits of enemas before but it wasn’t until my three-year-old daughter swallowed a quarter that I ever performed one, and now I’m a fan.

The situation was this: Libby (a.k.a. the Mangy Munchkin) swallowed a quarter one night while staying at her dad’s house. By the time she came back to me several days later, she still hadn’t pooped it out. A follow-up x-ray revealed that five days after swallowing the offending coin, it was still in her tummy; the x-ray also revealed that her intestines were gummed up with unpassed stool. The pediatrician recommended giving her MiraLAX to loosen her stool and facilitate elimination, but one whiff of the stuff prompted me to call a former-nurse-turned-natural-mama friend for other suggestions (MiraLAX smells like Elmer’s Glue and the primary ingredient–polyethelene glycol or PEG–is also used in industrial manufacturing). My friend recommended administering a warm-water enema and even came over to show me how to do so.

Within minutes, Libby eliminated a significant amount of stool and a day and a half later her quarter passed. Had we gone the MiraLAX route, not only would I have poured more toxins into her system, but it might have taken up to three days to produce an initial bowel movement according to the label on the bottle.

Witnessing how simple, effective, and immediate Libby’s relief was, I’ve since administered several enemas on myself. I’ve done so at times when I’ve felt constipated and/or bloated, and I have likewise experienced quick relief of my symptoms. I also administered one the morning after I spent the day caring for my two-year-old daughter when she had the stomach flu; I woke up the next day feeling queasy and, worried that I might be coming down with the bug myself, performed an enema to rid my system of whatever might be building up inside. I did this twice during the day and never did end up experiencing the symptoms that my daughter had exhibited the day before (projectile vomiting!).

So how does one administer an enema? It’s actually pretty simple and painless. Just warm up about 2 cups of filtered water on the stove (it should be about body temperature), pour it into an enema bag such as the one pictured above, attach the tube, put a dab of coconut or olive oil on the tip, lie down on your back with your knees to your chest, and insert the tip into your rectum; open the clamp on the tube and allow the water to empty into your intestines. As I mentioned above, you will feel an odd pressure as well as the urge to eliminate, but you’ll want to resist doing so until the bag has drained and you’ve rested on the floor for a minute or two. After that, hop onto your toilet for instant relief! The whole process from preparation to elimination to clean up (boil the tip and tube in hot water after using) takes about 10-15 minutes.

The enema bag pictured above is the Jobar International Deluxe Hot Water Bottle Kit (sounds pretty fantastic, doesn’t it?!), which is the one my friend recommended; it sells for about $11 online. You can use it on a regular basis with no side effects. I’ve been using mine an average of once a week, on days when it comes to bedtime and I haven’t yet pooped. Again, this may be TMI, but I tend to poop once a day, which is healthy (twice a day is even healthier) but occasionally I’ll feel pressure in my bowels before bedtime yet be unable to eliminate. I used to think this meant I didn’t have enough stool built up in my system to pass it, but I now know this is, in fact, a mild form of constipation. Allowing stool to sit unpassed for extended periods of time in your bowels results in some of the toxins your body is trying to eliminate being reabsorbed into your system, which is why being “regular” is so important.

Coffee enemas are a powerful mechanism for ridding the body of toxins–so powerful, in fact, that they are sometimes used in cancer therapy. A coffee enema is a different type of enema from a warm-water enema with the more far-reaching aim of ridding the whole body of toxins, not just the intestines. You can read more about them in the linked article. I have not yet performed one of these on myself but intend to once I can find the time (and the coffee).

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, kudos for taking the time to read about this unsavory but salient topic!

Chocolate-Coconut Gummies

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I’m back! Well, sort of–I’m working a full-time job now, so posts will likely be few and far between, but I hope to continue to blog about my endeavors to remain a healthy, motivated mom despite being back at work and pursuing a doctorate.

The transition to me working again has been the hardest on my oldest daughter (now 3 1/2), who is the more sensitive of my two girls. To let her know I’m thinking about her during the day, I’ve been making a batch of these gummy hearts each week so that I can put one in her lunch every day. They’re super simple, taking about 10 minutes to make, and the ingredients are filling and nutritious.

Ingredients:

4 squares dark chocolate (about half a bar)
1 can full-fat coconut milk
1 T. maple syrup
4 T. grass-fed gelatin
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 T. chia seeds (optional)

Instructions:

Pour the chia seeds into a small dish along with an equivalent amount of water (this will allow them to gel while you proceed with the rest of the instructions). Melt the chocolate in a saucepan, then add the coconut milk and syrup; warm over low heat. Add the gelatin one tablespoon at a time and stir in thoroughly, then stir in the gelled chia seeds. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour into a glass dish, cover, and refrigerate.

I use Great Lakes brand unflavored gelatin, which is sourced from grass-fed animals. Gelatin is essential for joint and tissue health, so it’s not just fun to use but also good for you and your little ones. The coconut milk adds enough fat to make these snacks more filling than their juice-made counterparts, and the chia seeds add a few extra vitamins and minerals (and, purportedly, an energy boost). The maple syrup and vanilla help to bring out the chocolate flavor, which can otherwise be overtaken by the gelatin, which has a slight flavor of its own.

If you’re making these for adults or older children, an entire bar of dark chocolate will taste wonderful; I use half a bar for my girls simply to minimize the amount of caffeine in the treats.

Happy eating!

Easy, Edible Easter-Egg Dye

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Okay, so you might not want to actually EAT this easter-egg dye, but it is natural and non-toxic. And, as you can see from the snapshot above, it is actually effective!

I experimented with homemade Easter-egg dyes for the first time last year after reading this post from Mommypotamus. Having two toddlers who love to put everything in their mouths, it seemed like a no-brainer to give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised by most of the results. When I compared our eggs to my sister-in-law’s eggs, I couldn’t tell the difference between our yellow and pink eggs and the ones she and her kids had made using store-bought dyes. The blue turned out a different hue than theirs, but it was just as deep and striking.

For pink, I simmered a sliced beet in white vinegar. For the life of me, I don’t know how Mommypotamus succeeded in getting such vibrantly colored eggs (click on the link above and take a look at her images)–perhaps my beet was defective? In any case, I tried her method of boiling a sliced beet in water then adding a tablespoon of vinegar before dying, but I could barely decipher the pink. When I boiled the slices in straight vinegar, I secured the result you can see in the photo above. Not stellar, but not bad.

For yellow, I boiled chamomile (two tea bags + a handful of fresh flowers) in water and added one tablespoon of white vinegar before dying. Mommypotamus recommends using turmeric for yellow, which I advise if you have it on hand; I was out of my supply at the time, but knowing how thoroughly turmeric stains my wooden stirring spoon, I have no doubt it would make for very vibrant Easter eggs! I plan to use it this year.

For blue, I simmered a handful of frozen blueberries in straight white vinegar. As with the beets, boiling the blueberries in water and adding vinegar before dying wasn’t as effective (note the paler blue egg to the left of the other blue eggs). Shredded purple cabbage is another option for blue according to Mommypotamus.

For orange, I boiled the petals and anthers of several tiger lilies in water and added one tablespoon of vinegar. Mommypotamus and other sites recommend using yellow onion peels for orange, but I happened to have a bouquet of tiger lilies on hand and they worked well enough.

When my girls are older, I plan to turn our Easter-egg dying into a science lesson on plant pigmentation and the ways in which past generations used plants and other natural materials to make paints and dyes. The Green Education Foundation is a resource you can check out if your children are at an age where they are ready to appreciate such information.

 

Why You Should Filter Your Water

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Those of us who care about our health put a lot of thought into selecting and preparing the foods we eat. But what about our water? We all know that staying well hydrated is essential for optimal health, but do we adequately consider the quality of the water we are ingesting?

If you live in a town or city, you likely consume treated water–which is to say, before your water flows through your pipes and into your glass, it passes through a municipal water treatment plant such as the one described in this PBS article. The article, along with another from Scientific American, broaches the problematic issue of pharmaceuticals ending up in our drinking water–our treated drinking water. The EPA, despite regulating dozens of potential contaminants in our municipal water supplies, does not regulate pharmaceuticals. Limited research has been conducted to determine the level of potential risk posed to human health by traces of antibiotics, antidepressants, birth control pills, and other drugs regularly excreted and/or dumped down the drain by people; however, there is substantial documented evidence of damage to aquatic life, so I operate under the assumption that any amount of pharmaceuticals in my water supply is an inherently bad thing.

Other harmful components present in municipal drinking water are chlorine and, often, fluoride (not all municipalities fluoridate their water, but most in the United States do). But wait, we need fluoride for healthy teeth, right? Wrong. Check out this article published in Wise Tradition, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation; it relates the controversial collusion between industry and academia that resulted in an industrial waste product (fluoride) being used to “enhance” municipal water supplies.

Cox was a major force in giving the Mellons and other industrial giants a way to shift liability from their huge fluoride waste dumps by promoting fluoride as a health benefit. He became a vital cog in the fluoridation machine as one of the first researchers to propose, based on his rat studies, that fluoride prevented cavities and to suggest its addition to public water supplies.

Dr. Gerald Cox was a fellow at the Mellon Institute, which received funding from the same Mellon family that owned Alcoa Aluminum; fluoride, incidentally, is a toxic byproduct of aluminum manufacturing. Enough said.

Chlorine is also problematic. It is used in our water supply because it kills pathogens–but it also kills beneficial microorganisms such as those that reside in our guts and perform key functions to support our immune systems (see my post on Gut Health if you’re new to this topic). When we shower and bathe, we also absorb significant quantities of chlorine through our skin.

So what do we do to protect ourselves from the contaminants in our water? Purchasing a filtration or purification system is essential if you rely on municipal water for your drinking and washing. The Healthy Home Economist gives an excellent overview of the options available to you for removing most of the contaminants. The most effective option is a reverse osmosis system, but for those of us like me who rent their homes or apartments, installing such a system may not be an option. For us, the most effective option is a Berkey water filtration system such as the one pictured above. Berkey’s are pricey, but the filters last for quite some time and are more effective than Brita and Pur filters. I purchased a Berkey because I could still smell chlorine in my water after filtering it with a Brita pitcher, despite the fact that Brita claims to remove chlorine.

As for bathing and showering, bath ball de-chlorinators and shower head de-chlorinators can be purchased from websites such as Radiant Life, where I purchased mine. To save money, you can simply buy a shower head de-chlorinator and fill up your bathtub by running the shower head instead of the faucet, which eliminates the need for a bath ball de-chlorinator (I discovered this trick only after investing in both, but I wouldn’t have purchased the bath ball de-chlorinator if I had thought of this earlier!).

One final note about filtering your drinking water: along with contaminants, you will also end up removing the mineral content, meaning you will need to replace those trace minerals in your diet. My method of doing so is by incorporating Bone Broth into my family’s diet; this is by far the cheapest method. Another method is to purchase mineral drops online or from a health food store; ConcenTrace is a good brand.

I hope I haven’t scared you TOO much with this information–just enough to convince you to protect your health by investing in the best filtration/purification system you can afford!

Bone Broth: A Super-Cheap Superfood

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What on earth is that clearish, goopy stuff in my crock pot? Only one of the cheapest, easiest superfoods known to man, of course! Why is it so amazing? What can you use it for? And how do you make it? I’ll answer all of these questions and more in this post.

Like many “new” health fads, bone broth is actually an age-old tradition aimed at extracting as many nutrients as possible from every portion of an animal’s body, allowing nothing to go to waste. It is made by boiling the bones and/or carcass of an animal in an acidic medium for hours or even days at a time. As the bones stew, the minerals, amino acids, and collagen that comprise the bones leach out into the water, creating a nutritious beverage or base for other dishes.

Collagen is essential for healthy bones, tissues, joint, skin, hair, and nails. When cooked, collagen turns into gelatin, which is why the bone broth pictured above looks so jiggly. If your bone broth turns into a bowl of jelly once refrigerated, you know you have a collagen-rich supplement to consume! Note that your broth won’t always turn out this way: it depends on the amount of collagen in the bones you’ve used as well as on the length of time you’ve boiled them. I always source my bones from the same ranch yet sometimes the broth is jiggly and sometimes it’s simply a thick liquid; even as a thick liquid, it contains a beneficial amount of gelatin and other nutrients.

So what can you use this stuff for? Almost anything! I use it instead of water when I boil rice, beans, lentils, or veggies, adding extra nutrition to my dishes. I also use it as a base for soups and as a hot drink when someone isn’t feeling well. When my girls were infants, I used it along with veggies, squash, sweet potatoes, and/or meats to puree homemade baby foods. Now that they’re older, I add several ounces of bone broth to their milk or water as a natural supplement–and they don’t even know it! (Note that this will only work with bone broth made from beef bones–chicken bones lend too strong a flavor to blend with other beverages, at least in my experience).

When you make your own bone broth, you’ll also be able to scrape off the layer of fat that forms on the top once refrigerated. Since only saturated fats are stable at high temperatures, I use this fat to grease my pans when frying eggs, tortillas, or stir-frying meats and veggies; unsaturated fats such as vegetables and olive oils shouldn’t be heated (for more on this topic, see this post and related links from the Healthy Home Economist).

Unless you live in New York City or one of the other metropolitan areas where trendy bone broth shops are popping up (check out NYC’s Brodo Broth Company), you’ll need to make your own broth. Fortunately, doing so is super simple and cheap. The hardest part will likely be sourcing your bones if you’re not already familiar with a place to procure organic, grass-fed animals. If you’re wondering why the way the animal was raised matters, see my post on non-pastured meat and eggs.

I purchase my bones from my local food cooperative for $2.29/lb, meaning I get about 5 quarts of broth for $4-$5. I’ve also found them at health food stores and butcher shops (just make sure to inquire about the way the animals were raised). During hunting season, our local meat market will give away deer and elk bones for free. You’ll want to ask your grocer or butcher for the bones to be cut into sections that will fit into a large pot (ask for cuts that weigh 1-3 pounds). If you have no idea where to find bones for your broth, you can visit eatlocalgrown.com or contact your local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation for suggestions.

Once you’ve sourced your bones, you’ll want to place approximately 2 pounds in a 6-quart crock pot (or similar size). For instructions on chicken broth, see my earlier post on utilizing a chicken carcass. For bone broth from beef or game bones, follow the instructions below.

Once the bones are in your slow cooker, add a few tablespoons of vinegar along with enough water to fill the pot within two inches of the top (or whatever your max fill line is). Allow the bones to soak for 30-60 minutes before turning your cooker on low; this will help to maximize the amount of nutrients released from your bones. Once on, leave your cooker on low for 24-48 hours, adding water as needed to keep the pot filled to the max. After 12 hours, you can begin using the broth for cooking or consumption, making sure to replace the amount you consume with an equal amount of fresh water (I try to time my broth-making for days when I’ll be making the dishes mentioned earlier).

During the first few hours, you may need to skim off any scum that forms along the top of the pot (it will be dark and foamy). The bones I use rarely produce much scum, if any; if your bones produce large amounts of scum that you’re constantly having to skim off, consider sourcing your bones from elsewhere.

At the end of your 24-48 hour period, turn off your crock and allow the pot to cool for an hour or two before handling (unless you have a pair of oven mitts with really good grips). Pour the broth through a strainer into another large pot or bowl to remove the bones and any pieces of meat and marrow that have fallen off of them (eat these–just like the broth, they are full of nutrients!). Then store the broth in your refrigerator overnight to allow any fat to rise to the top and solidify.

Once the fat solidifies, skim it off using a slotted spoon to drain off excess liquid (it’s okay if some liquid remains); store it in a container in your fridge for up to a week or in your freezer indefinitely. Pour the broth into glass containers and likewise store it in the fridge for up to a week or in the freezer indefinitely. In my experience, Mason jars are more likely to crack if used for freezing; I’ve found that using glass jelly jars, peanut butter jars, coconut oil jars, etcetera, works better (you could also use plastic jars, but I am wary of the plastics leaching into the broth). In either case, place the jars in the fridge for several hours before moving to the freezer, which will help prevent cracking; when defrosting, do so in the fridge as well rather than on the counter (faster temperature changes are more likely to induce cracking).

With so many uses for bone broth, I almost always use up a full pot of broth within a week. Once you get used to substituting water with broth every chance you get, you likely will do so, too!

Super Simple Toothpaste

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No, that is not a jar of some sort of weird white ketchup–it is a jar of my homemade toothpaste, which uses four simple, non-toxic ingredients that you likely already have in your pantry, especially if you’ve tried out my no-bake mint chocolate pie.

Most commercial brand toothpastes contain questionable ingredients such as fluoride, which is a particular concern for those with children, who often swallow a certain amount of toothpaste when learning to brush. For a fascinating–and disturbing–article on the transformation of fluoride from a toxic-waste problem to a health boon, check out this article put out by the Weston A. Price Foundation. It’s a tale of industry and academic collusion to find a productive use for fluoride, a by-product of aluminum processing.

Even fluoride-free toothpastes can contain flavorings and dies that aren’t sufficiently tested for safety. So-called natural toothpastes such as Earthpaste and Uncle Tom’s of Maine are better options than standard commercial brands, but they are quite expensive.

My personal solution to the toothpaste issue is to make my own using the following four ingredients:

  • Aluminum-free baking soda
  • Celtic sea salt (or another higher-end salt)
  • Filtered water
  • Peppermint extract

Simply combine 4 parts baking soda with 1 part salt, add just enough water to turn pasty while stirring up the mixture, then add a few drops of peppermint extract and stir one more time to distribute the flavor. A drop or two of essential oil (peppermint or lemon work well) can be used in place of the peppermint extract, you’ll just have to be more careful about not swallowing the toothpaste since most essential oils are not intended for ingestion.

The reason I use a higher-end salt for my toothpaste (and for flavoring my food) is because the cheaper sea salts are often harvested from more polluted parts of the ocean, meaning they can contain trace amounts of toxins in them–or so I’ve read. Since salt doesn’t get used up very quickly, I don’t mind spending a higher price for higher quality.

Compared to $3-4 per tube for natural commercial toothpastes, this toothpaste costs just pennies to make and can be mixed up in a matter of minutes. I prepare a new batch about once each month and have never had a problem with bacterial growth even though I dip my toothbrush straight into the jar. A salt and baking soda mixture isn’t exactly the sort of environment in which microorganisms thrive 🙂

Note that this toothpaste is not going to be the smooth, gelled toothpaste you’re used to from commercial manufacturers. It will be grittier and grainier but it’s SO incredibly cheap and easy that I’ve never minded. The mangy munchkin loves it, and although I’m trying to teach her to spit it out rather than swallow it, if she does ingest a small amount–even if she ingests the whole kernel-sized amount I put on her brush–I have nothing to worry about!