What is the GAPS Diet?
The Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet centers around the idea that problems in the gut may cause a multitude of problems elsewhere, including in the brain. New research appears to support that idea.
Tue, Jan 31 2012 at 3:22 PM
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The GAPS diet suggests that eating certain foods, like fish, carrots and mushrooms, can help in the treatment of mental disorders. (Photo: Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock)
What if an effective treatment for neurological and psychiatric conditions as widespread as autism, ADHD/ADD, schizophrenia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, depression, OCD, and bi-polar disorder was as simple as breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
History has doled out any number of infernal treatments for these disorders. In Neolithic times holes were drilled in the skull to release evil spirits—a rather gentle procedure compared to the actual snipping of frontal lobe connections performed in the lobotomies of the 20th century. Generations of female “hysteria” (thought to be caused by the so-called “wandering uterus”) were handled with a range of treatments too bizarre and X-rated to be described here. Add in mechanical restraints, electroshock therapy, imprisonment, debilitating pseudo-scientific medications, and an array of other arcane approaches and it makes one wonder, what is the answer?
Proponents of the GAPS Diet think the solution might simply be a matter of watching what we eat.
The GAPS Diet is based on a book written by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, "Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia." Campbell-McBride practiced as a neurologist and neurosurgeon for eight years before starting a family. When her son was diagnosed with autism she began an intensive study into causes and treatments, during which time she developed her theories on the relationship between neurological disorders and nutrition.
Beyond basic digestive health
Built on many of the tenets of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, a nutritional regimen created in the 1920s, Campbell-McBride takes her approach beyond basic digestive health to claim that the connection between neurological disorders and the condition of the gut is absolute.
The gut is the single digestive organ that includes the esophagus, stomach and intestines—and plays host to more than four pounds of flora (intestinal bacteria). It’s a dog-eat-dog world in there where good bacteria battle the evil forces of opportunistic microbes; and where certain species of bacteria need to predominate in order to keep us healthy. According to Campbell-McBride, many nutrients are severely compromised by the ascendancy of bad flora, including some of the most important nutrients for normal development and function of the brain. Those who suffer from neurological disorders consistently show signs of digestive distress, much of which is based on the improper balance of intestinal bacteria.
Untangling the hodgepodge of gut-this and flora-that, followers of Campbell-McBride’s book devised the GAPS Diet, which is based on eating foods that abet good flora and avoiding those that don’t (including all sugars and starches, bummer). It’s a fairly complicated list, and not one that is intuitive to the novice. Important components include eggs, fresh meats, fish, fresh vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds; but steer clear of, for example, buckwheat, cottage cheese, molasses, and dozens of other seemingly innocent players.
Too good to be true?
There are testimonials across the web attesting to the miracle cure that a GAPS Diet can deliver—yet when you type “Natasha Campbell-McBride” into Google, “natasha campbell-mcbride quack” is one of the top suggested terms that pops up. Is this all too good to be true? Where’s the science? Are so many people in desperate need of a panacea that an easy fix such as “eat this, not that” gains blind acolytes without scientific back up? (MNN tried to reach Dr. Campbell-McBride via email and via Facebook but received no response.)
As it turns out, new research indicates that just as mental ailments like anxiety can upset the stomach, the reverse may be true as well: that problems in the gut may indeed cause problems in the brain.
In a study published in 2011 in the Public Library of Science journal, PLoS One, Stanford University Medical Center researchers investigated if psychological abnormalities can result from gastrointestinal problems, rather than causing them. They concluded that, "transient gastric irritation in the neonatal period can induce a long lasting increase in depression- and anxiety-like behaviors."
Autism and Sutterella
More recently, a study conducted in the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found that children with autism and gastrointestinal disturbances have high levels of a bacterium called Sutterella in their intestines. The investigators found that more than half the children diagnosed with autism and gastrointestinal disturbances had Sutterella in intestinal biopsy tissue, while Sutterella was absent in biopsies from typically developing children with gastrointestinal disturbances.
"These findings shine a light on a bacterium about which we know very little, in a disorder for which we have few answers," says Brent L. Williams, the lead author of the Columbia study. "There is much work to be done toward understanding the role Sutterella plays in autism, the microbiota, infections, and inflammation."
Is scientific research catching up to Campbell-McBride’s theory?
Only time will tell, but it sure would be fabulous to see an epidemic of disabling disorders cured merely by the choice of what to eat. Take that, shackles and lobotomies.