The GAPS diet is a healing protocol that offers many people a treatment method for certain health conditions by healing damage and disorder in the gut. My work in holistic nutrition is rooted in the perspective that the health of our digestive system is connected to our overall health. It’s something I’ve delved into deeply over the past eight years. GAPS is by far the most intensive diet I’ve ever been on and hopefully will ever be on. I’m honestly not a ‘diet’ person, so much as an advocate for individuals to find which real foods make them feel their best. Finding what’s best for me continues to evolve, so after a lot of consideration, I decided to try GAPS.
So then, why would would anyone trade grains, beans, potatoes, and sugar… for bone broth, marrow, and sauerkraut?
I think it’s best to look at GAPS as a personal journey—even though it’s a very specific protocol, people come to GAPS with their unique bodies and histories and one-size-does-not-fit-all. Yet people all over the world have chosen this healing program for themselves or for their children as a treatment for a wide variety of disorders, that according to GAPS author, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, all begin in the gut. These health issues include:
- obsessive compulsive disorder
- biopolar disorder
- Crohn’s disease
- irritable bowel syndrome
- celiac disease
- ulcerative colitis
- multiple sclerosis
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- chronic cystitis
- chronic yeast infections
- colorectal cancer
- so much more…
A gut imbalanced
GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome, and Dr. Campbell-McBride’s upcoming book extends the acronym to Gut and Physiology Syndrome. The GAPS patients Dr. Campbell-McBride sees in her UK-based practice seem to share a bottom line: an imbalance of the flora of the intestinal tract, or what’s often referred to as ‘gut dysbiosis.’ Problems in the gut are connected to problems that appear in other parts of the body. Like Hippocrates said back in the day, “all disease begins in the gut.”
In holistic nutrition, we look at how health issues can develop when the population of unfavorable organisms is overabundant in the digestive tract (like harmful bacteria, yeast or parasites) while there’s too small of a population of beneficial bugs (like l.acidophilus or saccharomyces boulardii). In this state, the body is out of its natural (and super fascinating!) balance. There’s many good types of gut flora that we know about, and even more that we don’t know yet. It’s a little crazy to think we have more microorganisms than cells in our bodies, including several pounds of bacteria in our tummies alone.
Gut flora and the tiny critters living all over our bodies are so important and it’s finally getting more attention in research. Studies on the ‘microbiome’ have been all over the news and I’d expect to hear a whole lot more in the future. Our Dr. Natasha nicely describes the gut as “a highly organized micro-world, where certain species of bacteria have to predominate to keep us healthy physically and mentally.”
The gut is the gatekeeper
In a healthy digestive system, gut flora coats all of the epithelial lining of the intestinal tract, creating a natural barrier from pathogenic invaders and toxins, and it produces anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal substances necessary for immune system function. A healthy population of microorganisms is the number one source of protection for the digestive tract, and in turn, the lining of the intestines is the immune system’s first mechanism of defense.
The lining of the gut
Finger-like protrusions form the surface of the intestines, called villi, and the villi are covered by brick-like cells called enterocytes. Enterocyes have their own hair-like microvilli where enzymes go to absorb nutrients into our blood. Nutrients pass through carefully-regulated structures called tight junctions, which are like the mortar holding the bricks together. Enterocytes are hard workers with short life-spans, constantly shedding and regenerating to keep the process going.
A leaky gut
Without its natural defenders, enterocytes grow weak, get damaged, and can’t perform their job properly. They begin to die before they can be replaced by new cells, leaving behind gaps (not a pun) in the tight junctions. Now all of the stuff that’s supposed to be contained in the system can pass through the leaks and find their way into the bloodstream to wreak some havoc. This is a condition called intestinal hyperpermeability, or leaky gut. Bacteria and other metabolic wastes can pass through the bloodstream, and toxins can be absorbed. Partially-digested food molecules can also leak into the bloodstream. The immune system sends out alarm bells and fires off immune complexes to attack what it sees as foreign invaders. A secondary, or delayed food allergy can develop when there’s a leaky gut and the immune system attacks undigested food particles. These food sensitivities are different than classic food allergies and can trigger huge array of symptoms that usually appear several hours or even days later. Headaches, excess mucous, insomnia, anxiety, hyperactivity, pain, rashes, are just a few symptoms of a food intolerance.
If a person has gut dysbiosis or a leaky gut, they may not be able to fully digest food or absorb critical nutrients. Then, without proper absorption, nutrient deficiencies and malnourishment can create more problems. If you didn’t already think this sounded bad enough! It’s even harder to break down already difficult-to-digest foods like starches (such as grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and yucca) and double-bounded sugars (such as sucrose in table sugar, lactose in unfermented dairy, and maltose from grains) when the cells of the intestinal wall are weakened and irritated. We see severe bloating, gas, and stomach pain in many people with compromised guts, as the body strains to break down these starches and sugars, and pathogens in the gut are actually feeding on these undigested molecules.
Inflammation & causes
So we see here, when the immune system is out of whack, so is the body’s inflammatory response. You’ll hear this again: excessive, abnormal inflammation contributes to disease (as some inflammation is normal). It’s inflammation that leads to leaky gut, whether it’s from bacteria or yeast overgrowth, a parasite, a poor diet high in sugar and processed foods, excessive grain consumption including gluten, or exposure to environmental toxins. Medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (Tylenol, Advil), corticosteroids, antibiotics and birth control can also cause leaky gut syndrome, and so can the persistent weight on many of our shoulders, chronic stress! Fortunately some of these are things we can do our best to avoid, knowing there’s no such thing as perfect!
The mind-body connection
Dr. Campbell-McBride explains how a lack of beneficial gut flora and the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungi affects the nervous system for GAPS patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders:
“These pathogenic microbes start digesting food in their own way producing large amounts of various toxic substances, which get absorbed into the blood stream, carried to the brain and cross the blood – brain barrier. The number and mixture of toxins can be very individual, causing different neurological and psychiatric symptoms.”
She notes how common it is to see digestive problems in patients with psychological and neurological issues as well. The GAPS books details the relationship between the brain and gut in detail, including case studies of her patients. The way we feel, physically or emotionally, and possibly how we behave at times, is not actually separate from the rest of the body and what it takes in, whether that’s nourishment or something that does the opposite. It’s all connected.
How does GAPS help?
GAPS may help a person dealing with chronic digestive, nervous system, and autoimmune symptoms by cleaning up and rebuilding the gut so that healing can take place. The purpose of the GAPS diet, then, is to:
- detoxify the body of pathogens and internal and external toxins
- recolonize the gut with healthy flora
- provide the building blocks to heal (and seal) the gut lining
The nutrient-dense GAPS diet removes inflammatory foods like difficult-to-digest starches and sugars and boosts health-supportive foods. It’s incredibly nurturing to the whole body. Over time, as Dr. Campbell-McBride, tells us, “the gut will go back to being a source of nourishment to the body.” Ideally symptoms will dissipate and food sensitivities will disappear for many people. It could take as little as six months for a child and perhaps two years or more for adults.
Again, everyone’s experiences will be a little different. GAPS might not be right for everyone, or it might need to be adapted and customized. Healing comes in many shapes and forms and I’m passionate about sharing the most promising treatment options I’ve come across!
Once you’ve digested all of that, check out Part 2 of this topic for a description of what you what you do (and eat) while on GAPS.
- Dr. Mercola Interviews Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride
- Digestive Wellness / Elizabeth Lipski
- ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome in Plain English: And How to Fix it’ / Jordan Reasoner
- ‘GAPS- What is it?’ / www.gaps.me
- Gut microbiota: next frontier in understanding human health and development of biotherapeutics / Satya Prakash, et al
- Anxiety in Your Head Could Come from the Gut / ABC News
- NIH Human Microbiome Project / Jane Peterson, et al
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