What is GAPS?
What’s so great about the GAPS diet? Who might benefit from the GAPS diet? How does GAPS heal so many different issues?
You may have had these questions so I’m going to attempt to answer them.
First a list of symptoms/disorders that GAPS can address. This list is from Baden’s Blog
- acid reflux
- acne (typical and cystic)
- adrenal burnout
- anger, unfounded
- appetite issues (excessively small or large)
- auditory hallucinations
- autism spectrum disorder
- attention deficit (with or without hyperactivity) disorder
- behavioural problems
- blood sugar issues (low and high)
- candida overgrowth
- celiac disease
- chronic diarrhea
- cravings (sugar, starch, pica, etc)
- crohn’s disease
- cystic fibrosis
- dental enamel defects
- eosinophilic esophagitis
- failure to thrive
- feeding difficulties (including “picky eating”)
- food phobias
- histamine, excess levels
- incontinence (fecal and/or urinary)
- leaky gut
- learning disabilities
- libido, overactive
- menstrual and pre-menstrual issues
- mineral deficiencies
- mood swings
- muscle cramps
- obsessiveness (over historical and current events)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- pain: muscle, foot
- phobias (food, environment, social)
- rheumatoid arthritis
- seizures (possibly dependent on the cause, but including those in which dozens are occurring per day)
- skin disorders
- sleep issues (difficulty falling asleep; difficulty staying asleep, excessively brief sleep, excessively long sleep)
- sound sensitivity
- stool abnormalities
- temper, short
- thyroid, low functioning
- tooth decay
- tummy pains
- under-eye circles
- urinary tract infections
- violence (against self, against others)
- vision challenges (though not blindness)
- weight issues (underweight and overweight)
- white coating on tongue
Why yes that was a long list wasn’t it. These are conditions that people have seen corrected by following GAPS. You can go to the blog linked above for more information on some of these conditions.
GAPS stands for Gut And Psychology Syndrome. The diet that this is based on was developed many years ago by Dr Haas as a diet for Celiac disease. Elaine Gottschall had a daughter with a severe intestinal disease that was cured by this diet. She wrote a book called Breaking the Vicious Cyclewhich explained the diet, called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), and shared it with the world. She was a biochemist and did research into what foods were safe for people who needed this diet. It was then discovered that the diet she popularized benefited children with autism. Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride had a son with autism and she set out to cure him. She put him on the SCD and in conjunction with some other therapies she cured his autism. That success led to her opening a Clinic in England that treats children and adults with Autism and many other issues. She then wrote the Gut and Psychology book and shared her discoveries with the world. I will be forever grateful to these two women for writing those books. It has made it possible for so many people (us included) to take charge of their own health and find healing that wasn’t coming with the medications and therapies that Dr’s were prescribing for them.
So the basic premise is that eating foods that are difficult to digest, when your gut is already damaged and has an imbalance of bacteria, will lead to many different uncomfortable symptoms. These symptoms can be physical in the form of things like gut pain, diarrhea, and constipation or harder to pin on the gut like depression, schizophrenia, tics, and autism. One of the reasons for these latter symptoms is that your gut produces most of your serotonin and other brain chemicals. If your gut is damaged you won’t make as many of those chemicals. In addition many of these “GAPS” symptoms can come from toxins building up in your body. For example this chart shows a comparison between symptoms of mercury poisoning and autism. Most people are familiar with the damage that lead can do to a person as well. Other toxins have their own symptoms. Your liver removes many toxins from your blood stream and puts them into your bile which is then injected into your digestive system at the start of the small intestine. A damaged gut will reabsorb those toxins because it isn’t a barrier to them like it should be. This is commonly called a leaky gut. It is leaky because it allows things to pass into the blood stream that should stay in the digestive track. As you can imagine this can cause a lot of problems in the body depending on what has crossed that gut barrier. I talked about this some in my post about oxalates. Another well know cause of behavioral and psychological symptoms is an overgrowth of pathogenic microbes. Things like strep or candida are well known to cause behavioral or psychological changes in people when they over grow in the gut. Another one that my family is far too familiar with is Lyme disease. Many people have a combination of gut and psychological symptoms but some seem to only have one or the other. They can all be helped by this way of eating, even in the absence of apparent gut symptoms.
One question people have is how did the gut get damaged in the first place? The biggest culprit is antibiotics. These wonder drugs that have saved many lives come with a price. They kill bacteria indiscriminately. This means that when they are killing off the bacteria that make you ill they are also killing off the bacteria that keep you healthy. It takes your gut about 6 months to recover from one round of antibiotics, assuming some of the good bacteria are still left when it is over and conditions in the gut are favorable for it’s recovery. Unfortunately it is common for antibiotics to be given many times in close succession, especially to children, and the gut may never have time to recover before another round starts. Also antibiotics tend to kill off all of one kind of bacteria which allows another kind of bacteria or yeasts (not killed by antibiotics) to overgrow in the void. This causes an imbalance in the gut that is difficult to recover from. Another way that the gut can be damaged is if it doesn’t get a good start in life. Children receive their gut flora from their mother during the process of being born. If mom has taken antibiotics ever in her life that flora might be imbalanced when it is passed on. Obviously the risk is even greater if the mom took antibiotics while pregnant. Furthermore if the baby is born surgically (in some hospitals 60% of babies are) they won’t pick up mom’s gut flora at all in the birth process and will instead pick up flora from whoever handles them at birth and for about the first 20 days of life. There are other things that can disrupt gut flora but antibiotic use is far and away the most common cause.
The main thing that this diet eliminates is di and polysaccharides. That is to say any complex carbohydrates and most sugars. Only monosacharides are allowed. This is because monosacharides are able to be absorbed by the gut without digestion. Di and polysacharides need enzymes from the gut to break them down into monosacharides so that they can be absorbed. But if the gut is damaged then it can’t make those enzymes and those foods will simply pass through the gut undigested, feed pathogenic microbes in the gut or be absorbed into the blood stream where they can cause problems in the body because they shouldn’t be there. The pathogenic bacteria and yeasts who are nourished by these foods that the body can’t digest do further damage to the gut wall and perpetuate the problem.
So basically people on GAPS and SCD eat all kinds of unprocessed meats, fish, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, certain dairy products, nuts and eggs. For a more comprehensive list go here. This was the diet that Dr Haas developed many years ago. In addition to avoiding foods like grains and sugar, people on GAPS emphasize certain healing foods. Broth is very important. Broth contains many substances that both nourish the body and heal the gut lining. This article Broth is Beautiful can be a primer if you aren’t familiar with the benefits of broth. Lots of broth every day is an integral part of healing the gut with the GAPS program. Another huge piece is fermented foods. These have been consumed by all primitive cultures all over the world as a part of most or all meals. Our bodies are made to depend on this daily influx of beneficial bacteria to keep our guts in balance. Most of these bacteria from fermented foods do their job while they are passing through but they don’t stick around. That is why it is important to eat them daily. Foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, kim chee, fish sauce, and even beer and wine have beneficial bacteria when made in the traditional way and not pasteurized. These foods have been a part of the daily human diet for millennia. Our guts expect them and struggle to keep up without a regular influx of these helpers keeping things in check and helping out with digestion. We have changed these foods in modern times by making them with vinegar instead of fermenting them and often pasteurizing the finished product to give it a better shelf life. Even yogurt has been altered with some brands only fermenting it for a matter of minutes and then adding a thickener to make it look like the authentic product. Some is even sold pasteurized! Obviously those foods may taste the same but have none of the health giving attributes of the original food.
In addition to changing how they eat, people on the GAPS diet are encouraged to remove toxins from their life. This is accomplished by choosing natural products for cleaning, avoiding toxic chemicals found in paints, and new furniture and choosing foods that are free of pesticides. When digestion isn’t working right and the gut is filled with pathogenic bacteria instead of beneficial flora the body can be overwhelmed with dealing with it all. Adding toxins in your body through what you touch, inhale or ingest is going to make more work for your body and slow down or even halt the recovery process.
A way that people on GAPS help the body deal with the toxins they have already taken in is by taking detox baths. These baths help the body to deal with the toxins it is trying to process. I wrote a blog post about incorporating those principles into your daily shower. Another important piece is having daily bowel movements. The longer the waste stays in your body the more toxins that will be reabsorbed from it back into the blood stream. Keeping it moving out of the body at least once a day is an important part of this program. Those who follow GAPS find themselves talking about poop a lot. Making sure it happens often but not too often. That it looks right without undigested foods and is the right color and consistency (see the Bristol Stool chart for more on this. Type 4 is perfect). All of the poop talk seems a bit awkward at first but you get used to it and it can be a window into how the gut is doing.
The last important thing for you to know about the GAPS diet is that it takes time. This isn’t an overnight fix. Some see big improvements right away while others wait a year to see much of anything. Many catch glimpses of the person who is hidden behind the GAPS issues early on but don’t start seeing that person on a regular basis till more healing has come. The healing seems to come in waves with regressions as a part of the process. Over time the regressions are less deep and less often. Dr Campbell-McBride says that most need 2 years of strict adherence to the GAPS diet before they can try to move beyond it. Once you are healed though, a full time return to the way you were eating before will usually mean a return of symptoms you had before as well. Dr Campbell-McBride’s family eats GAPS foods while at home but when they go on vacation or to events outside of the home they are able to eat what is available without ill effects. Eating only the foods allowed on the GAPS diet is a very healthy way to eat and you could eat this way for the rest of your life and thrive with great health.
Many have healed on the GAPS diet alone but some, like my family, have had to add more to it. Dr Natasha calls this the cherry on top. As we progressed with the diet it became clear that we just weren’t getting the healing we expected and so then we looked into how to tweak it to find further healing. I think we had been on strict GAPS for about 10 months when we had our first major tweak to it with putting my older daughter on a low sulfur diet. You can see some information on the tweaks we have used in my posts on oxalates, MTHFR, and Part 1 of my 2 years on GAPS series.
If you are new to the GAPS diet please take some time to read as much as you can about it. WWW.GAPS.me is a great place to start. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have as well. This diet has been a huge piece is my families quest for health and I am happy to share what we have learned along the way and help others also achieve health too.