I probably first heard about the GAPS diet about a year ago or so. My friend Carrie had started on it, and I started hearing about it here and there on some blogs. I was really skeptical at first; prescription diets really put me off. By “prescription diet” I mean a diet that more or less specifically tells you what to eat. A year ago, I was all about eating “real foods.” If it was a real food, then it was game for eating. Just listen to your body to gauge how much of what you should eat. Simple. Kind. Sensible.
In fact, this is what made me resist the paleo diet. Don’t eat grains. Don’t eat beans. Don’t eat legumes. I just thought, well, why not?? Those are foods! Oh, and be careful with dairy, fruit, and nuts! Yes, there are problems with these foods…then I learned about Nourishing Traditions, which helped explain away some of these problems (grains need to be soaked and fermented, beans and nuts needed special soaking, too, dairy should be raw/cultured, etc.).
Then I began to think about generational problems. Degeneration to be exact. Parents eating modern foods passing on weakened genes and guts to their children. People getting weaker and weaker with each generation, and less able to digest food properly. This was the only thing I could think of to explain why young children are popping up everywhere with gluten intolerance and other food sensitivities, including children who have been breastfed and never been exposed to poor eating habits. There was definitely a degeneration happening, but I didn’t know the science behind it.
Earlier this month, I finally read Gut and Psychology Syndrome, and it explains so much. I felt like the mysteries of modern diseases were unfolding right before my eyes. To explain in a nutshell: Our health starts in our gut. This I had already figured out during the summer, although I don’t know why it isn’t common sense–if we can’t digest food properly, then our bodies cannot assimilate the nutrients it needs to grow, repair itself, and otherwise thrive. Without adequate nourishment, good health is impossible! But some of us have poor gut health. Why?? It has so much to do with our gut flora.
We get our gut flora from our mothers. Surely fathers play a role, too, but this part is unclear. Babies are born with a sterile gut. When they go through the birth canal, they get their first dose of body flora. They get whatever is in the birth canal–good bacteria, bad bacteria, good yeast, bad yeast. If the mother’s vagina is well-populated with beneficial microbes, the baby is getting off to a good start. Then comes breastfeeding as the next dose of flora. Whatever flora is in the mother’s milk is what will be established in the baby’s gut. Once it is established, it’s fairly well set for life–for good or bad. The exception being that even healthy gut flora can be severely damaged by antibiotics, environmental toxins, other pharmaceuticals, etc. This is almost purely a modern problem, especially when you consider that more than 1 out 3 American babies are delivered via cesarean section, and many babies never get breastfed.
Poor gut flora is a set up for a host of problems. Unfortunately, I do not have the book in front of me (I had to return it to the library but will be ordering my own copy), so it will be too hard for me to explain in more than general terms, but basically this is a pathogenic versus physiological gut flora issue. It is believed that through evolution, humans adapted to eating certain kinds of foods by acquiring beneficial microbes in their gut to help break down and digest the food. This physiological flora also protects the body from pathogens. They keep things working well in the gut. The gut depends on beneficial bacteria and yeasts to maintain normal functioning. When physiological microbe numbers are low, opportunistic pathogenic microbes begin to take over. These include the yeast Candida albicans, which afflicts many Western people. Pathogenic microbes are not necessarily really scary ones like the E. coli that causes kidney failure, or salmonella, or MRSA. Many pathogenic microbes can work subtly to wreck havoc in the gut. They cause a decrease in enzyme production, so foods like starches cannot be digested properly, and then they feed on the undigested food. They can cause leaky gut syndrome. They create byproducts that are toxic that then leak into the bloodstream causing all sorts of issues, including psychological ones such as depression and autism. Yes, autism!
Does that sound like a stretch to you? If it does, then you might not understand how toxins can affect the brain. But why such a wide sample of health conditions stemming from the same cause–gut flora imbalance? The answer is that we each have not only different genetics, but we also have a unique mixture of gut flora. Different pathogenic microbes cause different problems, so it will depend on what is swimming around in your gut. It will also depend on what you are actually eating, how your own unique body responds to the toxic byproducts of pathogenic flora, and other toxins your body is exposed to. Why doesn’t everyone with poor gut health on a poor diet develop serious symptoms then? Again, this would boil down to individuality, including one’s own ability to detox. Some individuals have bodies that are very poor at detoxing. Add this to the toxic soup growing in their gut, being leaked through the gut wall into their bloodstream, and you’ve got a recipe for autism, schizophrenia, depression, ADD/ADHD, multiple sclerois, epilepsy, allergies, eczema, dysphoria/dyspraxia, or other illnesses. Especially if you add in environmental toxins and pharmaceuticals. Some believe that vaccines are to blame for these conditions…and it’s understandable–there is a connection; however, vaccines are more likely to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, rather than the main cause. I learned a couple years ago that there was a gut health connection between vaccines and suspected vaccine-related illnesses such as autism, but I didn’t understand it. Now I do. It all has to do with toxicity. When the toxic load outweighs a person’s ability to detox and repair, illness begins.
Reading Gut and Psychology Syndrome really pieced together a lot for me (not saying it explains everything, though). It explains why gluten intolerance is popping up everywhere, and other food sensitivities and allergies. It explains why so many people do well on the paleo diet (it removes a lot of the foods that feed bad microbes). It explains why traditional food preparation is so important (culturing/fermenting make food more digestible and provide probiotics). It partially explains why what our parents and grandparents ate is so important to our own constitution. I had come to understand so much about health, but I was missing this little (VERY IMPORTANT) bit that tied everything together: gut flora, and how we develop it. That bit about how we develop our own gut flora is crucial and I’ve never seen it talked about anywhere else. Without knowledge of the fact that parents can pass their poor gut flora on to their children, this cycle will continue and deepen over time as we continue eating modern foods and fail to correct our gut flora before having children. People are going to get sicker and sicker and in greater numbers. Even those who eat “healthy foods.”
I don’t believe in prescription diets for everybody. But when I realized what GAPS is really about, I remembered that prescriptive diets can be beneficial to those who need them. It’s not a fad diet. It’s not for weight-loss, muscle gain, or anything like that. It was developed specifically to correct a problem, and after the problem is corrected, the person is expected to go on a more normal, traditional foods diet, as much as their own body will accept it. This, I feel, is the right path for me and my son, as I will explain in future posts.