Various digestive disorders are becoming very common across all age groups these days. This area has been of particular clinical interest in my natural medicine practice for many years and I found the GAPS diet protocol to be a very effective method of dealing with vast majority of digestive disorders, among other conditions also covered by the GAPS protocol (see more on this below).
If you never heard of GAPS before or would like to find out more, I’d like to introduce you to the GAPS concept and also briefly explain how and why it works for my patients and myself.
GAPS is an abbreviation for Gut And Psychology Syndrome and Gut And Physiology Syndrome. This concept has been created by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride in 2004, when she published her first book Gut And Psychology Syndrome. Dr Natasha trained as a medical doctor in Russia and also has two postgraduate degrees from the UK: in neurology and nutrition. She is based in the UK.
Fundamentally, GAPS established a connection between the state of the gut and the health of the rest of the body. It was of course Hippocrates who first said a long time ago that “all diseases begin in the gut” and it turned out to be the case! The current extensive research into our microbiome is bringing a better understanding of the importance of gut health for all of us.
GAPS is essentially a digestive disorder as many digestive symptoms are universally present. The typical digestive symptoms GAPS people suffer include colic, feeding difficulties in childhood, bloating and flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation, food allergies/ intolerances, faecal compaction, reflux (heartburn), inflammatory bowel conditions (colitis, Crohn’s disease), and many others.
All digestive symptoms are considered to be a clear indication that the person has abnormal gut flora, which is damaging the gut wall, causing inflammation and irritation there, and interfering with proper digestion and absorption of food. NB in some cases GAPS people may not have pronounced digestive symptoms. However, if I look at their health history, I find that they had them on-and-off most of their lives.
For example, Dr Natasha had a few cases in her clinic where people with psychiatric conditions never had digestive symptoms, but when put on the GAPS diet they had great improvements in their mental functioning. This happens because our bodies have a great ability to compensate for problems, therefore a person can have quite extensive damage in the gut but has no pain, diarrhoea or any other gut-related symptoms, as the body compensates for the damage.
Only when the damage gets to a certain point, we start getting digestive symptoms. Therefore, those people may not have digestive symptoms, but have enough damage in their gut wall to allow toxins produced by the abnormal gut flora through. The toxins then get into the blood stream and into the brain of the person, causing mental or other problems.
So, in any person with abnormal gut flora the gut becomes a major source of toxicity in the body instead of being a source of nourishment. As the toxins produced by the pathogens in the gut absorb into the blood stream, they get distributed around the body causing problems as they can affect any tissues or organs, depending on a person’s health and susceptibility.
Importantly, malnutrition is also common amongst GAPS patients. Some of them look malnourished – pale, thin and anaemic. Some may look OK, but when I test them, I find severe deficiencies in many essential nutrients without which the brain and the immune system cannot function. This is not surprising, as in such people the gut is unhealthy and cannot digest and absorb food properly.
Here’s a very informative interview conducted by Dr Joseph Mercola with Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride about how to apply the GAPS diet and wholesome nutrition which underpins our health and wellbeing.
The gut / immune system connection
Recent research indicates that about 85% of the immune system is located in the gut wall. So, our digestive system is a major immune organ, and there is a constant interaction going on between the gut flora and the immune system. One of the major roles of the gut flora is keeping the immune system maintaining the right balance to keep us healthy and well.
In a healthy person with a healthy gut flora, this mass of microbes is dominated by the beneficial or probiotic species, which are involved in many functions in the body.
How is it done? There are two major arms of the immune system, called Th1 and Th2. The Th1 arm is responsible for normal reactions to anything in the environment such as dust, pollen, microbes, food, drink, animals, chemicals, etc. If this arm of the immunity is working well, then you can be in contact with anything in the environment and have no abnormal reactions.
The problem is that the Th1 arm is kept strong and up-to-its-job by your gut flora, and if your gut flora is damaged, Th1 becomes disabled. So the second arm of the immunity, the Th2, tries to compensate for its disabled ‘brother’ and becomes hyperactive.
The Th2 is responsible for atopic/ allergic type reactions in the body and it cannot deal with the environment appropriately. So, you start developing allergic reactions to pollen, dust, animals, foods, chemicals, etc. All because your gut flora got damaged and is unable to keep those two arms of the immune system in the right balance. GAPS patients generally have allergies and abnormal reactions to environmental influences.
When the gut flora is abnormal, the immune system is compromised and cannot function appropriately. For example, asthma and eczema are particularly prevalent amongst GAPS children due to their compromised immunity.
To further understand what’s happening in a damaged gut, please read my article about Secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA), a less known but a significant aspect of having good immunity and well-functioning digestive system. sIgA serves to protect the gut and lower levels can also lead to an increased risk of ‘leaky gut’ or dysbiosis/ SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth).
Thus, when the gut flora is abnormal the gut deteriorates and gets damaged. Pathogens and toxins cause damage to gut cells (called enterocytes) and open the junctions between them, called the tight junctions. What are tight junctions? Enterocytes and other epithelial cells in the body (for example, cells which form the blood-brain barrier) are tightly ‘glued’ to each other.
The foods are not supposed to absorb between them, but instead are taken inside the enterocytes, analysed, cleared as safe and then let through the other side into the blood stream. The tight junctions are formed and maintained by special proteins which are glue-like.
Unfortunately, many pathogenic microbes in the abnormal gut flora produce toxins which dissolve that glue and open the tight junctions. So, the gut becomes porous and leaky (‘leaky’ gut syndrome or intestinal permeability), allowing through substances which should not be there. Next the immune system finds these partially digested foods in the blood, doesn’t recognise them as food and attacks them.
This is how food allergies and intolerances develop. So, most often there is nothing wrong with the food, it is the damaged gut lining that is the cause of food allergies / intolerances and the gut symptoms.
It’s worth noting that food allergies and intolerances can cause any symptom in the body from headaches, abnormal behaviour to arthritis; and the reaction can show itself immediately, in a few hours or in a few days. As these reactions overlap with each other, it is impossible for the person to figure out what they are reacting to on any given day.
Systemic effects of gut toxicity
As explained above, unhealthy gut flora produces hundreds of very toxic substances, which absorb through the damaged gut wall into the blood and get distributed around the body. When they get into the brain, they impair the brain function and cause mental symptoms: from inability to learn, poor memory, mood problems, behavioural problems to anxiety, panic attacks and psychosis.
When getting into other organs/ parts of the body, these toxins cause many other problems including arthritis, skin problems, asthma, allergies, adrenal depletion and autoimmunity.
We now know that in a person with abnormal gut flora the gut becomes a major source of toxicity in the body instead of being a source of nourishment. As the toxins produced by the pathogens in the gut absorb into the blood stream, they get distributed around the body causing problems. GAPS diet is a comprehensive nutrition and lifestyle protocol and its purpose is to:
- Heal the gut and restore good digestion
- Balance/ change the gut flora to normal
- Remove toxicity from the gut and systemically
Please note that this protocol needs to be followed long enough for the person to heal. Depending on the severity of the condition, the age of the person, their state of health and other factors, the treatment can take from one and a half to several years.
On average Dr Campbell-McBride recommends sticking to the programme for two years. During that period of time many things change in the body, a lot of healing takes place, and it becomes clearer how to proceed further.
This article is part one of a series I’m planning to write to cover this effective gut repair method in more detail to discuss a number of specific conditions caused by the damaged gut. Look for more information on my Wellness Blog soon! For more information on the health benefits of the GAPS diet check out this informative article “7 Health Benefits of the GAPS diet, according to science (+8 delicious recipes)”
I was personally trained by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride and became a Certified GAPS Practitioner (global reach). If you are considering repairing and healing your gut and may have a related health condition(s), please feel free to contact me and book a time for an initial discussion to determine if this protocol is right for you.
Good health and blessings
Adrenal Fatigue and Digestive Health Expert
Naturopath || Herbalist || Nutritionist || Reiki Practitioner