Many families with children on the autism spectrum have seen their child begin to lose some of their symptoms of autism, but more importantly to get relief from their painful gastrointestinal suffering.
Children with many food sensitivities and food intolerances also begin to lose their sensitivities and recover.
It has become a resource to many parents whose children have not responded well to other types of diets such as the gluten-free, casein-free diet.
Long-term results take time with GAPS, but sticking with the diet over a lengthy period, many families have seen marked improvement in symptoms and even recoveries.
History of the GAPS Diet
The creator of GAPS, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a neurologist and nutritionist, understood that a healthy gut lining populated with beneficial bacteria would create a healthy system of communication between the gut and brain.
The GAPS diet is based on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, another diet addressing digestive issues, researched by Elaine Gottschall, author of Breaking the Vicious Cycle.
After seeing many patients with psychological and developmental disorders, Dr. Natasha realized they all had one thing in common: digestive disorders.
The common digestive disorders and conditions Dr. Natasha was seeing were:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Celiac disease
- Acid reflux
- Chronic diarrhea
- Chronic constipation
- Stomach cramps and pain
All of these digestive conditions have one thing in common: a compromised integrity of the gut.
Role of a Compromised Gut
A compromised gut can easily develop when the gut lining is permeated by the small holes that develop from too much foreign matter entering the blood stream as partially digested food.
A permeated gut lining is a condition called Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS) which causes toxins to leak out of the bowel and get absorbed into the blood stream.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) and gut dysbiosis are other compromised gut conditions that are due to an excess of pathogens in the gastrointestinal system.
An unhealthy gut can leak foreign pathogens into the bloodstream which get transported into the brain through the vagus nerve by crossing the permeated blood-brain barrier.
GAPS can help to correct leaky gut, gut dysbiosis and SIBO.
A compromised gut often contains pathogens such as:
The survival of these pathogens in the gut shifts the immune system, most of which is located in the microbiome of the gastrointestinal system.
The gut is home to about 70% of the immune system; therefore, good healthy microbes are needed to create a strong immune system and healthy brain.
Abnormal gut flora and a poor-quality microbiome can lead to:
- Compromised immune system
- Autoimmune reactions or diseases
- Food intolerances and food sensitivities
- Inflammatory skin conditions
- Nutritional deficiencies
Pathogens such as Clostridium difficile and Streptococcus as well as pathogenic byproducts such as propionic acid can cross the blood-brain barrier and inflame the brain, triggering:
- Aggressive behaviors
- Mood swings
- Poor memory
- Obsessive compulsive behaviors
- Eating disorders
- Focus and concentration issues
- Impaired cognitive function
Gut Health and Neurotransmitters
Healthy gut microbes living on the gut wall create important mood neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA.
Serotonin is often called the “feel good” neurotransmitter; it is often deficient in people with:
- Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
Serotonin levels may be low in these people because of a compromised integrity of the gut.
- Peristalsis (movement of the bowels)
- Social behavior
- Sexual function
GABA (Gamma Aminobutyric Acid) is a neurotransmitter that helps calm the brain by:
- Preventing anxiety, nervousness and panic disorders
- Relaxing the body by increasing alpha wave production
- Balancing high levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate
GABA is vital for:
- Improving speech and language
- Supporting sensory integration
- Calming down aggressive behaviors
- Increasing eye contract
- Improving social behaviors
- Contracting the bowel in constipation and transit
- Assisting with better sleep
Low GABA production in the gut causes increased brain excitability and neurological inflammation from high levels of glutamate, which can contribute to symptoms of:
In short, a healthy gut is needed to create enough neurotransmitters that allow for healthy mood regulation as well as other neurological functions.
It is precisely because of these psychological, neurological and psychiatric symptoms caused from compromised gut integrity that Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride created the GAPS diet to heal both the gut and the brain.
What Disorders/Conditions Does the GAPS Diet Help?
People with the following disorders who follow GAPS may see an improvement in their symptoms:
- Learning disabilities
- Psychiatric disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- PANDAS and PANS
- Eating disorders
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Other autoimmune disorders
Implementing the GAPS diet
There are three facets of healing to remember about GAPS: diet, supplements and detoxification.
GAPS is a healing protocol that includes dietary changes, comprehensive detoxification and GAPS-related supplementation.
All of these three approaches will be incorporated in every stage along the way.
There is an introduction diet and then the full diet.
The GAPS diet avoids:
- Refined carbohydrates
- Processed foods
- Pseudo-grains (such as quinoa and buckwheat)
- Dairy (except keifer)
- Starchy vegetables
- Sugars in any form except for raw honey
The GAPS diet is high in:
- Nutrient-dense foods
- Anti-inflammatory foods
- Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables
- Healthy fats
- Fermented foods
GAPS-related supplements may include:
- Cod liver oil which contains ample amounts of vitamin A
- Other essential fatty acids, especially omega 3s
- Digestive enzymes such as betaine hydrochloric acid with pepsin and pancreatic
- Vitamin and mineral supplements that promote gut healing and have a high absorption rate with minimal usage
- Quality probiotics for sensitive guts designed specifically for the GAPS diet such as GutPro and Primal Gut
Please note that l-glutamine is an amino acid supplement that can aid in healing the gut lining; however, it increases glutamate levels and can cause more problems for those that are sensitive to high-glutamate levels.
The Introduction Diet
The introduction diet is designed to heal the gut lining as quickly as possible; however, the duration of the introduction diet will be based on the severity of your child’s gut and the length of time your child has been suffering from a compromised gut.
The introduction diet consists of six stages.
Stage 1 is the most restrictive, but as one moves through the stages, the number of foods and types of foods will increase with each food being more challenging.
Moving forward too quickly may mean that your child will not be able to tolerate some of the challenging foods, so judge accordingly to your child’s ability to absorb and digest their food.
If your child’s digestive symptoms and behaviors return, then stay a little longer where you are until the gut is healed enough to move forward.
The more inflamed your child’s gut, the slower you need to proceed with introducing new foods.
Stage 1: Meat or Fish Stock and Probiotics
This stage is all about soothing the inflamed gut by making homemade meats and bone broths with good quality (organic) meats and bones using all parts of the animal or foul.
Don’t skim off the fat because it soothes the stomach and heals the gut and brain; the brain is 60% fat and needs that good-quality fat.
Use your stove top; never use your microwave to cook food because it destroys natural enzymes.
These soup stocks heal your child’s gut lining before moving on and expanding your child’s repertoire of foods.
Broth is a staple that is necessary throughout all the stages of the GAPS diet.
Fresh ginger can be added and some juices from fermented foods.
Probiotics are recommended at this stage.
The only detox recommendation is Epsom salt baths with baking soda.
GAPS Basic Meat and Bone Broth
- 1 whole organic or pasture-raised chicken with as many parts as possible including giblets, feet, and/or beak
- Filtered water
- 2 tablespoons of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar
- Various organic vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery and parsley
- Himalayan salt or sea salt to taste
- Herbs (optional)
- Place the chicken and chicken parts in a large crock pot or stockpot. Add enough filtered water to cover the chicken and bring to a boil. Remove any “scum” that is on the surface; these are impurities and should not be eaten.
- Remove the chicken, leaving the stock in the pot. Let it cool and take the meat off the bones. Place your meat (including the skin and soft tissues) into a storage container in the fridge and return everything else (bones and all other parts) to the crock pot.
- Add more filtered water to the pot along with the vinegar (vinegar helps draw out the minerals from the bones), veggies, herbs and salt. Bring this to a boil, lower heat and simmer for as long as possible, at least 6 hours, but 36-72 hours is optimal if your child is not sensitive to glutamate. The longer you simmer, the more medicinal your broth will be.
- Strain all the solids from the broth, pour into jars, and store in the fridge. Use within 5 days. If you want it to keep longer, place it in the freezer.
You can substitute beef, lamb, turkey or veal for chicken.
Although broth is used as a stand-alone food beginning in stage 1, you can add it soups, stews, casseroles and other dishes when on the full diet.
Bone broth is very healing for the gut; however, bone broth is very high in glutamate, and caution needs to be taken with children or adults who are sensitive to glutamate.
Add in egg yolk, spices and more probiotics. Homemade ghee and a small amount of fermented foods may be added, if they are tolerated.
Add in avocado, scrambled eggs and nut butters.
Add in roasted meats, olives and some homemade juices.
Add in cooked apples, raw vegetables, and other homemade juices.
When non-starchy vegetables are added in, they should be well-cooked and soft to be more digestible.
Add in raw fruits and raw honey.
The Full Diet
After successful completion of stage 6, your child is ready to transition to the full GAPS diet, which is primarily “real” foods such as:
- Grass-fed meats
- Wild-caught seafood
- Organic eggs and foul
- Animal fat
- Fermented foods
- Fruit in moderation
Baked goods are allowed but only if they are made with almond or coconut flours.
All vegetables should be well-cooked to allow for better digestion and toleration:
- Bell peppers
- Bok choy
- Broccoli rabe
- Brussels sprouts
- Green beans
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Romaine lettuce
- Squash (summer and winter)
Fish should be wild-caught only and not farm-raised such as:
- Mahi mahi
- Red snapper
Nuts and Legumes
Nuts and legumes should be soaked and sprouted before consumption.
There are companies that sell pre-soaked and -sprouted nut and seed butters.
- Almonds (sprouted or as raw nut butter)
- Brazil nuts
- Coconut (technically a drupe)
- Baby lima beans (soaked)
- Navy beans (soaked)
- Pine nuts
- Nut butters
- Nut flours (in moderate amounts – no more than 1/4 cup a day)
Fats and Oils
All fats and oils should be unrefined and organic or pasture-raised:
- Avocado oil
- Almond oil
- Butter (from pasture-raised cows)
- Coconut oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Hempseed oil
- Macadamia oil
- Olive oil
- Sesame oil
- Palm oil (sustainable)
- Walnut oil
If dairy is tolerated, it must be raw, aged and grass-fed; European cheeses are more likely to meet these criteria.
GAPS-legal dairy foods are:
- Goat cheese (aged 60+ days)
- Kefir (cultured goat milk) (fermented 24+ hours)
- Raw sheep cheese (aged 60+ days)
- Sheep yogurt (fermented 24+ hours)
- Raw cows’ cheese (aged 60+ days)
- Raw cows amasai, kefir and yogurt (fermented 24+ hours)
All meat must be from organic or pasture-raised animals:
- Bone broth
- Quail and other wild game
- Venison and other wild game
Fruits can be added in moderation; they should be well-cooked to allow for better digestion and toleration:
- Watermelon (no seeds)
Spices and Herbs
- Black pepper
- Coriander seeds
- Sea salt
- Apple cider vinegar
- Coconut vinegar
- Sea salt and/or Himalayan salt
- Coconut flour
- Almond flour
- Almond milk
- Coconut kefir
- Coconut milk
- Herbal teas
- Raw vegetable juices
- Sparkling water
- Spring water (or filtered)
- Wine, in moderation (not for children)
Sweeteners (in Moderation)
- Raw honey
- Dates made into paste
Implementation Tips for the Full GAPS Diet
Eat fruit in between meals because digestion of fruit can interfere with the digestion of other foods if eaten simultaneously.
Eat healthy fats from butter, meat, ghee, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, chicken fat and eggs with every meal to create a feeling of fullness and to lessen a craving for sweets and carbohydrates.
Always serve your child a cup of bone broth with every meal.
Include fermented foods like goat’s milk or coconut milk keifer and yogurt, kombucha, and sauerkraut and kim chi.
Avoid canned foods, including coconut milk, because most are lined with plasticizers such as BPA.
Still Looking for Answers?
Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. Medinform Publishing. 2010.
The Heal Your Gut Cookbook: Nutrient-Dense Recipes for Intestinal Health Using the GAPS Diet by Hillary Boynton and Mary G. Brackett. Chelsea Green Publishing. 2014.
Internal Bliss: GAPS Cookbook (Recipes designed for those following the Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet) by GAPSDiet.com. International Nutrition, Inc. 2010.