Body & Fitness

Something in the kefir coconut water

When a couple embarked on a frantic search for a solution to their son’s constant illness and violent rages, what they found was life-changing in more ways than one.
The GAPS diet and The Kefir Company helped this family overcome their sons constant illness and violent rages.

From the moment their son was born, Auckland businesswoman Anita Kyle and her husband Terry knew their first child was different. Shamus was small in stature, he had a large head, his body seemed malnourished and he always had dark circles under his eyes. The couple would also often find him lining up his toys and he was overly sensitive to loud noises to the point where the couple stopped using their lawn mower and waste-master because he’d become so upset. Yet although Kyle met with multiple doctors, it would take two years until they would discover the cause of their son’s insomnia, erratic behaviour, temper tantrums and extreme physical ill health.

“Terry was a stay-at-home dad and I had to work, so was back running the fashion business I owned within a couple of weeks of Shamus’ birth,” explains Kyle, who was 38 when Shamus (now eight) was born. “No matter what we did, we couldn’t get him to sleep.”

At 15 months old, Kyle says, his health took an even bigger nosedive. “Overnight, he started projectile vomiting up to eight times a day. It would take 10 days for him to have a bowel motion and then he might have diarrhoea for three days after that,” she explains.

Meltdowns were frequent and he barely slept. “Every night from 1am to 5am he would be awake. He was on formula but at 15 months old I was told he could handle straight cow’s milk. Even though he’d projectile vomit most of it up, he seemed to crave it like an addiction and no matter what I did we could never, ever seem to get enough milk into him,” the 46-year-old says. “We tried a GP, a paediatrician and even though I did six weeks counselling for post-natal depression, the nurses and counsellors told me I was the most together woman they’d ever met. Yet I had a big fear I’d lose him because we couldn’t control him.”

The final straw

Indeed, Shamus was proving even more hard to handle – flying into uncontrollable rages so extreme that, at times, the couple would be left with bruises on their arms and legs. “He would go from one meltdown to another. He would pull my hair, he punched, he bit, he kicked, he gave me a black eye. I remember one day taking him to the mall and he was so strong when he went through one of his episodes, I couldn’t get him back into the car seat so I had to leave him on the floor of the car and drive home because that’s all I could do with him. It got to the stage where it would always take two people to get anything done,” she recalls.

By then, Kyle was also pregnant with their second child, daughter Kaitlynn, now six. In the final stages of her pregnancy, she hired a nanny in order to get enough sleep to continue running her business and so Terry could sleep during the day then be up at night with Shamus. “Rocking was the only thing that got him to sleep and what we didn’t know then was that an autistic child likes to be rocked,” she says.

It was six weeks before Kaitlynn’s birth that Kyle started to seek out alternative solutions as well. And not only would these ultimately help her to manage her son’s illness effectively, but they would also lead to the development of the coconut water kefir business, The Kefir Company, that she and 47-year-old Terry now own and run today.

Once made by fermenting raw milk with kefir grains, the coconut water kefir preferred by natural health specialists today is made by fermenting raw coconut water with a kefir starter that’s full of microflora to ‘eat up’ the sugar during the fermentation process, leaving only good bacteria to grow. Kefir is an excellent source of B vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, calcium and phosphorus, as well as beneficial enzymes and amino acids.

For Shamus, coconut water kefir helped him undergo a dramatic transformation to become the bright, bubbly boy he is today. “The night I knew everything had to change was when we came home from a doctor’s visit and Shamus had his first seizure,” Kyle recalls. After that, she knew she’d do anything to give her son better quality of life. Encouraged by her neighbour to take Shamus to a homeopath, he was put on a gluten and dairy-free diet.

Fate comes knocking

“The homeopath knew Shamus was autistic but she didn’t want to tell me because I was about to give birth,” Kyle says. “I was so desperate I went home, took the kitchen apart and went shopping for products. I didn’t understand the concept of good nutrition but was amazed that within three days the projectile vomiting had stopped.” The family also used homeopathic remedies and a technique called Bowen therapy – a holistic massage used to aid healing.

The homeopath had referred Shamus to Dr Leila Masson, a paediatrician who specialised in biomedical treatment – a systematic approach to treat the root causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) through diet and natural supplements to strengthen both the immune and digestive systems. But though Shamus became calmer, he still wasn’t sleeping through the night and Kyle says she felt she couldn’t wait the six weeks she was told it would take to see Dr Masson.

“That day I went home, Googled autism and realised Shamus’ symptoms ticked every box,” explains Kyle. “It was then I knew something was really wrong with him.” Fate also intervened. “I’d come home from work early and there was a knock at the front door. It was a Plunket nurse who had come to see Kaitlynn with no appointment. Shamus was standing in the door screaming because she’d arrived unannounced. She looked down at him and said, “Oh you have one like me.” I said, ‘Pardon?’ She said, ‘He’s autistic’.”

Kyle then explained tearfully she couldn’t get in to see Masson for six more weeks but she was so stressed about her son she couldn’t even feed baby Katilynn because her milk hadn’t come in. “She saw how beside myself I was and said, ‘I’ll help’. She had an appointment for me by Monday and that was Thursday afternoon.”

Diagnosing Shamus with moderate to severe autism, Masson put him on a bio-medical treatment plan. She also referred Kyle to Auckland naturopath, nutritionist and medical herbalist, Gina Wilson. “There’s nothing she doesn’t know about these kids and how to get their guts right,” says Kyle. In fact, even before Wilson had seen her for their first appointment, Kyle begged her over the phone for some advice on getting Shamus to sleep.

Wilson said to give him bone broth before he went to bed that night. “I roasted the beef bones up, made this broth, gave it to him and both Terry and I woke up in the morning and asked each other if we had got up. We rushed to his room because we honestly thought he was dead, but there he was, alive and asleep.”

Working with Shamus, Wilson helped Kyle transition to using fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, and coconut water kefir to help populate Shamus’ gut with good bacteria. She also introduced Kyle to the GAPS diet.

Bad to worse…

“It was like a miracle,” says Kyle. “I was very much a boot-camp mother. Overnight, I changed his diet to GAPS. I gave him nothing else other than what he was supposed to eat and, even though he threw tantrums at first, eventually he started eating sauerkraut and drinking the fermented cabbage juice and kefir. I also gave him beef broth regularly throughout the day to help calm his stomach.

“You see, before this Shamus associated eating with feeling ill so he never really liked doing it. Even before he was on a gluten and dairy-free diet, he had eaten pretty cleanly and used to have sushi, fruit, veges and meat. There was no McDonald’s, lollies or junk food because he just couldn’t handle it.

“At first I thought we’d be fine and the hard bit was over because the dietary changes had worked straight away, but Gina explained it would take about six or seven weeks of ‘die-off’ before Shamus would start to improve. Die-off is killing the bad gut bacteria, but during those first few weeks he was getting so sick because this good bacteria was going in and his little body was just freaking out because the bad bacteria was still fighting the good.

“That’s when I rang Gina and she came to the house. She didn’t tell us but she went home that night and phoned her consulting specialist overseas because she’d never seen anything like it and thought she was doing something wrong. He told her to nurse us through because, ‘the worse the die-off, the better the recovery’. Gina basically moved in with us for the next six weeks to help manage Shamus. Activated charcoal, which helps remove toxins, became our new best friend.”

Yet while Shamus healed, unbeknown to Kyle she was about to face a major health battle all of her own. “I felt a lump in my breast and I went to a GP but she said it probably wouldn’t be breast cancer. I was so fogged over and exhausted I literally threw the mammogram away and didn’t do anything. Then a few months later, I felt the lump getting bigger and went to another GP because, even though Shamus was sleeping through the night by now, I was just so tired. I remember saying, ‘There will be something wrong. You cannot go through what I’ve been through with this child and come out the other end’.

“I took another mammogram and didn’t tell Terry. They put me in a cubicle, I opened up a magazine article and it was about breast cancer. That’s when I knew. As soon as I walked into the specialist on Tuesday, I knew things were about to change. He said, ‘You’ve got cancer’ and that’s when I cried. He gave me the option of operating in three weeks or the following Monday and I said, ‘Monday’. When they operated, they discovered my cancer hadn’t spread so I was really lucky.”

Family healing

Determined as ever, Kyle was back running her fashion business within a week of having her breast off. “I can honestly say cancer was a walk in the park in comparison to autism. People came wanting to do my hair and my makeup, people came to the door with meals because I had cancer but very few people had ever come to the door with autism.”

While going through chemotherapy, Kyle went to a talk by US-based Body Ecology founder Donna Gates about the power of using foods such as sauerkraut and kefir for parents with autistic children. That’s when Kyle herself decided to go gluten-free and started her whole family drinking coconut water kefir. By this stage, Kaitlynn had also been diagnosed as having mild autism.

“Until then, I didn’t understand the science behind what I was doing for the kids but when I got home from the talk, I explained to Terry we all needed to start drinking the kefir. Today we all eat the same foods.”

Yet the couple still didn’t know kefir would soon become their business. One night when Gina was over for dinner, she tried Terry’s kefir and was amazed by how good it was. He explained he had the art of making the coconut water kefir down pat.

“Gina asked us to start making kefir for other parents whose children had ASD because they were struggling to make it,” says Kyle. “At first I said, ‘No I’m running a fashion business and I’m cooking all this food for GAPS’. But to be honest, we were cash-strapped and things were pretty bad financially because the treatments were so expensive. So I was prepared to do anything to help the kids.”

Thinking about it for three months, Kyle finally decided not only could she sell the kefir but she could also do something to help other mums who were facing the same emotionally fraught journey as her. In 2010, The Kefir Company was born.

“Terry knew the night I offered to help crack the coconuts it was going to be a business. I knew to give back we needed to have income coming in so we started making it.” Eventually, Kyle sold her fashion business and today the couple have just moved The Kefir Company from a community hall kitchen on Auckland’s North Shore to a larger commercial premise to help keep up with the demand. Their coconut water kefir, which also now comes in flavours such as pineapple, watermelon and lime, is available in health food stores throughout the North Island.

Sharing the love

Kyle remains passionate about helping other parents, who often call her at home and work to ask for advice. She’s also frequently approached after the free public talks and natural health workshops she speaks at.

As her two excitable kids come tearing through the door after being dropped home from school by their neighbour, Kyle’s eyes light up. These are her precious babies and it is her determination, strength and ability to adapt that has helped transformed their lives.

Today, Shamus is flourishing like other kids his own age. He has lots of friends and gets invited to lots of birthday parties because he’s so social. In fact, says Kyle, not many fellow parents who meet him today even realise he has autism.

As he runs into the room, he flings his arms around his mum and smiles a big, adorable, cherubic grin. There was a time in his life when such smiles were non-existent, but today he is animated and engaged. He is, says Kyle proudly, doing well at school and through speech therapy is getting more and more well versed at communicating.

“I’m so proud of how far we’ve come. It’s not been easy but through all of this, our family has grown closer and Shamus is now reaching milestones I never thought possible. That makes it all worth it.”

What is the GAPS diet?

The GAPS diet centres around gut and psychology syndrome and was created by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride in the UK. It follows the principles of the specific carbohydrate diet (SCD) created by Dr Sidney Valentine Haas to heal digestive disorders and looks at the relationship between the gut and psychological issues ranging from autism to dyslexia and depression.

Campbell-McBride has a child who was diagnosed with learning disabilities and she realised nutrition could be key in helping both adults and children overcome these through the use of probiotics and bone broths to help restore gut health. She believes the link between learning disabilities, our food and drink, and the condition of our digestive system is absolute and that is the foundation on which she created the GAPs diet.

For more on the diet see

Words by: Kylie Bailey

Photographs by: Tony Nyberg

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