An Expert Agrees
Seated in front of the desk of of a world-renowned pediatric neurologist and brain-development Dr. Martha Herbert, researcher who specialized in autism research, my husband and I waited while she scribbled a quick note, straightened and shifted papers to the side of her desk, and then centered her gently-folded hands on the desk’s gleaming wood. Leaning forward, her eyes locked onto mine.
“Tell me,” she invited, in a welcoming voice.
I took a deep breath and began, as I had so many other times over the years. She listened. She nodded. She confirmed several of my ideas with, “Yes, that’s right,” which further emboldened me to share what others had mocked as fantastical notions. Several times, the doctor momentarily signaled for me to pause. Turning towards a note-taking intern, tucked away in an obscure corner of the dimly-lit office, the doctor said, “That’s important—that last point she made.” We listened, fascinated, as she translated what I’d said, into science-speak.
Forty-five minutes later, I had said everything I’d come to say, everything that I needed someone with her knowledge to hear – for verification, correction, or erudition.
“Do you know what you are?” she asked, after a few moments of silence. My mind fired off a wide-range of responses—tired, inquisitive, weary, tenacious—but before I answered, she continued.
“Do you know you’re not alone? You have peers, a large team of researchers just like you. I have a name for all of you—“Poopologists.” It’s not a fancy name. But it is a noble endeavor, and one for which I have the deepest, most profound respect and admiration. You are practicing important science. I’m just here to back you up, to attempt to validate, find the science to explain what you already know.”
“If you think of it as a brain disorder that’s a miswiring from birth, then what the parents are doing is utterly insane or incongruous. But if you think of the brain as being affected by the whole body, then when you affect the body, you can affect the brain. And that’s the rationale of what parents are doing. The parents are doing, in my view, systems biology. I think that parents have beat medicine to systems biology.” – PBS Interview with Dr. Martha Herbert
“An Introduction to Possible Biomedical Causes and Treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorders”, published at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, under the auspices of Indiana University, Bloomington, is an example of readily-available information to help today’s parents find assistance and understanding when building their team of “experts.” If your medical or educational “experts” lack understanding, interest, or resources to delve into these issues, walk away. Keep walking. Keep looking. Keep asking. Keep connecting, for your child’s sake.
Kathleen, tell us how you created your home-fermentation jars.
When Matthew was nearly five years of age, I discovered a line of beneficial enzymes and probiotics, specifically for autism spectrum disorders. They were created by a doctor who paid attention, listening to the observations of mothers concerned about the digestive and immune-system health of their children.
When I described how I was implementing a nutrient-dense whole-food diet, his enthusiasm was contagious. Instead of loading me up with supplements from his product line, he did quite the opposite. “Don’t buy anything from me—not yet, anyway. Wait six months and see if you need to tweak it. There’s nothing better than real food, especially if you make your own kraut.”
Oh, to have stood by the side of my maternal grandmother when she made her kraut! I’d benefited from eating her food, at the very least, I’d trained my sense of taste and smell. Using those skills to guide me, I set out to recapture the lost art of lacto-fermentation, practiced by my European ancestors for multiple generations.
In place of a crock, I used a modern mason jar, following the instructions in Nourishing Traditions, which included the addition of whey—an inoculate artificially lowering the pH, raising acidity—making the brine inhospitable to for the development of botulism. A dozen batches later, and I still couldn’t find any hint or flavor or texture that had anything in common with the clean, crisp flavor of my grandmother’s kraut.
My whey-less adventures fared no better. Out of a dozen batches, one worked. One! And wouldn’t you know it, my family noticed, asking, “Can you do that again? Please? That one tasted great!” I was more gifted in growing thick carpets of oxygen-loving yeast and scary looking black mold, then healthy-looking or health-tasting pickles.
I realized the problem wasn’t my cabbage. It wasn’t my salt. It was the fact I was using mason jars which are never going to be anaerobic unless they are processed in a water-bath. And if that occurs, all the the beneficial lactic acid bacteria, enzymes, heat-sensitive nutrients, antioxidants, bacteriocins (everything good, in other words), will be killed off. So why bother?
I began experimenting with wire-bail jars. Some worked, and some didn’t. Only those that stated “hermetic” and were produced in Italy, were air-tight and worked, creating textures and flavors that were much closer to the my grandmother’s foods.
The problem with the hermetic jars? They were like babies. Every two hours they “burped.” And unlike babies, if you missed a burp, the hermetic jars blew up. Matthew was in the midst of his auditory and visual hallucinations, waking up in night-terrors, “seeing” flames crawling up and down his walls. And then the wire-bail jar, loaded with pickling beets, exploded in the kitchen at 3 am. Glass shards were everywhere, embedded in the wall, sprinkling the floor. Let me just say that beet juice on sunny-yellow walls is not a great combination. And it was months before I could talk Matthew into coming back into the kitchen. “I promise you, as the Lord is my witness, there are no wire-bail jars that will explode…”
So, we experimented. We punched a whole in plastic mason jar cover, popped in a petroleum, non-food safe grommet we bought at the local hardware store. Worthless. Plastic covers are gas permeable, so oxygen easily travels in and out of the cover, in addition to the threads of the cover allowing gas to easily flow in and out of the jar. If you see brine leaking out the side of a jar? That is your proof that gas, a much smaller particle, easily travels the same path. And who wants their food in contact with a petroleum, non-food grommet?
The solution was to combine the airlock with the wire-bail jar. We’ve been using our glass airlock jar for many years, often giving it away for cost, to other mothers of special need children. At the urging of friends who were thrilled at finally being able to create what they called “clean” fermented food that didn’t require having to skim off mold or scum which occurred with their other equipment, we began selling our product, which Matthew named “Pickl-It,” two years ago, after making sure that he would be able to function fairly independently in our homeschool.
The real proof that properly-fermented, true anaerobic food—the food of my ancestors—calms the raging gut-beasts of autism, was when within 30-days of providing Matthew with probiotic-rich food at every meal, we saw real changes. His bowel movements became solid, for the first time in his five years of life. He was calmer, more focused. Two weeks into the diet, he announced, “I’m going to bed early,” and slept through the night, continuing that pattern every single night. We were so relieved, that we talked about not even daring to hope the changes were real, or would last. We didn’t have a very long break from stress.
The school noticed, too. The assistant director of special needs phoned us, accusing of us of placing him on medications without first informing them.
Commanded to appear at a meeting with our son’s school “team” (teacher, aid, therapists, school nurse and administrators), we presented them with a copy of Nourishing Traditions and its dietary guidelines. Not only did the teacher and therapists confirm our son’s new calmer, gentler, more easy-to-teach nature, but the nurse admitted that while she was still breaking our rule, allowing him to use her private bathroom (it’s scented products locked away from his reach) she noticed something: “Amazing that his stools are hard! I had never before seen a kid with such awful diarrhea, so whatever you are doing, keep doing it!” Even now, all these years later, we still need to remind him to flush.
We removed Matthew from school, choosing to home-school him. With the help of a wonderful team of doctors at Cambridge & Harvard, who encouraged us to follow a nutrient-dense whole-food diet, and were very supportive of the health-giving properties of fermented foods, Matthew’s nutritional blood panels were, “Abnormally normal!”
Where he was once headed towards a diagnosis of schizophrenia, he is now steady, focused, the auditory and visual hallucinations extinguished over six years ago.
If we had walked out of the adoption agency without him, when the adoption agency director labeled Matthew, “high-risk”, and sent him back to his sugar-water, soy-formula diet, I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he would not be the same child as the one we have the privilege and honor to share our lives with today.
Nutrients offered by real food, fresh, off-the-farm, and nutrient-dense, played a huge part in helping to pull our son from the abyss of autism. He still has moments, when he’s tired, that some of his “quirks” appear, but they’re manageable. Those quirks are what some might use to identify him as autism spectrum disorder, but they are also what makes him brilliant, funny, sweet, thoughtful, kind, and most important, deeply bonded with a keen desire to love and be loved.
Learn more about the health benefits of fermented foods at Pickl-it. You’ll find recipes, products and informative links.
For more about naturally healthy nutrition (with a Jewish twist) visit C.R. at healthyjewishcooking.com. Learn about the benefits of sourdough bread, sprouting, organically grown foods and more.