Some of you have probably read my story on how I healed for interstitial cystitis and have seen me mention that the GAPS diet played a role in this.
Today I’d like to share a bit more about my experience with this diet – this is an old post from another blog of mine (that I have since abandoned) but since I’ve gotten a couple of questions about my experience with GAPS I thought it would be good to share it here again.
What is the GAPS Diet?
GAPS is short for ‘Gut and Psychology Syndrome’, which is a book published several years ago by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, an UK doctor with an autistic son who was looking for ways to help him.
During her research she discovered a link between gut health and psychology, namely the gut microbiome and gut integrity and (brain) health. She discovered that many children suffering from conditions on the autistic spectrum also had a lot of bowel issues and food allergies. One of the reasons for this seemed to be a dominance of ‘bad’ microbes (and sometimes parasites) in the gut and increased gut permeability. Toxins secreted by these microbes, plus a decreased gut bacteria, which allowed these toxins (plus food proteins) into the blood and then brain, could then lead to these ‘psychological’ symptoms.
Therefore, she designed a diet that she thought would help to decrease the bad microbes, plus help ‘seal’ the gut wall. With the help of her protocol she was able to really help her son.
The GAPS diet has since been adopted by many chronic illness sufferers as a ‘healing’ protocol.
It is based on an ancestral dietary template (as popularized by the Weston A. Price Foundation) and includes organic fruits and vegetables, bone broth, free range meats and fish, fermented foods and ‘good’ fats. It typically starts with a strict elimination diet and then introduces new foods in stages.
How I got started with GAPS
When I first started on my health journey I saw the GAPS diet mentioned several times but at the time I was convinced that the way forward for everyone was a raw vegan diet.
It took me about a year to decide that GAPS was in fact the better way to go for me. This was because my health had really deteriorated further on the raw vegan (and also anti-candida) approach – I was wasting away and developing more and more food in tolerances. Then I read ‘Nourishing Traditions’ and also ‘Gut and Psychology Syndrome’ which finally offered me some answers to my problems and why the supposedly ‘healthiest’ diet just wasn’t working for me.
When I first started GAPS I hadn’t eaten meat in over twenty years so it was probably harder for me than most people. But once my decision was made I was all in.
I started with adding bone broth and fermented foods into my diet and after a few months of that jumped straight into the GAPS intro diet.
My GAPS experience
Several websites I frequented at the time had mentioned the so-called ‘die-off’ or ‘Herxheimer’ effect (a temporary worsening of old symptoms, or appearance of new new symptoms) as a part of healing. I was prepared to face this.
And sure enough, it hit me pretty hard as soon as I started GAPS properly. I lost any weight that I had (and I was underweight already) until I weighed under 8 stone and this although I was eating a lot, especially a lot of fat (go figure).
I also lost my period and suffered from extreme muscle fatigue to the point where I could barely climb up a flight of stairs. Diarrhoea also turned into constipation as I started eating animal protein.
According to Dr.Campbell-McBride these are supposed to be normal healing reactions. On her website she stated that muscle fatigue is often a sign of mitochondrial damage:
‘Many GAPS people have toxins which damage their mitochondria (energy factories in the body), so their energy production drops. For a person with mitochondrial damage it takes longer than 5 months to start getting better.’
Further she states that it is quite common to miss the menstrual cycle on the intro diet and that it’s a sign of ‘die-off’. She also gave an explanation for the extreme weight loss:
‘Regular consumption of grains and processed carbohydrates causes water retention in the body. As you stop consuming these foods, you will loose that excess water and hence loose some weight, which usually happens in the first few weeks. Without the water retention you will get to your real weight and size, which will show you the real extend of your malnutrition.’
I was certainly quite shocked to see the extend of my malnutrition but not surprised given that I had starved my body of many nutrients for most of my life.
The next reaction was a skin rash that stayed for a while and then just disappeared never to return. Again, there was an explanation:
‘(Skin rashes) are usually due to the imbalance in the immune system, die-off and detox. Our skin is a major detoxification organ: many toxins leave the body through sweat. When these toxins go through the skin they cause damage on the way; the immune system is then tries to deal with that damage and adds inflammation. It is the inflammation that shows up as a rash, often itchy.’
After that I caught a pretty bad cough that just wouldn’t go away for weeks. But again it just went away and never came back.
‘Lungs are one of the major detoxification organs in the human body. Chronic problems with lungs mean that lungs are detoxifying too many poisons which they have not been designed to handle. Usually these poisons come from the gut, so the gut lining needs healing.’
Then my hair fell out by the handful until I had only a quarter of my original hair left. I looked pretty cancerous. The hair finally stopped falling out when I ditched shampoo altogether.
Apart from that I always had a big bloated belly and experienced a lot of mood swings, depression and hypoglycemia.
Generally I wasn’t too worried about these symptoms as there was always an explanation for them and most of them resolved and never returned.
In hindsight, I know that ‘die-off’ is something temporary and should be temporary and relatively mild (this matches the rash, cough and hair-loss) – Prolonged loss of period and the extreme fatigue and weight-loss not so much and I don’t think this was healthy – in my quest to do it right I was very extreme.
Improvements and Roadblocks
I finally started getting better after 5 months, as predicted. My cycle finally returned and stayed very regular, my energy and mood got better, my hair stopped falling out, my interstitial cystitis went away and I gained some weight.
I was generally less stressed and also noticed that I had been very OCD, which also started getting better.
I kept improving for another two months or so. And then it stopped.
I finally decided to get my gut tested and it turned out I did have some overgrowth of yeasts and pathogenic bacteria.
But it wasn’t Candida as my very first research had made me believe (hello anti-Candida diet). So after speaking to my nutritionist we decided it would be a good idea to treat them with a course of natural anti-fungals. At the same time I went on a night out and had a drink.
Either of these stopped my progress. My mood was low again and I was super bloated all the time. This later turned out to be SIBO which can be triggered by alcohol but also the anti-fungals could’ve killed more of my beneficial bacteria as well, leaving me even more vulnerable.
After I removed FODMAPs (fermentable sugar alcohols that can feed Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth a.k.a SIBO) from my diet and tackled the SIBO with more natural-antibiotics and a two weeks elemental diet, I started improving a bit again.
The next test showed that I had removed most pathogens but that the shape of my microbiome remained pretty compromised. By this time I had already decided on receiving FMT (more on this to follow) treatment to try and restore my microbiome, and therefore slowly started adding healthy starches back into my diet that weren’t allowed on the GAPS diet.
In the year on the GAPS diet I did not manage to really get past the intro stages. Everything gave me a reaction so I was scared to add new foods in. When I had to take FODMAPs out as well I was ridiculously restricted. Adding new foods in not only felt great but I also had more energy.
My verdict on the GAPS diet
A lot of the things that were predicted to happen on this protocol came true for me.
It was really tough.
GAPS takes out problematic foods and adds nutrient-dense foods that help provide the body with the raw materials it needs for repair work.
From a microbiome perspective GAPS seems to work well for starving pathogens and helping to improve the integrity of gut and bladder tissue, but in the long run it may also starve the beneficial bacteria as it removes a lot of the healthy starches that these bacteria love.
As probiotics don’t really colonize in the gut it can be hard to really restore healthy levels of the beneficial bacteria long term. It is also easy to go too low on carbohydrates and/or calories, which can tax the adrenals and the thyroid, potentially bringing with it fatigue and more. For me all of this has been the case.
On the GAPS diet I managed to get rid of pathogens, normalize my hormones to a certain degree and I potentially removed toxins from my body, helping to resolve a lot of my symptoms.
However, it did not make my digestion better or restored my microbiome, although I was having a lot of probiotics. If anything my SIBO seemed to get worse and so did my energy levels.
From what I know now, I failed overdid the probiotics (which could make SIBO worse as they overgrow in the small intestine) and I was too scared to introduce new foods and instead always tried harder and removed more foods.
I missed the point where I should’ve introduced more carbohydrates in the form of starchy tubers. I have read a lot of similar stories. But if you’re following GAPS and are seeing the first results it’s hard to believe and listen to any negative sides that this protocol might have.
Initially I didn’t do well on carbohydrates at all but since I’ve introduced them again during my FMT treatment I certainly have more energy.
Looking back I think the GAPS diet is a great protocol and I can recommend it in certain situations, however I think it can have adverse effects if followed too strictly for too long. I think it is important to feed the gut with lots of prebiotics as soon as these are better tolerated. This is why I recommend more of an Autoimmune Paleo Approach in my protocols.
Children’s microbiomes are a lot more dynamic which is probably the reason why they recover well on GAPS without further intervention. And after all, this protocol was designed for children.
At the end of the day we’re all very individual and no one diet will work for everyone or forever.
You can find more information about the GAPS diet at gaps.me
N.B. It has now been over two years since I’ve come off GAPS.
Now I’d like to hear from you, have you had experiences with the GAPS diet or are you considering following it? Let me know in the comments.
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Moira CampbellJanuary 19, 2018
Hi Layla I’ve just started on Gaps. I’ve ben suffering with cystitis fornyears and have recently been diagnosed with interstitial cystitis. Having read the horror stories of urologists performing hysterectomies etc I decided to try another approach so I’m ver keen to read your blog. Thanks for the info it’s very interesting. I’m literally on day 2, so far have a few headaches. And mood swings. Just good to hear an encouraging story and see that I’m not alone in this chronic condition.
LaylaJanuary 19, 2018
Good luck with it, Moira! I’d be interested to hear about your progress.
ChiriJanuary 20, 2018
Heloo iam in gaps diet since august 2017 i want to ask what do tou wash your hair
LaylaJanuary 20, 2018
I usually use a natural shampoo bar or a mix of colorless henna and ayurvedic herbs plus clay.
KylieMarch 13, 2018
Hi i was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis few months back after having obvious symptoms for over a year.
Irritated Bladder Flare ups every few days, an infection each month. Damn hormones!! Omg!!
Takes it toll on you emotionally, physically and mentally.
I have done so much research on this not accepting there is no cure!
I know the bladder must heal somehow with natural remedies and healthy diet alternatives.
So i took cranberry tabletts, isoflavins of red clover …a natural plant estrogen, antibacterial tabletts, and got on the exotic reds and greens powder by natures way.
Cut out all trigger foods like caffeen, citiris, acid foods, chocolate, spicy and any juices or soda drinks.
It has helped with hardly any flare ups now, only been 3 weeks but feel already better. I had allergies to tonnes of foods. My gut, bladder and immune all in chaos!!!
My real challenge is to see if i get an infection this month when estrogen levels are down allowing bacteria to enter me.
I wear 100% cotton, sleep in 100% cotton, fragrance free and sensitive product use, soap free and drink only chamomile or peppermint tea great for IC sufferers.
I believe healthy natural basic diet, less processed foods and drinks, high potency reds and greens supplement as advised by DR OZ and less acidic, spicy foods will heal this immune respondent bladder disease.
Know im on the right track cause i feel so naturally balanced again.
Any other helpful advice id love to hear too. Thank you. Xo
LaylaMarch 17, 2018
Hi Kylie, it sounds like you’re on the right track so I would keep doing what you’re doing and see what happens – this can take time. Loads of tips on my blog but one I can give you right now would be to try ‘bottle washing’ around the time when you know you’re prone to new infections (check out this post http://bladder-help.com/hygiene-hacks-to-avoid-utis/) – this really helped me to stay clear of new infections.
ChelseaJuly 27, 2018
I was on the AIP diet for about a month and saw only worsening symptoms with my Ic, why do you say that AIP May be better than GAPS? I haven’t started gaps but I’ve been on a healing diet for 3 months now and I’m interested to try it. Let me know what you think!
LaylaJuly 27, 2018
I think the problem with GAPS long-term is that it is quite low in carbohydrates and calories, which can be an issue especially for women (with regards to hormonal and thyroid health). So it is quite restrictive but on the other hand it doesn’t restrict nightshades and nuts, foods that can be problematic for people who suffer from autoimmune conditions. The AIP protocol restricts these problem foods but keeps some of the carbohydrates and starches that are also sources of food for beneficial bacteria in the gut. However, some people with very imbalanced guts have issues with a lot of carbohydrates, which is why the GAPS diet could be a useful short-term intervention. Ultimately I would only put people on these restrictive diets if they were already on a paleo-ish type of diet but still had a lot of issues. These things are very individual, but generally I wouldn’t recommend doing any of this long-term.
JoeApril 28, 2019
I’m a 27-year-old male who was diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis. My symptoms are urgency, frequency, urinary retention and painful inflammation of the bladder. I saw a new doctor recently who diagnosed me with bladder obstruction and gave me flomax to increase the urine stream. There hasn’t been a lot written about natural cures that healed men from their urinary symptoms. I’m wondering if the AIP diet or GAPS diet would improve or fully cure me of my symptoms? I’m asking because men have the prostate, bladder, and testosterone getting converted to DHT to consider. Thanks in advance.
LaylaMay 1, 2019
I cannot say if anything will work for you specifically. Generally, I think these diets take out a lot of foods that can be problematic and cause inflammation and also seem to calm things down for many people with gut issues. This is not gender specific. I don’t know if you need to go that extreme, a natural nutrient-dense diet alone may already be beneficial. Overall I would focus on gut health and reducing inflammation, stress reduction and getting all the nutrients needed for health hormones.
Linda ShawNovember 12, 2019
I’ve been on the gaps diet for about 3 weeks now. I just did her stage 4 where I introduce nuts and almond flowers. Almost immediately I started getting UTIs. I was wondering if you understood why a UTI is problematic for the gaps diet? I really haven’t felt this good in a long time, and I’m gradually adding foods back that previously I was intolerant to so I feel the gaps diet has been successful from that point of view. But now I have to work on healing my UTI without antibiotics because that’s what caused the problems in the first place
LaylaNovember 12, 2019
I’m not sure I understand – you felt better and then added nuts in and got an UTI? In that case it sounds like nuts may still be problematic and maybe you’ll need to stay off them for longer.
You may still need antibiotics for an acute infection, you could look into natural options there as well.