The GAPS Diet – Why?

When we hear the word “DIET”, so many negative thoughts come to our mind.  In our society today, it seems like daily a new diet fad is being proclaimed as the “permanent solution to your weight loss woes!!!”  Try the Atkins, the South Beach, Weight Watchers, do a juice fast, low calorie, low fat, etc. etc. etc.

We are constantly bombarded by ads with emaciated models proclaiming that unless you look like them, you will never attain true beauty … and thus we diet, we run, we do planks, and we do cleanses until we realize that our bodies will never be permanently photo-shopped.

On the other end of the spectrum are diets for health and healing.  Their goal is not to help you to lose weight or to obtain a “perfect” body.  Their goal is to help you or your child to heal from illness, to obtain a better quality of life, and to lead you toward health.  Such diets, like the Autoimmune Paleo diet, Specific-Carbohydrate Diet, Body Ecology Diet or the GAPS diet, are not just fads.  They can mean a better quality of life for people who suffer from terrible conditions like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, autoimmune disease, food intolerances and autism.

The specific healing diet I wish to focus on today is the GAPS diet.

Over 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates stated: “All disease begins in the gut.”  Over the years, modern medicine has often forgotten this wisdom, but recently, more emphasis has been placed on the role that the gut plays in our health.  Probiotics are again being recommended for not only improved gut health, but for things like depression and anxiety.  The gut is being recognized for its role as the “second brain”.  And with the majority of your immune system residing in your intestines, gut health is finally being acknowledged for playing a larger and larger role in the general well-being of the individual.

“GAPS” stands for “Gut and Psychology Syndrome”.  It was a term coined by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, acknowledging the role that our gut health plays in our brain health.  Using this knowledge, she created a protocol for conditions such as autism, ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, schizophrenia, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other conditions where through diet, a clean environment, and improved gut health a person could achieve a reduction of symptoms or a removing of symptoms all together.

So, let’s say you are a parent of a child with autism, as I am.  You have heard about this “GAPS” diet and that some children with autism have improved by implementing it.  So your next questions are: Why did they improve, what’s the theory behind why the diet works, and how can I help my child?

The first thing to consider is to change what may be your view of autism.  For several years, many theories about the cause of autism have circulated.  One was that autism was caused by “refrigerator mothers”; the child was not shown love in his early formative years by his mother, hence, the symptoms of autism developed.  Thankfully, this hurtful theory was laid to rest.  Another theory that is still in circulation is that autism is strictly a genetic behavioral disease and that there is no “cure” or nothing that can be done to change the outcome or course of the disease.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.  Autism is an illness affecting the entire body of the child.  Researchers now are debating whether it is a disease that STARTS in the gut and affects the brain.  One thing is for certain: children with autism can improve.  Children with autism can RECOVER.  This is not a conspiracy theory,  this is a fact! Research has proven that children can recover from autism, and along with my son, I have met several other children who no longer qualify for an autism diagnosis. (See article: Study Documents That Some Children Lose Autism Diagnosis and this video from TACA here discussing recovery from autism)

But you may ask: how can something wrong in my kid’s gut wreak so much havoc on his entire body?  To understand how this works, let’s review very quickly and simply how your child’s body functions.

The Digestive System

It’s a fact that our earth is full of microbes; they are on our skin, in our soil, in the air, in our house (no matter how clean and sterile we try to keep everything) and yes, in our bodies.

In our digestive system, the average adult has about 3-4 lbs (or more) of bacteria that take up residence.  Our existence depends upon these bacteria, along with yeast and other microbes.  Inside our gut there is a balance between beneficial flora (the good guys) and opportunistic flora (the bad guys).  We need the opportunistic flora as well as the beneficial flora (they also provide us with some “services”), but we need to have enough “good guys” to keep the “bad guys” in check.  It’s a balance.  And then every day we are exposed to “transitional flora”, that is, microbes that we ingest when we eat.  They usually pass through our intestines without incident; unless, of course, our “good guys” are not functioning the way that we should.  Then these microbes, too, can cause damage.

So what happens in people with GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) is that the essential and beneficial flora (the “good guys”) are not established early on in life, or they are later damaged.  This can happen in many different ways.  When we are born, we are exposed to our first bacteria from the birth canal.  If we are born by cesarean section, we are exposed to whatever bacteria happen to be in the operating room and the hospital.  Breastfeeding continues to help to establish good bacteria and nourishes our gut.  Bottle feeding sets our guts up with very different flora.

Later in life, as we are exposed to various different things including antibiotics and different toxins, our gut flora changes.  If we are overexposed to antibiotics, toxins, and the standard American diet, our gut flora changes for the worse.

When the good bacteria become outpopulated by the bad bacteria, we lose the “soldiers” on the front: our defense from invasion.  Now the gut wall is open and exposed to invasion by toxins, Candida (pathogenic yeast), bacteria, parasites, and other things. The gut wall also becomes malnourished, as the “good guys” are a major source of nourishment for your gut lining.  Over time, this cascade of bacterial imbalance leads to chronic inflammation and further damage.

Something that many people do not realize is that 80-85% of our immune system also resides in our gut.  If the bacteria and the gut wall are damaged or abnormal, the immune system will also not function correctly.  This can lead to autoimmunity and food allergies, among other ailments.  Abnormalities in the immune system are also commonly seen with asthma, eczema, autism, and other GAPS conditions.

In this process, the gut becomes home to various bacteria, viruses, and yeast which give off different products which are toxic to our bodies and our brains.  This connection between the gut and the brain is only starting to be recognized in mainstream medicine.  In the past, when a parent mentioned to a doctor that their child with autism had some GI complaint, they were often told, “Oh, that’s just autism”, and nothing more was done for it.  This gut-brain connection NEEDS to be addressed.  Here’s a few common yet often overlooked examples of a “gut-brain connection”.

Often, when someone is depressed, they are prescribed an antidepressant.  However, one of the neurotransmitters that is frequently acknowledged as being responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness is serotonin.  Guess where 90-95% of your serotonin is made?  In your gut.

Another example: you drink alcohol.  It’s absorbed from your gut.  But what does it affect?  Your brain.  If taking in a little alcohol can cause changes in behavior and brain function, imagine what millions of little microbes secreting toxins can do to your brain and behavior.  And one of the toxins that can be secreted by a frequently overgrown microbe, the Candida species of yeast, is a form of alcohol.  Toxic byproducts of yeast converting dietary glucose into alcohol can be visible in behavioral changes in the one affected by a yeast overgrowth.

So the gut is sick – now what???

Perhaps you’re looking back at your child’s history and seeing a cesarean birth, or possibly antibiotic use, some toxic insult, formula feeding … but you may say: how do I know my child’s gut is sick?  They seem to be relatively healthy.  Perhaps they have a few food allergies, but nothing else.  Or maybe they have autism, but they don’t seem to have any particular GI (gut) complaint.  How do I know if the GAPS diet is right for me or my child?

First, look at what your child is eating.  If your child is seriously self-limiting foods, or if their diet consists mainly of refined carbohydrates to the exclusion of other foods, you have a gut problem.  It’s often said that there are more microbes inside of us than there are of cells that make up “us”; if you find that you or your child is craving sugary foods or foods that you know are unhealthy, know that you have an imbalance of gut bacteria: the “bad guys” are winning.  When you help your child to change their diet, to increase their beneficial flora, you will gradually see an increase in the amount of healthy food that they want to eat.  The “good guys” are winning, and they want to be fed!

Second, if they have any kind of GI complaint (like Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.), it may be easy to acknowledge that they have something wrong with their gut.  But if they have any of the “GAPS” conditions previously mentioned, like autism, ADHD/ADD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, a learning or behavioral disorder, schizophrenia, depression, eating disorders, bipolar or manic depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder, or have allergies, asthma or eczema, know this: “ALL DISEASE BEGINS IN THE GUT” (Hippocrates).

You NEED to heal the gut to heal the body.  And as the well-known saying goes, “You are what you eat”.  If you continue to eat unhealthy food and expect your body to be healthy, unfortunately, that’s not the way it works.  And the same thing applies to your child, especially if they are already showing signs of an unhealthy gut through manifesting behavioral symptoms.  You can try different methods of masking the problem or the symptoms, whether it be through medication or other intervention, but somewhere down the line, somewhere in the future, the problem will either continue to exist or will worsen.  You have to treat the problem.  An unbalanced gut does not go away on its own.

How can I help my child?

Another saying that I like is “Knowledge is power”.  To help your child, you start by doing research.  If you are considering implementing the GAPS diet in your family, a good place to start is to read Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s book “Gut and Psychology Syndrome”.


Then, look for support within your family and your community.  Online resources include the following:

  • Yahoo! GAPS group
  • GAPS Facebook groups
  • fermentation groups both on Yahoo! and Facebook
  • local Weston A. Price Foundation group to help you find local sources of fresh produce

You may find that you wish to hire a GAPS practitioner for assistance in implementing the diet.  That is an option that is available to you.  Or you may find that you would like to try implementing the diet on your own based on reading the book.  Whatever works for you and your family, implementing the diet and the lifestyle is the important part.  For us, we started GAPS on our own, starting with full GAPS for about 3 weeks, then doing the Introduction diet and working back up to full GAPS.  When we were ready for the second round of the Intro diet, we decided to hire a GAPS Practitioner to help fill in the little details we may have missed the first time around.  I’m glad that we did as we noticed even more healing!

The amount of work in the beginning can seem overwhelming at times, but honestly, with time it really does become second nature and best of all, when you see healing taking place and when you know that your children are eating healthier than they ever did before, it is all worth it.  The way that I look at it is this: you can be living easily by eating from a box now (and dealing with the stress of illness or autism) or you could put a little extra work into cooking and cleaning up your lifestyle now and benefit from seeing your child’s health improve now, with lasting results.  Honestly, my life is so much easier now than it used to be, even with cooking at home, simply because I have a child who doesn’t scream all day, break things, make holes in the wall, or leave explosive diarrhea trails all over the floor.  I choose health.

You have that option too!

~ Alicia

Initially posted on August 6, 2014

This information is for educational purposes only.  I am not a medical doctor, and do not prescribe or diagnose illness.  The GAPS Nutritional Programme is outlined in Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s book Gut and Psychology Syndrome.  More information can be found at the following website:

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