Gut Reaction| April 7, 2021
Modern medicine failed my son, but healing came from an unexpected source
Shimon is my third child, but his story begins with my first pregnancy. Although I was relatively health conscious as a teen, through nausea and nursing I indulged. Pizza, chocolate, cheesecake… I didn’t understand then how profoundly my choices were affecting my body and the babies it would nourish.
When my second son was three months old, I began to experience pain during feedings, and his spit-up was brown. It would take a month or two of excruciating agony for me to realize I was suffering from thrush, a yeast infection that grows in warm, moist places. A cortisone cream helped me to continue nursing, but I didn’t know that an external manifestation of yeast was only the tip of the iceberg. By eating too many refined carbs, sugar, and dairy products, I’d made my body a haven for candida (a form of yeast).
I subsequently gave birth to a third son, and found the adjustment from two to three children almost impossible. Shimon suffered from reflux. He ate every two to three hours, and would scream for an hour after each feeding, including in middle of the night.
I begged my pediatrician to give me some medication to stop the screaming because I was going out of my mind. He gave me a prescription for reflux medication, and I was elated.
Only later I’d learn there were alternatives to rushing to put the baby on anti-acid medication. The doctor could have suggested that I go off milk and refined carbs, put the baby on a probiotic, and only if the baby was still screaming after a month, move on to a really low dose of medication for a short amount of time.
Reflux is a symptom of indigestion. Why would a baby suffer from indigestion? Because the beneficial bacteria that aid in digestion are being overwhelmed by — you guessed it — candida. Cure the candida, cure the reflux. Ignore it, and it will continue to wreak havoc in the body. And diluting the acid in the stomach has serious risks, because that can allow the wrong kind of bacteria to flourish and compromise immunity.
At the time though, I was just happy that Shimon’s screaming had significantly subsided.
Summer turned to fall, and predictably, Shimon got sick. But he didn’t just get a small case of the sniffles — he suffered intensely for two weeks from an upper-and-lower respiratory virus and was raging with fever. To his credit, my pediatrician refused to medicate him — which would’ve killed more of the beneficial gut bacteria — insisting the infection was viral, but he reassured me that I could give Shimon as much Motrin and Tylenol as needed to keep him comfortable, as long as I followed the package instructions.
I had maybe a day or two of respite after his first illness, and then Shimon got sick again. For another two intense weeks, we battled fever, coughing, and a messy nose. Finally, he recovered… and then he got sick again. He was hospitalized several times for respiratory illnesses. It was a tough winter
“Is this normal?” I kept asking my pediatrician. “Why is he always sick? Is there anything we can do to prevent his illnesses?”
“It’s normal, kids get sick. There’s nothing to do. It’s not a problem if he’s on Motrin and Tylenol all winter long, just make sure not to overdose,” he kept assuring me. As I type these words, my cheeks are wet.
When spring came, Shimon’s colds eased, but when I weighed him, I saw he hadn’t gained any weight over the winter. All his energy had been expended in fighting virus after virus. But the doctor wasn’t concerned; at least he hadn’t lost weight, and had even gained three ounces, the doctor said.
When fall came around once more, and Shimon, now a toddler, began coughing and dripping again, I knew I had to do something. I asked my doctor to recommend a nutritionist. The woman asked me many questions, and when she heard that I’d suffered from thrush and never cured it, she guessed that Shimon was also suffering from yeast, and that was why his immunity was so low.
“Is it normal that a child should be sick all winter?” I asked her. “The doctor keeps on telling me that it is.”
She sighed. “I don’t care about normal in terms of statistics. Normal is healthy, happy, functioning.”
I was still nursing, so she put both of us on a relatively mild anti-candida diet — no milk, refined carbs, added sweeteners, or high-fructose fruits — and recommended some supplements, including a probiotic. She explained that we had to slowly build up the dose because yeast doesn’t die pretty. It explodes and exits the body through the skin, mucus, digestive and immune systems, and we didn’t want to suffer from rashes or other unpleasant symptoms.
Immediately upon getting Shimon off dairy, I saw his eyes became more alert, and his beautiful, puffy, eczema-covered face clear up a little. I dedicated enormous energy to getting those vitamins down his little throat, and as he was still at home with me, I was able to monitor his diet, and we had a much better winter. (As a side benefit, I lost a nice amount of weight and my acne cleared.)
But our journey was far from over.
Shimon’s nose was perpetually dripping. And if his nose wasn’t dripping, it was stuffed. To listen to the poor child breathe at night! He heaved, he gasped, he snorted. And occasionally, he’d still come down with severe respiratory illnesses requiring hospitalization.
Eventually, I noticed that the nutritional supplements weren’t doing enough to warrant their exorbitant cost, and Shimon was starting to resist taking them, so I stopped them without noticing any relapse.
They’d played a role, but they weren’t the real answer. We’d also backslided on the diet, as Shimon was going to playgroup at this point, but milk was still an absolute no-no.
That Succos, Shimon got a cold and was breathing heavily. After a few days, when I saw him gasping and coughing, I took him to my pediatrician’s house. He didn’t even listen to his chest, just called to his daughter, “Bring the nebulizer and albuterol!” and started him on one tube after another. After four or five vials, he gave up and called Hatzolah.
In the hospital, the staff struggled to get his lungs to open. Finally, they succeeded in stabilizing him, but he needed to remain in the hospital until he’d be fine on one vial of albuterol every four hours. On Simchas Torah they sent us home with two puffers, one albuterol, and one cortisone.
We began seeing a pediatric pulmonologist every month or so. Shimon wasn’t doing too badly — he only wheezed occasionally when he got a cold, and he wasn’t getting them more than once a month. I mentioned to the pulmonologist how heavily he breathed at night, and he connected me to a pediatric ENT surgeon.
At the appointment, we found out that 90 percent of his airway was blocked. Poor baby. The surgeon strongly recommended we shave his adenoids, but something was niggling me. Working with the nutritionist had gotten me used to thinking more holistically: A body is not a machine where you change parts! Here was a child with a history of respiratory distress. His entire respiratory system was weak — would shaving his adenoids cure that? The surgeon had to admit that it wouldn’t.
Around this time, I had an unpleasant run-in with my pediatrician, so I switched to a different one, an experienced doctor of many decades. I walked into his office with another child, Shimon slinking in behind me. When the doctor walked into the room to examine my other son, Shimon, then a shy, anxious child, hid behind the chair. (Later, as he healed and came out of his shell, I’d realize how much his physical state had impacted him emotionally.)
The doctor was astute and while he gave the patient his time, he turned to Shimon, cajoling him out from behind the chair.
“This child is not well,” he told me.
I couldn’t believe it. “Really? You think so? Thank you for saying that! His other pediatrician kept on telling me that he’s fine and that it’s normal for kids to be sick!”
“No. This is not normal. He’s really suffering.” The doctor was emphatic, and I felt so validated. I updated the doctor on his history and he said, “You need to search for healing in the natural world. Maybe go organic. But we should test him for allergies.”
That was all I needed, permission from a doctor to search for natural healing! I scheduled him for allergy testing. Baruch Hashem, he came up basically clear, except for low-grade allergies to all kinds of substances that exist everywhere. In other words — an immune system under chronic attack. The pediatrician recommended an air purifier. It made a very minimal difference, but did rid the room of bad odors.
I told the doctor about the surgeon’s recommendation, but he disagreed.
“In my experience,” he said, “children like Shimon with chronic allergies deteriorate after their adenoids are shaved. He needs every bit of immunity he can get. Go natural, find him a cure.”
I became a mom on a mission. I decided to try one thing at a time. My limitations were my time, energy, and money. Organic was too big of a patchkeh, and my instincts weren’t leading me there, but as I read up on nutrition and health, I learned about the body’s pH, level which should be slightly alkaline. SAD (the Standard American Diet) is notoriously acidic, creating a body that is chronically inflamed. We started making raw fruits and veggies a more prominent part of our diets. Fruits and vegetable alkalize the body, and have thousands of phytonutrients that science is only starting to understand. They help clear away toxins, and the live cells in the raw foods are powerfully healing. All this in addition to the hydration and fiber.
I also started understanding the concept of toxicity. No, it’s not harmless to have your kid constantly on medication, even just Tylenol and Motrin, because then his body is always having to rid itself of toxins. That was why my doctor recommended switching to organic — to minimize the toxic load he was ingesting with his food. While I couldn’t go that far, I did remain aware of the importance of limiting processed foods, because they come laced with dozens of chemicals. I switched my laundry detergent to a very mild one and started using vinegar for daily cleaning.
There was some positive improvement, his nose no longer dripped constantly, but he still heaved at night, was sickly, and wheezed with every cold. During one sudden wheezing attack, I ran to the pediatrician’s office — the puffers weren’t working!
While the doctor was giving him a shot of cortisone and setting him up on the nebulizer, he explained that the puffers the pulmonologist had prescribed weren’t ideal. Puffers, the pediatrician explained, may give the same dosage as a nebulizer, but the therapeutic effect of a nebulizer puffing moist air into the lungs helps the medication be absorbed better and the moisture itself is healing.
While still in the doctor’s office, I met my brother who was there with his kids. Shimon is genetically quite similar to his uncle who had been quite a wheezer as a kid. I immediately put the two together and was able to shed some of my guilt — Shimon’s respiratory weakness was definitely partially genetic; this wasn’t all my fault.
Around this time, someone recommended a reflexologist, who taught me how massaging Shimon’s feet could open his airways. The first time I tried, he was sleeping. As I massaged, he shuddered, gasped, and then began breathing much more calmly. Reflexology was a helpful tool, and his breathing at night improved. But while I continued to massage his feet religiously, he was still puffy and getting sick far too often.
I look at Shimon’s upsheren pictures and tear up. He’s happily licking a lolly, but his face is blotchy, his nose dripping, his eyes glazed — he was a withdrawn little boy even at his own party. But soon afterward, Hashem would lead me to his refuah.
At a farm that summer, I met a woman who introduced me to raw goat’s milk. I wanted Shimon to have some sort of milk in his diet, and was wondering if he could tolerate this milk. While he didn’t like the milk, I told the woman who sold it about Shimon’s symptoms, and she connected me to someone who sold fermented foods. Upon her recommendation, I began purchasing fermented borsht.
She explained that the probiotic in a naturally fermented food is hundreds, if not thousands, of times more powerful and effective than the probiotic in a bottle. Furthermore, there were many vitamins and nutrients in the borscht that no pill could replicate. Finally, borscht was a powerfully alkaline food.
Well, remember my motto, one thing at a time, as my time, energy, and money allowed? We had pretty much maxed out what reflexology had to offer, so we could try the next thing. We gave Shimon his borscht in medicine droppers, followed by juice so he could tolerate the taste. I told Shimon this would make him feel better, and, little as he was, he wanted to feel better. Slowly, we built up the amount of borscht we were giving him in a day, and slowly he started healing. His face was clearing, his eyes more alert, his breathing quieted down, and he became more friendly and happy.
My father-in-law noticed first. After three months of me feeding him the purple juice, we went to his house. He hadn’t seen Shimon in a while and the difference amazed him.
“What did you do to him? Which magic did you use? He’s a different child!”
Shimon was running, jumping, laughing, his face clear, his breathing (almost) inaudible — he was a regular child!
For a few years we kept up with the borscht, noticing a regression every time we went off it for more than a week or two.
Today, Shimon is a robust nine-year-old boy, who is flourishing in every way. He still takes a cup or two of borscht a week, whenever I remind him.
Healthy eating is much more part of our family’s lifestyle, and borscht plays a prominent role (my boys love to race each other to see how quickly they can down the stuff). Over the years, I’ve learned how to make large batches of borscht at a time. Since my husband began drinking it every day, his sinuses have stopped bothering him. I drink it quite often and have stopped suffering from digestive ailments. (But eating sugar, refined carbs, and milk will still cause me to gain weight and break out in acne or the notorious itching that yeast is known for.)
When my fifth son was born with symptoms similar to Shimon’s, I got him on borscht, and he’s had a much smoother infancy — and toddlerhood.
I’ve also learned about other gentle natural tools. Peppermint and lavender oil open the tight chest of a child with bronchitis (though I found it absolutely useless during a real wheeze). Someone introduced me to apple cider vinegar, which helps get rid of fluid from the ear, nose, and throat, eliminating the earliest signs of colds and ear infections. Friends told me about reflexology related treatments that eliminate common early childhood ailments like teething, ear infections, and common viruses. I learned that MRSA is easily and gently curable through bentonite (a.k.a. miracle) clay. My pediatrician actually told me how to use it in one tricky case. Baruch Hashem, today we rarely go to the doctor.
I’ve offered my borscht to many of my friends and family, and taught many of them how to make it on their own — it’s ridiculously easy and cheap. Many have successfully gotten rid of a variety of annoying ailments. One sister-in-law claims it cured her from morning sickness!
I’m eternally grateful to the Ribbono shel Olam for guiding me in my search for a cure for Shimon, and for implanting gentle cures in the world around us.
Tamar Feldman, RDN, CDE, a registered dietitian who practices in Edison, New Jersey, details the importance of establishing a healthy gut early on.
The critical window for establishing healthy microbiome in the gut is birth until age three. After that, it’s much harder to alter the balance of bacteria and yeasts in the intestinal tract.
The first factor affecting an infant is his mother’s microbiome balance. Already while in the birth canal, he’s being colonized by whatever is colonizing her. If her diet encourages candida overgrowth (sugar is a huge factor), the baby can begin suffering from yeast infections early in life.
Antibiotics in early life is another major factor affecting gut health, so I do my best to prevent that through keeping my very young infants away from germy places (think the gym), and treating ear-infections through effective natural remedies. (Garlic oil and massage as well as chiropractic adjustments have worked for me and my clients.) Anti-acids also encourage growth of toxic bacteria, because in addition to aiding digestion, stomach acids kill the bad-guy bacteria in the upper part of the GI tract.
A history of overuse of antibiotics is hard to fix. I work with specific herbs and targeted probiotics with my clients. You cannot just yank a bottle off the shelf — certain probiotics work for certain problems. For example, s. boulardi, which is actually not a probiotic, but a beneficial yeast, fights the bad yeast. Fermented foods are extremely beneficial because of their potency and diversity.
Gut health is much more important than people realize. A healthy digestive tract affects the brain and since 70 percent of our immunity is in our gut, unbalanced microbiome can set off mediated immune sensitivities (i.e. allergies, eczema, Crohn’s, colitis, celiac) in people who are genetically susceptible.
I’d be very careful with toxic chemicals and pesticides (if you know where to shop, going organic isn’t as hard as it sounds) with a child genetically susceptible to these diseases because they need extra support in keeping their gut lining healthy. That said, I’d be very careful when introducing fermented foods in their diets because of their extreme sensitivity. Start with tiny quantities, and then slowly increase the amounts.
How Does It Work?
To better understand how borscht could be so powerfully healing requires a deeper understanding of how bacteria work. Avrumi Grossberg, founder of Fer-Real Food, explains the process.
When the wrong kinds of micro-flora over-reproduce, they begin munching at the lining on the intestines, creating holes. We call this leaky-gut-syndrome, as it causes toxic particles to leak into the blood (think of a garbage truck with a hole driving through the streets of your city). This triggers an immune response that can take many different forms, including eczema, psoriasis, candida, or Crohn’s, among others. In Shimon, it caused inflammation.
We think of the immune system as creating antibodies, but that’s actually a fairly late immune response. First, the immune system creates inflammation. You can see this when you get a cut — the area gets all red and puffy. When toxins leak into the blood, it can trigger a more complex inflammation process in various organ systems, in Shimon’s case, his respiratory system.
The good-guy bacteria in the borscht killed the bad-guy bacteria, giving his intestines a chance to heal its lining, seal the leak, and stop the flow of toxins. Therefore, his body turned off the inflammation response. Healing the gut also plays a role in curing many emotional and mental conditions as hormones that affect brain function, notably serotonin, are produced in the gut. That’s why the borscht eliminated Shimon’s anxiety.
There’s security when taking a probiotic supplement, as you know the exact strain and amount of beneficial bacteria contained. However, fermented foods, specifically borscht, worked where bottled probiotics had previously made only a minimal difference, partially because of its many other benefits: antioxidant content, iron, B-vitamins, as well as many other compounds. In addition, a naturally fermented food has many different strains of probiotic, especially borscht, which is referred to as a broad-spectrum probiotic, because it has 30 to 40 different types of beneficial bacteria in it.
But the real benefits of fermented foods over bottled probiotic lie in environment. Probiotics reproduce in the fermentation process by eating the sugar in the food and converting it to lactic acid in which they flourish. The lactic acid creates an environment for the probiotics that enables them to pass through the hydrochloric acid of the stomach unharmed and reach the intestines where they’re most needed. (This lactic acid has its own host of health benefits, primarily in aiding digestion and curing heartburn caused by reflux. Heartburn and indigestion caused by an H. pylori infection is cured directly by the probiotic, which simply kills it off.)
Quick and Easy Borscht
Use a Pickl-It jar, there are many different kinds available on Amazon. I use a 5-liter jar (actually, 2 of them) but you can use whatever size you need.
Fill 1/3 of the jar with good quality beets, cut into chunks. You can either peel the beets, or scrub them well.
Fill the rest of the jar with water and salt to taste (I use 2 Tbsp for a 5L bottle).
Close according to jar instructions.
Put your borscht in a dark place.
If you use a starter (i.e., 1/2 cup of ready borscht), your borscht will be ready in a week. If not, give it three weeks.
Many frum health food stores now sell all kinds of fermented foods with a hechsher from the CRC, which you can use if it is too hard for you to make your own borscht, or as a starter.
Don’t forget to daven to Hashem that your borscht should be a successful agent of His healing!
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 737)
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