Is the GAPS Diet an Effective Natural Treatment for Brain Disorders

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Many, many years ago, Hippocrates – the father of modern medicine – said “All disease begins in the gut.” Your digestive health can affect many body systems, including brain function. There are about 100 million nerve cells within the lining of the stomach and the intestinal tract. This is called the enteric nervous system.

Believe it or not, a very well-known brain neurotransmitter, serotonin, is actually found in significant quantities within this system, as it not only works in the brain, but also regulates intestinal movements.

Serotonin is best known for its role in depression. The brain manufactures the neurotransmitter to help relay signals from one area to another. An imbalance in this chemical is believed to negatively influence mood, leading to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, panic, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

US Scientists at UCLA are also studying the gut as a “second brain.” "A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut," says Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral science. Mayer’s team of researchers is looking at how the trillions of bacteria within the gut affect communication within the enteric nervous system.

Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride is another researcher with an interest in gut microbiota and its effect on human emotion. Holding degrees in Medicine, Neurology and Human Nutrition, she has developed a diet to cure GAPS, or Gut and Psychology Syndrome.

After working with both children and adults with neurological and psychiatric conditions, including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression, Campbell-McBride found that a ‘typical’ portrait emerged. Often, her patients suffered with digestive disorders, malnourishment, allergies, asthma, eczema, chronic cystitis, and fussy eating habits.

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Because these patients have abnormal gut flora, they have deficiencies in important minerals, vitamins, essential fats, many amino-acids, and other nutrients, including important nutrients for normal development and function of the brain. Their poorly functioning digestive system means toxic substances have accumulated in their bodies, which in turn causes mental disorders as well as behavioral abnormalities and other problems.

The GAPS Nutritional Program begins with an Introduction diet that aims to heal the digestive tract. Initially, the Introduction diet consists of meat and fish (and stocks and soups made with these), eggs, and fermented dairy and vegetables (such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut). Honey and homemade ghee are also allowed. Baking and fruits are eliminated for a few weeks and later reintroduced. Patients are also given probiotics.

During the Introduction diet, foods that are eliminated are slowly reintroduced. If an allergy is suspected, they are instructed on how to do a Sensitivity Test (taking a drop of food and adding it to water, then testing for a reaction.)

The full GAPS diet is not something you go on for a few weeks and then give up. Dr. Campbell-McBride says the diet should be followed at least two years. Foods allowed on the Introduction diet continue plus new foods (mostly whole foods) are added. Foods to avoid include processed foods and soft drinks. The full list of allowed and not-allowed foods can be found on www.gapsdiet.com.

Keep in mind that the diet is difficult, and has not been evaluated for effectiveness by the FDA. Nor are there long-term studies that prove that such a diet will cure us of our common brain health concerns. As with any other diet and supplement use, one should always discuss with their healthcare providers before undertaking.

That being said, there is significant research that link probiotic use with health benefits, including easing depression and anxiety, controlling blood glucose, potentially helping reduce obesity, and even might be good for children and adults with autism. In addition, it is wise for many health conditions to limit reliance on convenience/packed/processed foods and eat more whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.

Journal Reference:
Umu OCO, Oostindjer M, Pope PB, et al. Potential applications of gut microbiota to control human physiology. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. 2013.

Additional Resources:
UCLA Newsroom: Changing gut bacteria through diet affects brain function, May 2013
Scientific American: How the Gut’s Second Brain Influences Mood and Well-Being
The GAPS Diet: Natural Digestive Healing

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