GAPS in My Thinking...aka: How Your Gut Is Ruining Your Life
This article has been a long time coming...I have so much ground I would like to cover on this topic that I admit I feel slightly at a loss as where to begin. I ask you to bear with me as I take you on a trek through multi-faceted territory. Lest you think this issue focuses solely on allergies, I assure you that is not the case. I ask you to continue reading; I believe everyone can and will benefit from what follows.
Let's start at the very beginning, with my personal health journey. I have suffered allergies all my life and have "passed along" the malady to my children. In addition to "typical" physical allergies (pollen, dust, molds, animals, foods, chemicals, etc.), I have been afflicted with other ailments (some of which are allergy-related) such as asthma, bladder/bowl problems, insomnia, chronic migraines, autism spectrum-like over-sensitivity threshold disorders, candida overgrowth, depression, OCD, muscle/joint pain, debilitating pregnancies, and hormonal imbalances (including thyroid, adrenals, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone...) causing infertility and mood disorders, extreme fatigue and brain fog. I produced children who have been extraordinarily colicky, over-sensitive, allergic (to varying degrees), asthma-prone insomniacs with various levels of GI distress.
I have spent much time and effort through the years (including academic studies and medical/healing training programs) in an attempt to discover and implement healing for our life-altering "disorders." We pursued multiple remedies and treatments. My endeavours have proved to be fruitful, at times nearly complete, but overall far less successful than satisfied me. My regimen of allergen avoidance, systemic healing through herbs and real foods, using homeopathy and essential oils for acute attacks, as well as supplementation with myriad nutrients and probiotics was a necessary and beneficial healing program...but the results left me frustrated as I continued to suffer and I watched my children struggle in different ways. I began to despair over my inability to "fix" our problems and refused to believe that my most sensitive child would forever be plagued with potential anaphylaxis (when exposed to nuts), eczema, night terrors (which are a type of seizure) and asthma.
And then, one winter day, a serendipitous epiphany occurred. During a bout of research, I came upon an article about gut health and a new protocol for healing gut dysbiosis. When I finished, I knew I had discovered the answer for which I had been seeking for so long. When I showed the article to my hubby, who is generally "hands off" in the health realm, happily deferring to Mama Herbalist, his reply was simply, "Order the book."
Well, that is the story of how I discovered gut dysbiosis, GAPS, and the answer to everything. Now, let us take this apart, bit by bit...and in under five minutes! Just kidding...can't make any promises there, LOL. So...what is gut dysbiosis, GAPS, and why should you care? The answers are forthcoming...stay with me.
How Your Gut Rules Your Life
All diseases begin in the gut. -- Hippocrates
The importance of gut health was not a new concept for me. As holistic healers will tell you, health begins in the gut. That simple but profound truth cannot be over-emphasized. This concept begins to crystallize when you understand that an estimated 70% of your immune system is in your gut (not only does your small intestine house a network of lymph nodes, but the bifidobacteria meant to live in your colon also activates the production of lymphocytes...and this is just the beginning of the immunity processes provided by your gut). Your gut is the primary "gate keeper" to your bloodstream and it is the system by which you are fueled. It houses the majority of your beneficial flora, which are necessary for processing the food you eat, and which play a key role in your overall health. It is vital that the gut be in good working order.
When we speak of the "gut," we refer to the gastro-intestinal system (the digestive system from mouth to anus), including stomach, pancreas, intestines, etc., with a particular focus on the intestines. In the holistic health realm, overcoming leaky gut syndrome and fungal (candida) overgrowth are often suggested for conquering various ailments. Both concepts are familiar to most of us who have struggled with allergic "sensitivities" and chronic GI difficulties, as well as "brain fog." I have completed numerous candida cleanses and diets in the past, receiving relief, but found the results to be frustratingly short-lived. Combatting leaky gut was another area where I did not achieve the desired results. It was not until learning about GAPS and putting together all the pieces that I understood why.
GAPS is the acronym for Gut and Psychology Syndrome, a protocol designed by neurologist and nutritionist Natasha Campbell-McBride to heal gut dysbiosis and its subsequent physical and mental disorders. Her book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome, clearly outlines the issue of gut health and malfunction, and describes the healing program that will free you from the ailments caused by a malfunctioning gut. The program consists of three elements: the dietary protocol (composed of the Intro diet and the Full diet), detoxification, and repopulation of beneficial flora. (See Resources at the end of the article for McBride's book, GAPS websites and other information.)
The following is asimplistic overview of gut dysbiosis, its components and results. For detailed information and a thorough understanding of this critical subject, please read McBride's GAPS book (I believe this book should be read by every family in America).
Gut Dysbiosis...What It Is
Gut dysbiosis is the term used to describe the ailing state of the intestines when the balance of beneficial flora becomes overrun with malevolent flora...harmful pathogens (bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites, protozoa, etc) that colonize in and take over your gut. [Did you know that there is a "good" E coli population meant to exist in your gut that produces K and B vitamins, antibiotic substances, and fights the "bad" E coli that enters your body?]
Candida AlbicansThis pathogen overload causes detriment to the physiology of the gut and its actions. One major side effect of this dysbiosis is that the lining of the intestines becomes compromised, leading to the condition known as leaky gut. For example, bacteria like Spirillaceae push apart intestinal cells and fungi like Candida put roots into the intestinal lining. These actions effectively "rip open" the gut lining, hence leaky gut.
With the host of necessary beneficial flora suppressed and the gut lining no longer intact and working effectively, all sorts of things are able to pass through the intestines and enter the bloodstream...things not intended to pass through, such as undigested food molecules, microbes, viruses, toxins, etc. Furthermore, this weakened condition of the gut and its friendly bacteria causes malnourishment through the body's inability to absorb and distribute nutrients. In fact, many bad flora eat your ingested nutrients!
How It Happens
In a well-functioning system, bad flora (McBride calls them "opportunistic flora") are held in check by the resident good flora. When your good flora are damaged/destroyed, the bad flora move in and take over. What destroys good flora? I won't even give you three guesses for the first answer...right, you guessed it...pharmaceutical drugs, primarily antibiotics; but most drugs will damage good flora (especially when taken regularly or for prolonged periods), such as pain killers, steroids, contraceptives, sleeping pills, antacid/heartburn drugs, antipsychotic drugs, cytotoxics, etc, etc, etc... Next on the list of beneficial flora killers is diet, primarily an overabundance of sugars and processed foods. Illnesses and infections can damage gut flora, as well as stress. And the final assault on flora comes from the modern scourge of environmental pollutants, such as mercury, lead, fluoride, radiation, and the rest.
One of the most important elements of understanding gut dysbiosis and how it affects children is that babies inherit the gut flora of their mothers, primarily through the birth process. I won't delve into the details on this point here...McBride covers it thoroughly. But ladies, you need to understand that if you (and you likely most certainly have) lived/live with any level of gut dysbiosis when you were/are having your children, you have passed this dilemma on to them. We'll look in detail at symptomatology in a bit; it is important that you understand and acknowledge this malfunction as a family affair. Fathers are involved as well, because through sexual contact, their flora (the good, the bad and the ugly) transmit to the mother, where it takes up residence in combination with her own flora. So mama alone is not "to blame" when we discuss how baby's gut gets populated.
What It Does
The detailed explanation of the malevolent flora and their negative effects on all aspects of our health is far beyond the scope of this article. I have no desire to overwhelm readers here with the technicalities of gut physiology and anatomy (enterocytes, villi, T-cell production, etc) and why it is so essential that this system be healed. But you need to know these things, so McBride's book is a critical component to your achievement of wellness. Let's look briefly at the results of gut dysbiosis.
In addition to destroying your intestinal lining and the balance of beneficial microbial activity there, pathogenic overgrowth creates an extraordinary toxic load in the body. As with all living organisms whose life-cycle includes taking inputs and producing outputs, the "bad guys" living and feasting in your gut release metabolic by-products; theirs are quite toxic. The deleterious effects of the toxins released by the pathogenic overgrowth in your gut have far-reaching physical and mental repercussions. Some of the toxins suppress stomach acid production, further complicating the inability to properly digest food. Certain pathogens (like the Proteus family, the E. coli family, and the Staphylococci family) produce histamine; when these bacteria take hold in the gut and are not controlled by beneficial flora, the overload of histamine in the system (your cells' production + bacterial production) wreaks havoc, resulting in increased allergic responses as well as low blood pressure, excessive production of bodily fluids, hypothalamus dysfunction and hormonal imbalances, sleep disturbances, emotional instability and addictions.
Besides causing physical ailments, the toxic by-products of pathogenic flora lead to cerebral depression and mental dysfunction. These neurotoxins affect the development and function of the brain and nervous system. For example, the fungus Clostridia produces a toxin similar to tetanus, which causes over-sensitivity to light and noise, abnormal muscle tone, and severe inflammation of the digestive system. Again, McBride's enlightening book comprehensively covers the pathogenic flora families and their negative impacts.
Before continuing our discussion of how gut dysbiosis affects the brain, I want to briefly touch on the issue of food intolerances that I broached in the close of my Real Milk article. Despite the health benefits of raw grass-fed milk, some sensitive people still react to it. While raw milk advocates rightly point out that real milk can help allergies, there still exists a population of children and adults who cannot tolerate it. I believe many people do not connect physical or mental ailments with milk (or grains, etc) when it most likely is a culprit. And why would a "real food" be a problem? The answer lies in GAPS.
When the gut lining has been compromised, undigested food molecules can pass through. Certain food molecules are more detrimental than others. Casein is one of the worst. A recent awareness of "good vs. bad" casein has arisen after the publication of Devil in the Milk. I respect Woodford's work and his efforts to explain the issues involved in varying forms of casein and its deleterious effects. I believe it is a valid piece of the entire puzzle. But I am of the opinion that the more harmful component promoting casein damage is leaky gut syndrome. Casein can be broken down only when a healthy population of beneficial flora is doing its job. So in GAPS, not only is the casein not being digested and/or contained in the gut and moved out safely, but its components are seeping through the gut lining and entering the bloodstream. The resulting undigested milk protein causes typical dairy intolerance symptoms (mucus production, GI distress, headaches, rashes, etc); but physical stresses are not the only result of improperly digested casein. The most detrimental casein peptide is casomorphin, an opiate. These opiates cross the blood-brain barrier, causing various disorders and malfunctions (they contribute to the list that will soon follow).
Grains can cause similar problems due to the gluten peptide, gluteomorphin. Many people find themselves to be grain intolerant, even when soaking the grains to break down the phytic acid. When we pursue a traditional real food lifestyle (ie Weston Price/Nourishing Traditions), it can be frustrating to find our bodies responding badly to the nourishing diet we are consuming. McBride's GAPS protocol is a "pre-Nourishing Traditions" program that addresses the existing gut malfunctions, healing us so we can enjoy a real foods lifestyle.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The physical disorders and ailments caused by a malfunctioning gut are often painfully obvious. But many people are unaware of the connection between their mental/emotional dysfunctions and their impaired gut physiology. While the gut-brain connection may not yet be a widespread concept, it is a well-established fact. As others in this realm have rightly noted, the brain is an organ. It is ludicrous to suggest that mental/emotional disorders are unrelated to the physiology of that organ and other bodily systems, but are rather solely the province of the "thought life." It is even more absurd to suggest that the dysfunctions appear arbitrarily and that they cannot be effectively healed.
The gut-brain connection in autistic children was observed and explained by Andrew Wakefield. His studies on groups of afflicted children revealed the common factor of colon inflammation. The severity of bowel disturbances ranged from mucous membrane erosion and pus-filled abscesses to severe enlargement of intestinal lymph nodes. To learn more about Wakefield's ground-breaking discoveries in the realm of autism and the gut-brain connection, please see Mercola's interview with Wakefield.
Neurogastroenterologist Michael Gershon has spent many years studying the gut-brain connection, and has termed the gut our "2nd brain." His book, The Second Brain is a thorough technical read on the subject. You can read about his findings in the following articles: Scientific American article, NYT 1996 article, and NYT 2005 article.
The following articles demonstrate and discuss the gut-brain connection and its significant impact:
When we struggle mentally or emotionally and seek to understand both mild and debilitating brain malfunctions, we need to remember that in many cases...It's not all in your head; it's in your gut!
While McBride's present work focuses principally on the mental ailments caused by gut dysbiosis, we do not want to overlook the physical ailments associated with and caused by impaired gut function. McBride's work mentions many physical disorders; numerous health practitioners have written/taught about these issues through the years.
So let's look at the multitudinous list of symptoms/ailments/disorders/malfunctions that encompass the world of GAPS and which can be healed with the protocol. This list is a compilation of McBride's clinical findings and practice, as well as my body of knowledge and experience in this arena. (I undoubtedly will leave off something from the list that belongs...)
- compromised immunity
- any allergy/intolerance/sensitivity (this category involves a host of symptoms)
- skin eruptions and abnormalities (acne, rashes of all types, psoriasis, hives, eczema, etc...remember, rashes are never about the skin, but about something going wrong inside the body...unless you've rolled in poison ivy, LOL)
- excessive mucus production
- ear infections/sinus infections
- Yeast overgrowth (vaginitis, foot fungal growth, bad breath, etc.)
- bladder difficulties: excessive urination, incontinence, infections (excess urine production is one of the body's mechanisms for flushing toxins)
- bowel difficulties: gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea [An important note: A healthy system will pass a normal bowel movement at least once daily...normal being not hard/rocky/pebbly, not watery/mucusy, no straining required, no burning, not terribly foul smelling and the occasion not necessitating reading material, LOL]
- acidic urine/stools, acid reflux, heartburn, belching, etc.
- GI disorders: "irritable bowel syndrome," ulcerative colitis, Crohn's, Celiac, etc.
- liver malfunctions, blood sugar imbalances
- pain/inflammation syndromes (such as fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis)
- tooth grinding/nail biting
- eating disorders
- autism spectrum disorders (includes vast symptomatolgy)
- mood disorders: PMS, excessive swings, depression, anxiety, anger, etc.
- "personality" disorders: schizophrenia, manic depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, fear disorders, hallucinations, heightened senses, etc.
- seizures: an umbrella that includes night terrors, tics, fainting, narcolepsy, idiopathic epilepsy, et. al
- insomnia, night waking, nightmares (and night terrors, as in seizures)
- learning dysfunctions (dyslexia, speech "defects," learning delays, et. al)
- lack of mental clarity (brain fog), confusion
- poor concentration, hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD)
Well, that pretty much covers everything, doesn't it? If you do not see yourself even mildly in the list above, count yourself as extraordinarily blessed and unusual. I personally do not know anyone who doesn't exhibit some symptomatic variation of gut dysbiosis.
Parents, before you exclude the possibility that your child suffers from even a slight form of gut dysbiosis, do a mental historical picture of your child from babyhood. Consider the following questions (you need not answer yes to all of them):
Did your breastfed baby routinely spit up after nursing? Was your baby colicky or fussy or subject to crying jags? Was baby sensitive to overstimulation? Did baby wake frequently? Were there skin eruptions (from some pimples to full-blown eczema)/diaper rashes? Were urine and/or stools acidic (even to the degree of burning the skin)? Was there constipation (remember, stools should be passed daily) or diarrhea (stools should be soft and formed, not runny or acidic)? Routine hiccups, burping, gas? [These are all signs of food intolerance; anything a mother eats can irritate her baby through the breastmilk. The primary candidate is dairy, then eggs, wheat, corn, soy...but any food can do it. In the past, my advice has been an elimination diet to clear the breastmilk of offending foods...this would be practiced as long as needed to ease baby's suffering and protect baby's GI development. For example, for the two years I nursed my first son, I was able to consume only three to five foods to keep him from being miserable and reactive. When he started eating on his own, he lived with a restricted diet for a long time. While trigger avoidance is necessary for your child's health and well-being, I now see a better way. The intolerances are a principal symptom of gut dysbiosis; rather than perpetually avoiding irritants, it is better to heal the system altogether, which is what the GAPS protocol does.]
As your child grew...was your potty-trained child troubled with bed-wetting? Rashes/skin disorders of any sort? Sinus/respiratory problems? Ear infections? Frequent colds? GI problems? Bowel issues? Sleep disturbances? Tooth grinding? Mood/behavioral/concentration trouble? Learning/speech difficulties? The list could continue....[These symptoms indicate food intolerances, but also begin to involve other allergic reactions such as pollen, dust, dander, molds, etc. Again, GAPS is the superior answer.]
Many people, including myself, have attempted to resolve their (or their children's) imbalances and ailments through a particular nutritional regimen or with supplementation of varying forms. I am now fully convinced that without first sealing/healing the gut, no amount of nutrient supplementation will help to the degree that you need or desire. As long as the gut wall is compromised and your system is overrun with pathogenic flora, you cannot absorb/use said nutrients; much of those supplements and your money are being flushed. (Think of a Netherlands' dike that has sprung multiple leaks.) So fix the wall first, line it with defenses, and then address any remaining nutritional needs.
Ladies, it would behoove you to seriously consider doing even an abbreviated GAPS program before becoming pregnant. This will provide a wonderfully nourished body in which to grow baby and will help to ensure that baby's gut is colonized properly at birth. Doing the Intro diet followed by six months of the Full GAPS diet is a recommended minimum for women looking forward to pregnancy.
Final thoughts and Gleanings
I've done anti-fungal diets in the past. I've done allergy elimination diets. I've been vegan, I've gone dairy-free, I've been grain-free. Nothing brought the complete results for which I was searching (although I felt much better when I was grain- and dairy-free). Why is GAPS different? This protocol seals and heals the gut, detoxifies the body and repopulates necessary beneficial flora. Rather than following a practice of "trigger" avoidance, we are actually healing the physiological mechanism that protects us from being reactive. Additionally, it is ineffective to individually treat for parasites or fungal overgrowth without first sealing/healing the gut and repopulating your beneficial flora.
If you want to achieve legitimate healing, it is important that you:
- Read ALL the materials (GAPS book and GAPSGuide) first before beginning the program.
- Begin with the Intro phase.
- Do NOT be tempted to cheat or "change" the protocol...stick with it as it exists.
Even if you previously ate a real food diet and used probiotic supplements, progress slowly and gently through the program, adding probiotic foods a little bit at a time; work your way methodically and patiently through the Intro stages. Many people venturing into GAPS territory attempt the program by going straight to the Full GAPS diet, skipping the Intro phase. Perhaps moreso than even McBride, I highly discourage this maneuver. If you desire complete healing, DO NOT SKIP INTRO.
The amount of healing and the speed at which it will take place depends largely upon the severity of the disorder and how long it has been present.
You need to be prepared for die off during this process. Because bad flora thrive on the sugars you ingest (carbs, ie grains, starchy veggies, sugar itself), implementing the Intro diet immediately begins to starve the buggers. Additionally, your consumption of probiotic foods (and supplements) will nourish your good flora, enabling them to grow and begin killing the invading pathogenic colonies. As the pathogens die, their toxin releases intensify, which can make you feel ill. Die off is described in McBride's book, the GAPS Guide, and GAPS support websites. I will briefly relate that your level of die off will depend on how many and how quickly toxins are being released. Symptoms can be your normal ailments exacerbated; die off can cause powerful sugar cravings, headaches, lethargy, nausea/vomiting, incontinence, crankiness, hyperactivity, and a host of other issues. But be not dismayed...die off is temporary (from a few days to weeks depending on your level of dysbiosis)...and you will be delighted in the knowledge that you are destroying the invaders and healing your system.
Things I love about GAPS
I love that the program is built on the truth that saturated fat is GOOD for you! This is a fundamental truth whose suppression has caused serious health problems for our entire society. The essential nutrients and protective fat in animal and other saturated fats (like coconut and palm) are crucial to our bodies' normal functioning and optimal health (especially the brain). Americans' obsession with "fat-free" foods and "lean" meats has contributed heavily to their health downfall. This topic will be explored with more depth in a future article. Until then, you can begin understanding the truth about good fats by reading The Cholesterol Myths, Diet & Heart Disease, Put Your Heart in Your Mouth, Know Your Fats, Nourishing Traditions, and The Good Fat Cookbook.
I love that McBride recommends juicing for detoxification and nourishment. Juicing is very cleansing and a wonderful way to support your liver (especially when you add beet to your combination). And I can attest that you will never so much enjoy carrot-pineapple juice as when you are allowed it during the Intro diet. Homemade raw juices (must be juiced...no fiber...no blending) are a vitamin shot...a cleansing energy boost. The daily juices are a real treat.
I love that bone broth is the backbone of the GAPS program. This potent medicine of "days gone by" is wonderfully healing. We all should have some every day. It truly heals what ails you.
I love the emphasis on home-fremented sauerkraut as a flora-populating, immune-boosting, vitamin C-rich, probiotic food. Truly not difficult to make, sauerkraut is a super food that belongs in everyone's diet...and it just tastes good, too!
I love the emphasis on non-toxic living, especially a chemical-free home. That is good advice for everyone, GAPS or not.
I love that McBride emphasizes that GAPS is a family affair. And who wouldn't benefit from such a richly nourishing diet and wellness lifestyle?
While I respectfully disagree with McBride's (and other GAPS authors) positive views of vaccination and pharmaceuticals, I believe her work to be eminently vital to our collective understanding of how to be well. Countless people are suffering needlessly from physical and mental malfunctions; they are being told (by the establishment...AMA and Big Pharma) that there is no cure, only control and suppression. Imagine the pain and suffering that could be alleviated...the drugs and psychiatric treatments that could be avoided...if people knew the beautiful truth about gut dysbiosis. These ailments, some quite serious and debilitating, can be HEALED...simply and effectively.
What have you to lose by pursuing this protocol? Yes, the program demands diligence and dedication. There is a learning curve. Yes, you will experience temporary discomfort as your body sheds the pathogenic flora and (most often) goes through some degree of sugar withdrawal. It is a short-term sacrifice for a worthy long-term goal...it is for your health and future well-being. Looking at the big picture, only certain foods must be avoided for an interim in your life; once you learn the program, it will become routine. And the extra time it takes to make the homemade healing foods is a worthwhile investment in your future eating habits and continued wellness. Because, frankly, if you have not yet been living a homemade/real food lifestyle, this is the time to start. Aside from healing your gut and ailments, this program will spur you to a necessary lifestyle change.
I have written a tome without describing in detail the actual GAPS healing protocol. Other resources, which are listed below, do an excellent job. It is very important that you read the GAPS book (and preferably GAPS Guide) before attempting the program, or work with a practitioner well-versed in the protocol. I will be writing through the next week (as I can) to share with you the journey my family is making through the Intro portion of the program. In those articles I will provide specific attributes of the diet and protocol, as well as share the additional herbal/supplementary program I have designed to aid the healing process of the GAPS diet. I will describe the healing my family has already begun to experience.
My personal journey for answers to the allergy riddle has made many twists and turns over the years. Discovering the GAPS protocol is the first time I feel full clarity of the issues involved and have hope for long-term healing. I cannot say with assuredness that all allergies are the body's response to a compromised gut, but I feel certain that most are. The fact that people's "allergies" are being overcome by healing the gut makes it apparent that they are not an inherited genetic destiny, but rather the result of abnormal gut flora colonization and the resulting gut damage. (For those of you unfamiliar from my previous writings, I do not adhere to the fatality of genetics; predispositions are not necessarily genetic convictions.)
You and your family may have no difficulties with allergies, but you most likely have some malfunction that can be addressed by healing the gut. Remember, health begins in the gut. I cannot overemphasize this...solving gut dysbiosis is essential to regaining (or, in the case of your children, establishing) good physical and mental health. True wellness cannot take place until the gut is sealed, healed and colonized with good bacteria.
McBride's book(s) and recommended protocol supplements are sold at www.gapsdiet.com. I highly recommend that you purchase the discounted combination of McBride's GAPS book and the GAPSGuide book, written by a richly experienced mother who healed herself and her son of significant mental and physical defects using the program. While McBride's book details the GAPS program, the GAPS Guide was written as a practical manual (full of Q&A and valuable instructions) to help people begin and use the GAPS protocol. The GAPS Guide author also maintains an exceptionally helpful website, www.gapsguide.com
Cara at healthhomehappy provides GAPS meal plans/menus, and explains many aspects of the GAPS program. Please peruse her site and see especially the following entries:
Again, gapsdiet.com is one of the main sites that offers McBride's materials, recommended supplements, and maintains a wealth of FAQs, Q&A, and GAPS info.
Online community support can be found at the GAPS yahoo group
Baby GAPS chronicles one nursing mama's (and her toddler's) experiences with GAPS.