Reversing Autism: The Story Behind Feast Without Yeast
Behind every book is a story. This is an excerpt from the first chapter of Feast Without Yeast, which tells our story. We developed Feast Without Yeast based on our own experience trying to save our son from autism, which is a debilitating and disabling condition. For our new page on Autism, with information about yeast free/gluten free/casein free diets and homeopathy, click here.
We were able to reverse our son’s decline into autism and bring him toward health. But we realized that it is a story that can and should be shared so that others may benefit from our experience.
Feast Without Yeast: Four Stages to Better Health began on a Sunday morning in January, 1991, in Rockville, Maryland. Our four-and-a-half year old son was writhing on the floor screaming. He had been behaving this way on and off for six months, worse in the two months before this day. He had been to ten different doctors in the Washington, DC area, including some who were world renowned. None had been helpful. At age two he had been fine. From two-and-a-half to age four, his development had slowed down, but had not stopped. Starting a few days after his fourth birthday, he began to lose his speech. The speech loss started subtly, almost like a game. Avi would look at something for which he knew the words, then say, “I want. . .I want. . .” and I would fill in the name. He lost names of objects, names of colors, and words for common actions. Over the next six months, he went from losing words to being able to talk only in phrases he could pull out of his memory. His word for “car” was “let’s get the car washed.” His word for the Jewish holiday of Channukah was “in the days of the Macabees.”
Avi also began to scream incessantly. He would scream blood curdling screams for hours at a time.
He was evaluated and placed in special education classes. During the first three weeks of class, he lost much of his speech, going from speaking in sentences to not being able to put two words together. He lost his toilet training, stopped eating and lost so much weight he went down two sizes. By this January day, our son could not use his hands. He walked around with them curled up. He sat in a swing spinning much of the day. He had lost all emotional contact except with his mother, and that was fleeting. We were under the care of a world famous psychiatrist, a psychologist, an occupational therapist and a speech therapist. We had seen three neurologists who subjected our son to countless tests, with negative results. None of these experts could tell us what was happening to our angel. His younger sister, then only two, spent many hours trying to comfort her big brother, holding and hugging him as only a child can do.
It is difficult to put into words how a parent feels seeing their first-born son totally disintegrate into nothingness. He went from being a bright and able toddler to this writhing, screaming, little person, unable to talk, unable to communicate his wants, his needs or his love. The pain of the memories is real even eight years later. On this January day, he could say only a few words.
But on this early morning day there was to be an insight. I (Lori) was sitting up with Avi, as I had been each night for the previous month, during his waking hours of 2:00 to 7:00 AM. Avi was staring at something, saying “the lights, the lights.” All of a sudden, it hit me: Avi was experiencing a migraine. He had had a peanut butter sandwich for bedtime snack, a food known to cause migraines, and this was it.
I (Bruce) grew up with a strong family history of migraines, and Lori suffered from them occasionally. Both of us experience what is called an “aura” before the pounding pain of the headache: flashing lights, dizzying patterns dancing before our eyes. My father had several migraines a week when he was in college, until he read an article in a magazine, stating that if one avoided certain foods, the migraines would decrease in frequency. This food avoidance became a family tradition. My father avoided these foods and his migraines diminished considerably. The magazine’s list of foods to be avoided included such foods as chocolate, pickles, salad dressing, bacon, alcoholic beverages, nuts, and aged cheese. I have since seen from other headache clinics similar lists of foods to avoid. We decided to take away from Avi a small number of foods known to cause migraines.
We took away chocolate, peanut butter, orange juice, aged cheeses, and some other foods. The improvement was immediate. Avi looked and acted as if a weight had been lifted from his head. Only then could we see the onset of separate headaches, when we would make a mistake and give him foods we weren’t supposed to, or when he would eat something that we learned later caused problems. We saw the headaches set in about three times a week instead of being chronic.
His symptoms of what we now know to be autism also began to diminish. He no longer screamed all the time. His behavior improved. He seemed more with us, more engagable. If he accidentally ate the wrong foods, the screaming began again. In the first few weeks, we noted that not all the screaming went away. We tried to determine what foods were still causing problems. At that time I was a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute, in a laboratory investigating links between nutrition and cancer.
Using the vast library of the National Institutes of Health, I began researching what might be causing Avi’s problems. Based on my research, we decided to eliminate vinegar, a staple of our lives. Avi was a kid who ate ketchup on everything and loved Asian food, sprinkled with rice vinegar. Again, we saw immediate improvement, but knew that we were still missing something. I had no idea what the relationship was among the foods on the original list. Around this time, we also found that something in children’s pain relievers was causing the headaches to last longer than usual. We do not know exactly what that substance is, suspecting many of the additives, including aspartame (NutraSweet). We did know that switching to pure acetaminophen (commonly known by the brand name of Tylenol), and later to pure ibuprofen (commonly known by the brand names of Motrin and Advil), shortened the life of the headaches. Life for Avi improved considerably, but he still suffered tremendous pain and still continued to lose his speech. Avi’s speech disappeared totally in March, 1991. He uttered no real words for five years.
We got our next break about eight weeks later with the Jewish holiday of Passover. For this holiday, all foods containing yeast, leavening and fermented foods are eliminated. This holiday lasts eight days. Three days into Passover, our son was clearly improving again. He appeared much more comfortable. By this time his speech was gone, so we were dependent on how he looked and behaved. His behavior had improved to the point that he was accepted into a special education speech and language summer program.
After those eight days, though, Avi deteriorated. The screaming intensified. We had no idea what had happened. What was in the food that we were now giving again? We had many snack foods from the health food store, all supposedly healthy. I (Bruce) read the labels and the one ingredient that I did not recognize was barley malt. What was this substance?
After some investigation, I found out that barley malt is a raw material used in making beer. The malt is made from a specially grown barley. The barley is allowed to sprout under controlled conditions. After a certain period of time, the sprouted barley is heated. The resulting substance is called malt and is the raw material for making beer. The malt is also sweet and is sold as a sugar substitute.
In beer manufacture, yeast is mixed with the malt and chemically alters the malt to form alcohols and many other chemicals. This process is called fermentation.
Why is malt such a problem? I pursued my investigation over the years and was able to obtain from a beer manufacturer a list of chemicals found in barley malt. Many of these chemicals are toxic and affect the nervous system. Many slow the brain down, which may be part of the reason these chemicals and malt are so bad for children with developmental and behavioral problems. This information made sense. I had observed clinically that the behavior of even neurologically typical children can deteriorate when they eat foods containing malt. Our ten year old daughter, for example, becomes a typical whiny, demanding, unhappy preadolescent hours after she eats malted foods. She has become so aware of how ill she feels when she eats malt that she reads labels before eating anything unfamiliar. About a month after we took away malt from Avi’s diet, a baby-sitter unwittingly gave him two bowls of cereal with malt. We came home from a walk and found Avi sitting on the couch, staring into space. He remained in that trance like state for ten days. Fortunately, we have never had that experience again.
Besides the malt, what was the relationship among the items on the list? Vinegar is literally spoiled wine, which is a fermented product. But what about chocolate and nuts? I went back to my research to find out. I knew about certain cancer causing chemicals in food. One is called aflatoxin, a potent cancer-causer found in small amounts in peanuts. Aflatoxin comes from a fungus, called Aspergillus, which contaminates the peanut plant. Chocolate beans are dried with a fungus. Now the relationship among the items on the migraine headache list became clear. Except for malt, all of the foods on the list were products of yeast fermentation or of fungus contamination. Some of the chemicals found in malt are also found in chocolate and coffee.
I concluded that something produced by yeast and fungus was wreaking havoc on our son. We needed to know what it was.
As I identified what foods contain which chemicals and we took these foods away, Avi improved, albeit slowly.
We ran into another problem at this time. People like fermented foods. They taste good. Barley malt and vinegar are very common additives in foods. Vinegar has a zesty taste. Barley malt is apparently cheaper than sugar and is sold as a sugar substitute. Barley malt is also promoted as a “grain sweetener” in health food stores, an alternative to refined sugar. My (Lori) shopping tours to the grocery stores began to take on the nature of a research experiment in itself. Vinegar is the staple of all commercially produced condiments: ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salsa, salad dressing and many sauces. Avi’s favorite foods used to be soy hot dogs with ketchup, mustard, salsa and mayonnaise. Barley malt seems to be baked into nearly everything, including bread, bagels, breakfast cereal and many health food snacks. It is in so-called natural chocolates and candies instead of sugar. Barley malt is even in many commercial white flours, so even home-baked goods were suspect. We found we could no longer buy most commercially prepared foods. We had to prepare almost all our own food, and we had to devise new ways to prepare that food. Our days of Hot and Sour Soup were over for good.
Once we eliminated barley malt and all other malted products (maltodextrin, malted barley flour, and so on), vinegar, and yeast, the improvement was dramatic. We began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but little did we know how long that tunnel was. Reaching the end of the tunnel is still a goal, although after more than eight years, we are much closer. Eight years ago, simply decreasing Avi’s headaches to once a week or once every two weeks, and seeing his behavior improve and his autistic symptoms decrease were major victories. We had turned the tide before we lost Avi altogether. He was coming back to us, very, very slowly. It took two more years, and much more experimentation, to completely eliminate Avi’s debilitating headaches. Another two years of experimentation eliminated Avi’s eczema and itching.
We began the process of writing Feast Without Yeast around that time, although we did not intend to write a cookbook for other people. Feast Without Yeast is the culmination of eight years of effort at trying to come up with good tasting food without using anything fermented.
We found, though, that foods were not the only key to Avi’s puzzle. Around April of 1991, after that first Passover holiday, one of the many health care professionals we were seeing suggested we look at an outstanding book called The Yeast Connection by Dr. William Crook. Dr. Crook compiled treatment histories of people who have problems with something called Candida albicans, a type of fungus which at times resembles yeast. We found that Dr. Crook recommended eliminating many of the foods we had found to be problematic for Avi, although there were some very significant differences at that time. Could it be that Avi had a yeast problem? Certainly no professional had ever mentioned this, but certainly no health care professional had been able to help us to this point. At that time, there was not a reliable test for systemic Candida infection, as there is now. We decided to try treating Avi with a nontoxic medication called nystatin. Nobody, including the doctor who had introduced us to this concept, would prescribe nystatin for us. Fortunately, I had a medical license.
Within a few days of starting on the nystatin, Avi made a year’s growth in playground development. He got off the swings, where he usually spent his hours of playground time. He began climbing jungle gyms, sliding down slides, and beginning to look like a four year old kid again. Avi still did not get his speech back, but he was beginning to be able to function.
Although it seemed at first that the diet recommended in The Yeast Connection could have saved us a lot of work, and perhaps would have saved Avi’s speech had we discovered the book sooner, we found that it did not answer the questions that Avi posed to us. Had we followed that diet, which at the time was the standard for anti-yeast diets, Avi still would have been eating many of the foods that we know cause him tremendous problems.
I have treated many frustrated patients who have followed the standard recommendations for yeast free diets, who have enjoyed very limited results. Their symptoms include autism, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia , multiple sclerosis, skin conditions and many more. The reason for their lack of results is not their lack of effort, but the fact that the main dietary yeast offenders (vinegar and barley malt) had been left in their diets. In fact, most of the anti-yeast and allergy related cookbooks have vinegar as a staple food and recommend a diet high in animal protein and nuts, which are thoroughly mold contaminated. Even diets that eliminate vinegar tend to use apple juice concentrate as a sweetener, which is high in chemicals toxic to people who are sensitive to yeast.
I left the National Cancer Institute in August of 1991. A month later I began treating patients for Candida albicans using the dietary principles I developed while working with our son and using the nontoxic anti-yeast drug nystatin. I found that I could treat supposedly untreatable conditions such as autism, psoriasis, eczema, chronic fatigue syndrome , multiple sclerosis, chronic women’s yeast infections , attention deficit disorder, chronic ear infections, and refractory depression. These conditions all respond to treatment of Candida albicans.
One question remained for us: why did our son continue to suffer from periodic bouts of eczema and hives? Part of the problem lay in attempting to liberalize the diet. He turned out also to have sensitivities to wheat, milk and eggs, like many other children who suffer from autism. I went back to the library and found that milk and wheat contain substances that are toxic to the brains of sensitive people. Thus, we began working on another series of recipes, these containing no gluten (the part of wheat that causes the food sensitivities), casein (the protein in milk causing the food sensitivities) or eggs.
Many people ask us whether this treatment has been a cure; for our son. We cannot say that it has been, but we cannot say that it has not been. Avi still does not talk fluently, but he has words, and can communicate. He types independently, too.
Talking is not the only important part of life. Avi now is able to relate to people emotionally. He is out of pain. This treatment has been the foundation of a better life for Avi. Without dietary intervention and nystatin, Avi could not have benefitted from any other treatment. He is in school in an integrated setting, a regular school and a regular classroom, with an aide, and has been since first grade. Avi has now started his fourth year of high school, and is doing great.
We have continued our intervention, adding some effective homeopathic remedies to Avi’s repertoire. For more information on homeopathy, click here.
Before we began treating Avi with dietary intervention, Avi could not tolerate the presence of other children before starting on this diet. He could not tolerate being touched. Now Avi loves tickles, hugs and touches, even from strangers. Avi benefitted from an intensive in-home applied behavioral analysis program, and effective educational strategies, which he could not have tolerated without the diet and nystatin treatment. Avi still does not talk fluently, but has regained some speech. Avi is a far cry from the little boy spinning on the swing with his hands curled up, looking at nobody, caring for nothing, screaming all the time. He is a happy and healthy child, free of extraordinary pain, and able to function much better socially and emotionally in the world.