What is The GAPS Diet, and who is it for ? Let’s explore the ethos and objectives of the diet, talk about who it’s helping , and take a beginners look at the food based, functional wellness lifestyle protocol created by Dr. Natasha Campbell Mcbride for those of us who have fallen through the medical ‘gap’ and have the desire to take our health and the health of our children into our hands – we begin with the dedication in her newest book Gut And Physiology Syndrome “To GAPS people all over the world, who have the courage to take control of their health and go on a journey of personal growth and transformation through overcoming a chronic illness.”
All diseases begin in the gut – Hippocrates, 460-370 BC
What is it? The acronym G-A-P-S of the GAPS diet stands for Gut And Psychology Syndrome, and equally and interchangeably, for Gut and Physiology Syndrome. The name represents the connection between the state of the human gut, and the physical, mental and behavioral symptoms humans experience. Put another way – the ‘gut brain connection’ or ‘gut body connection’ and their symbiotic relationship, leading us to the question “So what exactly do you mean by gut?!”
Our operational definition of ‘gut’ is the entire digestive tract, which can be imagined as a single tube beginning where we take in nourishment, and ending where we eliminate waste. Everything in between, constitutes our guts. Now let’s establish why understanding our guts is so fundamentally relevant – our guts are the seat and source of our immune system. A gut with healthy flora and a balanced ecology will result in a strong immune system. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell Mcbride “A well functioning gut with healthy gut flora holds the roots to our health. And, just as a tree with sick roots is not going to thrive, the rest of the body cannot thrive without a well- functioning immune system.” The ability to synthesize and utilize the nutrition we take in. To moderate inflammation. To detoxify. To manufacture hormones and so much more, begins with the state of our guts.
Who is it for ? How do we evaluate the state of our gut flora or know if we’re a GAPS diet candidate? Begin by reflecting on your digestive patterns and considering your experience. Do you experience any bloating or cramping after eating certain foods? Are you prone to diarrhea, constipation, or undigested food in your stool? Do you sometimes have excessive burping or have you developed food intolerances later in life ? These are all signs of imbalanced, and less than robust gut flora. Often, we dismiss these digestive symptoms because to experience them is common. It’s important to not mistakenly conflate ‘common’ with ‘normal’, because while the above mentioned symptoms are common – they are also indications of distress in the digestive system, which, being a precursor to immune dysfunction and to disease, and are vital to address! It is Dr. Natasha’s opinion that anyone struggling with digestive symptom disorders ( IBS, Gerd, SIBO, UC ) food intolerances or food allergies, is suffering from GAPS syndrome. In addition to that, she believes that autoimmune disorders , developmental disorders and mental disorders including ASD, ADD, OCD, sensory processing disorder, depression, anxiety or schizophrenia, are all indications of GAPS syndrome.
Although modern medicine has ( by understandable necessity, in order to deeply study and specialize ) organized our bodily ‘systems’ into groups – neurology, psychiatry, gastro-enterology, gynecology, cardiology etc, the reality is as Dr. Natasha says “The body lives and functions as a whole, where every system, organ, tissue and even cell depend on each other, affect each other and communicate with each other. One should not look at, let alone treat, any organ without taking the rest of the body into account.” A person with GAPS syndrome may manifest the imbalance in their gut primarily with psychological unwellness or with physiological unwellness, but most often they experience a mix between the two. A person might have an autoimmune condition such as fibromyalgia, but also experience brain fog and depression, or a child may have a developmental disorder such as ASD, but also have eczema and rotating food intolerances … the symptoms are no respecter of bodily ‘system’ and the root of the sickness is the same – in the proverbial soil of their guts.
Healthy ‘gut soil’ in this analogy, should be a diverse and dynamic eco system in which uncountable species of microscopic pathogens ( fungi,bacteria,virus,worm,protozoa) , opportunistic bacteria(other transient germs we happen upon through environmental contact and food), and beneficial bacteria (native good and probiotic bacteria we inherit while traveling through the birth canal and by eating probiotic foods like kefir or kimchi) are all present, living, reproducing, eating one another and competing in a way that maintains homeostasis and holds pathogens in check. All elements must be present for the ecological system to optimally function and flourish ‘above ground’ in other systems of the body, but when good flora is damaged by antibiotic use, stress, poor diet and environmental toxins, the gut biome becomes imbalanced. Unchecked pathogens and opportunistic flora gain an upper hand, and the equatable harmony of the gut begins to decline and result in decreased absorption and assimilation of nutrients, decreased or over activated immune responses ( sudden allergies and food intolerances) , decreased ability to detoxify and produce appropriate hormones, and the insidious groundwork for disease is laid. In essence, when the ecology of the gut ( which holds the roots to our immune system) is compromised, the system of the body which is intended to be our primary source of nourishment, filtration, and protection becomes itself the body’s largest and most dangerous source of toxicity.
Autoimmune disorders are generally not immediately considered related to the digestive tract, because the focus tends to be placed where the symptoms are occurring, which is often in another ‘system’ of the body, but research shows that autoimmune diseases actually begin in, you guessed it, the biome of the human gut. Developmental and mental disorders are fast rising and becoming equally prevalent, but here on a personal note, I would like to offer you hope. Your diagnosis or that of your children is not your destiny friend. As a mother to two recovered GAPS children, as a recovering GAPS patient myself – every day, all over the world, people are taking their health and the health of their children into their own hands in a safe and natural way, and they REALLY do recover from ‘incurable’ physiological and psychological illnesses by healing and restoring the biodiversity and integrity of their guts. They reevaluate their lives, they educate themselves, and make the changes necessary to facilitate healing. They put the strength of their love into strong, simple choices over and over and over again to ransom back their own vitality, the clarity of their minds, or the precious eye contact of their child – in the words of Glennon Doyle “We can do hard things!!!” We have. We are. And we yet will. Together. Tuck that hope into your heart as we move on.
The GAPS diet involves more than just diet, and is actually also a lifestyle protocol. The GAPS protocol can be broken down and explored in three essential elements – the diet, which is the priority and most important component of the protocol, targeted supplementation, and overall detoxification and lifestyle changes to support your deepest healing and recovery. Distilled down, the GAPS protocol’s objectives are to naturally eliminate pathogens in the gut which have proliferated, to heal and seal the ‘leaky’ gut walls, to introduce good and beneficial probiotic bacteria, and to support detoxification, all of which creates a windfall of systemic, whole body resetting and healing upon the reestablishment of a repaired and balanced gastrointestinal biome.
Diet : The GAPS diet has six stages which are moved through ( not always in a forward, linear way) based on the person’s individual symptoms and needs. ( A GAPS coach can help you navigate this!) The stages consist of the Intro diet, a second, third, fourth, fifth and final ‘Full’ GAPS stage of the diet. Some people will spend a weekend on the Intro, a year on the GAPS protocol, and move on to resume life eating regularly with the exception of sugar and processed foods. Still others managing more serious illnesses ( autism, schizophrenia) may feel and function best spending the rest of their lives on stage two or three of the GAPS diet. The amount of time spent on each stage could range from days to months or years depending on the person, and is highly individual.
Supplementation: Dr. Natasha feels strongly that it is better for a person to be predominantly nourished by the foods they eat than to consume large amounts of supplements, so the supplementation on the GAPS protocol is pared down to only the essentials for restoring digestive health and supporting the person in that process. The GAPS required supplements are an effective strength pro-biotic ( to re-populate the gut with friendly good bacteria), essential fatty acids ( for brain and neurological support during healing), cod liver oil ( immune and neurological support), digestive enzymes ( pancreatic), and sometimes vitamin or mineral supplements until the person’s gut has healed enough to properly absorb the nutrients they’re taking in from food.
Detoxification and Lifestyle Modifications : Although the main source of toxicity burdening a GAPS person is their gut,( which will eventually resolve with the implementation of the diet) , there are also daily lifestyle modifications that can be made to significantly reduce toxic body burden and create a lifestyle that best supports healing. Avoiding chlorinated pools, living with houseplants, incorporating daily detox baths, and trading out household cleaners and personal care products for safe and natural alternatives are all a few examples of the GAPS lifestyle working together with the diet to maximize healing and recovery.
The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure – Joseph Campbell
- The GAPS diet is a lifestyle protocol that involves diet, supplementation, detoxification and lifestyle modifications.
- GAPS stands for gut and psychology syndrome and gut and physiology syndrome to demonstrate the interconnectedness between the state of our gut biome and our mental and physical health.
- The objectives of the GAPS protocol are to naturally manage and recover from conditions that are becoming more prevalent, are considered incurable, and are falling through the medical ‘gap’ – this is achieved by eliminating pathogens in the gut, by feeding the immune system, by healing and sealing the gut walls, by introducing good and beneficial probiotic bacteria, and by detoxifying, all of which creates a windfall of systemic, whole body resetting and healing upon reestablishing a flourishing and balanced gastrointestinal system.
- A person with any form of autoimmune disorder, digestive disorder, or mental/developmental disorder is likely to have GAPS syndrome and benefit from the protocol.
- Find scientific research on the relationship between food allergies and the gut biome here, here here and here , the gut biome and it’s relationship to eczema here.
- The timeline of moving through the stages of the diet is highly individual and dependent upon the careful observance of symptoms and shrewd understanding of self – it is non-linear and working with a GAPS coach such as myself is a great way to navigate the journey!
- Find a local GAPS practitioner for clinical matters beyond my coaching scope ( lab ordering and interpretation, supplement and medical advice etc.) here.
I hope this beginners primer to the GAPS protocol was helpful to you! I’m looking forward to doing a series which breaks down and expands upon each element and stage of the protocol. Be well!
Campbell-McBride N. Gut and psychology syndrome. Natural treatment for autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, depression and schizophrenia. 2010. Medinform Publishing.
Campbell-McBride N. Gut and physiology syndrome. Natural treatment for allergies, autoimmune illness, arthritis, gut problems, fatigue, hormonal problems, neurological disease. 2020. Medinform Publishing.
Cole, Will. The Inflammation Spectrum. Find your food triggers and reset your system. 2019. Penguin Random House LLC.
Shaw, William. Biological Treatments for Autism and PDD. Third Edition. 2008. Published by William Shaw Ph.D.