The role of the gut is to act as a barrier between the world outside and the world inside. It breaks down harmful substances which produce nourishing compounds like SCFA – short-chain fatty acids, which are used by the body for muscle function and disease protection. The gut is a living, breathing ecosystem and gut health is also extremely sensitive. Made up of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses, they exist in reluctant harmony in every gut there is. An upset in this balance can be caused by several factors like infections, protracted use of antibiotics, and certain dietary practices.
A healthy gut would have an array of organisms, the more diversity the healthier the gut. Some bacteria fight inflammation while others cause or promote it. In a healthy gut, the two keep each other in check. Should something cause the balance to skew and the inflammatory bacteria take over, they produce metabolites that pass through the intestinal lining, entering the bloodstream and spreading inflammation to other parts of the body. In this sense, the microorganisms in the gut keep several other processes in check – immunity, skin health, bone density, muscle function, and even cognitive processes have been established to be connected to gut health.
So, let’s say the gut flora is complaining, what can you do to fix it? There are a number of methods suggested.
- Eating a diverse range of foods.
- Eat fermented foods
- Favor vegetables
- Eat whole grains
- Using supplements
- Avoid processed foods
- Avoid artificial sweeteners
- Do a gut cleanse.
There are also a number of diets that you can adopt to give the gut an overall cleanse. One of them is the GAPS diet. Let’s talk about that.
What is GAPS?
GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology/Physiology Syndrome. The term was coined by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride who designed the diet. It refers to the idea that the health of your digestive system can directly influence the way your brain functions. The diet was devised to treat those with stomach ailments and psychological issues. According to Dr. Campbell-Mcbride, large growths of harmful gut bacteria give off noxious materials like acetaldehyde and clostridial neurotoxins when digesting food. The toxins then enter the bloodstream where they wreak havoc on the immune system, and organs and cause psychological and neurological dilemmas.
The GAPS diet claims to prevent this from happening by promoting the growth and nourishment of beneficial bacteria in the gut and eliminating the foods that hurt the gut.
The Science Behind GAPS
The belief is that children develop autism – a range of symptoms that affect one’s perception of the world and interacts with stimuli or social settings differently, due to poor nutrition and leaky gut syndrome. The claim is that the Gut and psychology syndrome diet can cure or improve the symptom of autism. There is no cure for autism as genetics are still bearing the blame for the condition. However, a 2014 systematic review found that children with autism did have a higher number of leaky gut symptoms. Another case study of a 14-year-old boy with autism and celiac disease showed a remarkable reduction in leaky gut and autism symptoms after 4 weeks of probiotic treatment.
There were similar cases for children with autoimmune diseases and autism. A study published in Nutritional Neuroscience found that autistic patients have elevated antibodies proportionate to the gliadin protein present in gluten-rich foods and cerebellar cortex neurons.
This theory, however, has not been proved to be true. Yet.
The diet was originally designed to help with Dr. Campbell-McBride’s son’s autism. Some also use diets as an alternative therapy for:
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating Disorders
- Childhood food intolerance and allergies.
The aim of the diet was to help children with problems with behavior and food. Nowadays, most adults simply use it to heal leaky gut syndrome or to start improving gut health.
The GAPS Diet Plan
The GAPs Diet theory suggests that eliminating certain foods such as grains and sugars can help treat conditions like dyslexia or autism. There is not enough research or evidence to endorse the claim but it can give you a much healthier gut lining.
GAPs Diet Guideline
To begin the diet which is an elimination diet, you will have to first eliminate certain foods from your everyday meals like grains, sugar, soy, pasteurized dairy, starchy vegetables, processed foods, and canned foods. This is a rather limited diet and can take up to two years to complete. There are three stages to the diet.
I. The Introduction Diet (a few weeks to a year)
This is a training phase and it is recommended that those who wish to start the GAPS diet go on the introduction diet first. Following the GAPS diet is restrictive but it will heal the gut and reduce digestive problems rather promptly.
There are six stages to the introduction diet and each stage introduces new foods and is rather personalized basis the person’s forbearance. A clear warning is stated that you must not move on to the next stage should you present digestive symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, gas, constipation, or abdominal pain.
- STAGE 1: This diet includes homemade meat broth, probiotic foods (fermented vegetables, juices, normal or homemade yogurt, kefir, fermented whey), ginger/chamomile tea, raw honey, water, and boiled meat or fish.
- STAGE 2: You can add the following to the foods above, raw organic egg yolks, casseroles with veggies and meat, fermented fish, and ghee-clarified butter.
- STAGE 3: Probiotic supplements, scrambled eggs in ghee or duck fat, GAPS pancakes (video link: https://youtu.be/PCsw2bXX0O4), sauerkraut and fermented vegetables, and avocado.
- STAGE 4: Roasted and grilled meat, olive oil, carrot juice, GAPS milkshake (video link: https://youtu.be/gmqWCQ-cXAM), and GAPS bread (video link: https://youtu.be/cWH7v5UtYDs).
- STAGE 5: Pressed fruit juices, raw vegetables, cooked apple puree.
- STAGE 6: Peeled apples, fruit, and baked goods with dried fruits.
After completing this six-step diet, you can move on to the GAPS diet.
II. The Full GAPS Diet (18 to 24 months)
As mentioned earlier you would have to steer clear of processed foods, starchy vegetables, sugars, grains, and refined carbohydrates. The diet is highly personalized so the time to finish this stage may vary from one individual to the next.
In this phase of the gaps diet, you are allowed eggs, meat, fish shellfish – fresh or frozen, vegetables and fruit, natural fats – ghee, cold pressed olive oil, coconut oil, nuts in moderation, and GAPS baked goods using nut flour. (Video link: https://youtu.be/-oFCzM0IcT4).
This chapter of the GAPS diet is quite the master as there are several restrictions that you have to follow to ensure that the diet is a success. The first is the absolute boycott of processed foods. You must strive to use organic produce as much as you can. Processed and packeted foods involve the use of additives and the GAPS diet makes no allowance on that count. With every meal, you must include a fermented element and bone broth. Fruits must not be mixed with meals and proteins must always be paired with vegetables – to neutralize body acidity levels.
III. The Reintroduction Phase (post 6 months to several months)
As the name suggests, this segment of the gaps diet entails the adding of once banned foods back into your diet. This is done over months as a sudden indulgence in all foods would send the digestive system into overdrive which was what you began the diet to avoid.
Fermented vegetables are what is suggested to be added first and that too in small portions. The portion size must increase over time as long as your tummy doesn’t complain. However, if digestive disorders or issues do arise, postpone the reintroduction phase by a couple of weeks. The reintroduction phase must then gradually move on to grains and starchy vegetables. Even though the diet ends after this stage, you must stay away from processed foods and refined oils.
As mentioned earlier, the GAPS diet is extremely preventive so there is a long list of what you can and can’t consume.
Once on the GAPS diet, you will be restricted to the following items of food. The theory suggests that any swaying away is not allowed as the items mentioned directly influence the gut and, therefore, the cognitive functions of the brain. The GAPS diet food list of things you are allowed include:
- White navy beans
- Dry wine
- Virgin oils
- Coconuts and its products
- Hard cheeses
- Fermented foods of all sorts
- Fresh fruits and non-starchy vegetables
- Animal fats
- Fresh grass-fed meat
- Meat stock.
These foods allow for easy digestion and are said to initiate the gut healing phase. Leaky gut and other gut-related discomforts should become a thing of the past in the introduction phase of the diet. On the flip side, some foods may destroy the gut flora and these substances must be avoided at all costs.
Foods to be avoided include:
- Sugar/syrups and artificial sweeteners
- Strong tea/coffee
- Beans except for white navy ones
- Milk and milk products except for yogurt
- All grains
- Processed foods
The above foods are difficult to digest and might damage the gut lining.
A GAPS Diet Daily Meal Plan
2 or 3 poached eggs with a side of fresh avocado, roasted pumpkin, and sauerkraut. A cup of meat broth of weak tea.
Pan-seared scallops, celeriac chips with aioli, and fresh or steamed vegetables.
Steamed mussels with cauliflower rice and steamed vegetables.
Since the start of the GAPS diet, you have entered the process of healing. The reasons to start the diet may vary from genetic and environmental factors. Some do it simply as a gut reset, especially those who suffer from severe distresses. Others do it to lose weight which the GAPS diet does. In addition to the diet, it is suggested that a restrictive lifestyle is also followed. Some lifestyle choices are rather destructive and this can influence the gut adversely. It’s not only the GAPS diet but several studies and researches have shown that the quality of life directly influences the gut.
- Physical Exercise
Exercise is any movement that aids in the burning of calories. This could include walking, gardening, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Exercise also allows for keeping stress under control and keeping chronic health conditions at bay. Being physically active has a number of health benefits, one of which is the health of gut bacteria. A study showed that rugby players had a more diverse gut flora when matched against a control group of people similar in age, size, and BMI.
Regular physical exercise manifests in the growth of beneficial bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Akkermansia.
Overall health is affected by the duration and quality of sleep. It is so important that your body has its own clocking system known as circadian rhythm. The gut also follows a similar system. Working in shifts, not eating on time, or simply avoiding sleep can affect the gut in unfavorable ways. A 2016 study conducted on sleep deprivation and gut flora presented subtle changes to the gut flora with an increase in the numbers of bacteria that led to weight gain, diabetes, and fat metabolism.
Sleep is just as important to the gut flora as it is to you.
Stress has the potential to alter gut flora profiles. When exposed to crowding, heat stress of isolation, gut flora was shown to change composition leading to a rise in bacteria like Clostridium and a reduction in Lactobacillus.
Learning how to manage stress is vital to good gut health. Stress can also manifest in gut disorders like ulcers, leaky gut syndrome, and bloating.
- Prescription Drugs
Antibiotics are important for dealing with infections and diseases. They work by killing the bacteria that perpetuate the disease. However, they also affect the gut flora which is mostly bacteria. A single antibiotic course has the potential to change the gut profile almost overnight.
It takes a couple of weeks for the gut flora to recover from an antibiotic course and during that time a number of bodily functions are affected. The only option you have is to avoid the extended use of antibiotics and avoid it completely when possible.
Why Adopt GAPS and Why Not?
Even though the GAPS theory is still under scrutiny, one can’t deny that the diet does have several benefits and almost all of them are gut-related. It has long been one of the healthiest ways to replenish gut flora. Following the GAPS diet may be strenuous but you have to agree that it is a sure-shot way of getting over the dependence on processed foods and refined oils. There are several other benefits too.
- The Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet helps you fight off sugar dependence. It incorporates a sugar elimination process shifting your focus onto fruits and naturally sweet foods. This helps combat Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome, leaky gut, and autoimmune diseases. GAPS focuses on bringing sugar intake to zero by eliminating processed and artificial sugar from your diet for a long period of time. Once the diet is complete you would be surprised at how much you do not miss sugar.
- GAPS helps with weight loss. The healthier the gut the easier it is to get your diet under control. An unhealthy gut leads to diabetes, obesity, and heart distress. It can also make you gain weight even when you watch what you eat. The GAPS diet insists that you consume only nutritious healthy food enabling a healthy gut and a healthier weight. You can eat only what you need. Nothing processed is allowed.
- Your immune system will love you once you adopt the GAPS diet. The gut is the hub of all immunity activity and a healthy gut boosts immunity. A healthy digestive system also promotes other systems in your body: better skin, healthier hair, and stronger bones and muscle.
- The GAPS diet is capable of lowering the degree of food allergies or food sensitivities. The first phase of the diet introduces foods that promote healthy gut bacteria which in turn help to reduce toxins and infection from the bloodstream. The last stage forces detoxification with the reintroduction of foods which reverses the production of histamine in the body.
- Symptoms of autoimmune diseases include irritability, chronic pain, food allergies sleep disturbances, and acne-ridden skin. The markers include leaky gut syndrome and not enough healthy bacteria. A healthy gut can ease the symptoms of autoimmune diseases and curb their development.
Even though this diet has a lot of backing, especially from studies, it is a lot of work. A lot of things work in the diet but it isn’t perfect.
- It is an extremely restrictive diet and cuts out a lot of food from your diet. Only a percentage of the food you consume is necessarily unhealthy. The rest are just not healthy or gut-friendly enough. The biggest peril with the GAPS diet is malnutrition. Since this diet was designed for children. The risk factor is even more severe.
- The GAPS diet can last up to 2 years which is a long time. The maintenance becomes tricky as life gets in the way. There is always a chance that the diet is disturbed by innumerable reasons.
- The very cause of an unhealthy gut is the lack of a varied diet. The GAPS diet does not allow for a diverse diet but only makes allowances for each stage that aren’t all that different.
- Hunger pangs have been reported to disturb the course of the diet. The reason for this may be the absence of foods that you are used to eating. The pangs would dissipate over time but when they last, they are quite severe.
- The research backing the diet is a little shaky. Although the diet may work miracles on the gut, but the chances of it actually reducing autism symptoms are not very good. There is ongoing research, yes, but if you are planning to adopt the diet for purely cognitive reasons you may be left disappointed.
A Word of Caution
The diet is difficult to follow and you will have to constantly keep yourself and your nutritional intake in check. It is strongly advised to keep a licensed GAPS practitioner in the loop at all times. The stages are long and drawn out and each stage requires its own measures – don’t do the diet on your own, involve a professional.
The USDA has guidelines in place that say that one-quarter of daily calorie intake is from grains. The GAPS diet does not adhere to that protocol. Protein and fiber are severely ignored in the GAPS diet and chances are that you may suffer from deficiencies.
It is vital that you weigh the pros and cons of the diet before you embark on this journey. It is not suitable for those with weakened immunities or pregnant women. You will have to put major plans aside and must plan to home-cook and eat all your meals at home for at least two years. Think about it thoroughly before you begin.
Tim Koping (Medical M.Sc Physiology, Founder of Original Eating, and a Professor at a Leading Health Institute in the US): I am a medical M.Sc physiology graduate and the founder of Original Eating, an online resource that provides information and advice about healthy eating. I have a strong interest in health and nutrition, and I am passionate about helping people to eat well and live healthily. I have over 15 years of experience working in the health and nutrition industry, and I am dedicated to providing accurate, reliable information that can help people to make healthy choices for themselves. My work with Original Eating has been featured in publications such as Men’s Health and more, and I am frequently consulted by journalists for expert commentary on dietary issues. However, in my spare time, I also enjoy reading, hiking, and playing the guitar.