This week, the baby and I are starting the GAPS diet. Several of you mentioned GAPS after my last post on our digestive challenges, and then a dear friend of mine loaned me the GAPS book. The little I knew about GAPS was that it’s most commonly used by families who have autistic children, so I started reading it, thinking that it probably didn’t apply to me.
Wrong! GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) is a temporary (not lifelong) diet create by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride to heal the “gut” (digestive system) so that our bodies can once again process food properly, give us the nourishment we require, and most importantly, stop turning food into toxins and poisoning our bodies and brains. GAPS is frequently used by people to help heal autism, schizophrenia, and other psychological disorders, because when the digestive system is broken, it is improperly nourished, and it stores toxins (that in a normal healthy body would be easily flushed out) in fat – and the brain is a big blob of fat. Brains loaded with toxins do not function well.
And why are our digestive systems so broken? Why does every family seem to have at least one person in it with food sensitivities, or Irritable Bowl Syndrome, or Celiac’s Disease, or ADHD, or autism? I’ve done a lot of research on this, first as a food systems advocate and business owner, and more recently, to help try to understand and heal my own child. The GAPS book finally had an explanation that made sense to me, and it’s pretty simple, actually. Our digestive system relies on beneficial flora (micro-organisms) to digest our food, synthesize vitamins, move food particles through our system, keep our gut clean and protected against disease and invaders, and properly expel any unwanted materials. We have millions of bacteria and yeasts organisms in our gut, both beneficial and potentially harmful, but in a healthy, pristine system, the beneficial organisms keep the more aggressive strains in check.
When we take antibiotics (and most of us who are now adults took antibiotics multiple times in our childhood and adulthood, and ate them in conventional meats), we devastate our gut flora. The opportunistic flora have opportunities to take over, the lining of the gut becomes “leaky” (it literally gets holes in it that food particles can leak through), and the digestive system begins to break down – malnourished, improperly functioning, out of whack. Yeast infections, depression, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, etc begin to appear. Other medications, including birth control pills, also harm our beneficial bacteria. And when we give birth to our children, they literally get their gut flora from us (the mother), and they begin their life with a system that is broken. It’s easy to see how quickly this can get worse and worse. I encourage everyone, if you’ve ever taken antibiotics or the Pill, to read Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. It’s very easy to understand, and may bring you a lot of benefit. (Chances are, your library system has a copy!)
So that’s the background. I started reading and couldn’t stop. You probably know by now that I believe strongly in the power of food to heal (or harm), and here was someone successfully treating conditions that modern medicine calls “untreatable,” simply by abstaining from certain foods for a period of time, increasing consumption of probiotics to properly re-populate the gut, and then carefully re-introducing foods. Long term, our whole family will do the GAPS diet for a while. When my daughter was born, I got an infection and had to take antibiotics, and while she never had clear digestive issues, I can see that a lot of other issues may be very connected, and I am very interested to see how the diet affects her. No one in our family has an extreme, terrible condition – but how bad does it have to be before you are willing to make some changes to truly be vitally healthy? Like many Americans, our family includes people who have, or have had, heartburn, depression, tooth decay, sugar cravings, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome. Why wait for autism or schizophrenia to make a change?
There are two main pieces to the GAPS diet – the full GAPS diet, and the Introduction diet. As a breastfeeding mother, whose baby still gets most of his calories from my milk, it’s not recommended to do the full Introduction Diet. It’s an intense, seriously healing diet designed to kill off the bad bacteria and yeast so that you can repopulate with the good guys – but killing them off results in some unpleasant symptoms of “die-off,” and also prompts your body to begin healing and getting rid of stored toxins. The toxins can get into your milk, which is not so good for baby. But, on the other hand, the Introduction Diet is important to “heal and seal” the gut – otherwise, your gut is still leaky and may be reacting to foods you’re not actually sensitive to. So, following the advice of Dr. Campbell-McBride concerning breastfeeding mothers, I started in Stage Two of the Introduction Diet.
I made a little sign for myself to hang on the fridge, to help me (and the rest of the family) remember and be excited about what I can eat right now (instead of focusing on the “no” list). As someone who already spends most of my day in the kitchen, preparing real, whole foods for my family to eat, I thought I was ready for this. I spent some time looking up menu ideas and advice from other families and ordered this helpful ebook.
But day one totally kicked my butt. It was really hard to not eat any fruit or nuts, at all. Partly it was unlucky timing – we ate leftovers for dinner the night before, so the fridge was pretty bare. I did have chicken broth already, and some cooked turkey leg, which was great, and I started the day by roasting a butternut squash. I ate squash (with bacon fat on top), broth with some fermented veggie juice added, and turkey most of the day. A lot of broth. By mid-afternoon I was really craving some coconut butter (not part of stage 2), so I ate the last two bites in the jar, and then I ate a spoonful of coconut oil, which I’ve never done before – bad idea! My throat burned for about an hour after that.
For dinner, I started a beef shank slow-cooking in the morning with some carrots and water on the woodstove, and in the afternoon I added mushrooms and onions for mushroom-beef soup. I also made stuffed bell peppers, with our homemade Tessa (dry aged pork belly) and grated broccoli, beet, and kohlrabi. Both the soup and the baked stuffed peppers were amazing, and I gobbled them up.
The focus in Stage Two is on drinking lots of bone broth (at least a cup with every meal, instead of drinking water), eating soft, well-cooked meats and vegetables (in stews, soups, or casseroles), adding probiotics in small amounts through the juice from lacto-fermented vegetables (kim chee, saurkraut, real pickles, etc). You can, one by one, try to add the following foods, and if your body doesn’t react to them, you can continue on to the next stage: egg yolk (raw, stirred into warm soup), homemade ghee, and fermented fish (homemade gravlax).
Gabriel and I haven’t eaten eggs since November, so I was pretty excited to try adding yolks. Unfortunately, he did have a negative reaction to the yolk – and, to my surprise, so did I! This was a really important lesson for me – I’ve mostly been focused on changing our diets to help heal Gabriel’s digestion, but as I’ve learning from reading GAPS, and from the experience with the Intro diet, my gut needs healing, too. So no more egg yolks for us for now – I’ll try again in a few weeks.
After that first day on stage 2, I was kind of freaking out that I couldn’t do this. The next day I was working at the bakery part of the day, and I just couldn’t figure out what I was going to eat while I was there! Did I have to bring a pot of soup with me? (The soup at the bakery is often GAPS-friendly, but not on this day.) I decided to let myself relax a bit, and just do my best. While I was in town, I bought a thermos, so that I can take broth or soup with me and keep it warm. I ate a spinach salad with warm turkey, sweet potato coconut soup, some fruit, and . . . chocolate. Which I hadn’t eaten in almost a month. I felt pretty gross by the end of the day actually, and realized that while the first day of Intro had been hard, my body was appreciating it.
So far, I’m loving having a cup of bone broth with every meal. And I am most challenged by not eating any fruit or nuts, at all. I’m especially grateful to be starting this in the winter, when I usually makes lots of soup and stew anyways – it would be much trickier in the summer. So, onward! If you’ve done GAPS with your family, I’d love to hear any intro tips. And if you’ve been struggling to bring health to your self or your family, you might consider it.
Have a great week, friends.