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.
Pin it for later: