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GAPS Diet for IBS: Helpful or Harmful?

If you are seeking straight to the point facts on the GAPS diet for IBS, you’ve come to the right place. The GAPS diet is made up of various phases spread over a relatively long period of time.

Before starting the GAPS diet for IBS, discover if it’s right for your situation. Perhaps you’re simply looking to find out if the GAPS diet for IBS is helpful or harmful.

Diets in general can be confusing, frustrating, and downright discouraging; especially when you are experiencing severe symptoms from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and you just want relief.

You may or may not be familiar with this diet, so stick around to learn the most important considerations about the GAPS diet for IBS that you must keep in mind! Don’t forget to grab your free IBS symptom tracker below.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Let’s first touch on what irritable bowel syndrome is. Simply put, IBS is a disorder of the gastrointestinal tract (GI), characterized by abdominal pain, cramping and a change in bowel patterns (1). While IBS is not uncommon, it is quite uncomfortable. If you suffer from IBS this is not news to you.

You may be surprised to know that IBS is more prominent in women and individuals under the age of 50 and affects between 25 to 45 million Americans.

Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Not surprisingly, bowel-related symptoms are the most common in individuals with IBS (1). Interestingly, The UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders reports that non-bowel symptoms are reported by individuals with IBS more frequently than other GI patients and general medical patients.

Some of the most common symptoms of IBS include (1):

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bowel irregularity (constipation, diarrhea, or both)
  • Frequent bloating
  • Flatulence (gas)

Less common symptoms include (non-bowel related):

  • Headache
  • Back pain
  • Frequent urination
  • Fatigue
  • Bad breath
  • Poor appetite

How to know if you have IBS (free symptom tracker journal PDF)

It may be frustrating to hear, but there’s no one specific test that can tell you if you have IBS or not. This is one of the reasons that many times, when you finally receive a diagnosis of IBS, you’ve already been suffering for quite some time, with no answers.

Tracking your symptoms over several months could prove to be very useful for and between doctors’ office visits. Since some of the symptoms of IBS can be quite vague, your provider may have to ask you a lot of questions to get to the bottom of what is causing your pain and discomfort.

To minimize frustration and have answers to your providers questions, I suggest using a food and symptom tracker to easily track the foods you consume and any symptoms you experience afterwards, as well as any changes in bowel patterns.

Low FODMAP Diet for IBS (1, 2)

Let’s dive into one of the most common diets for relief from IBS symptoms, the low FODMAP diet.

I know it may sound intuitive, but the low FODMAP diet restricts high FODMAP foods. FODMAP foods are non-digestible, fermentable carbohydrates that can cause gas bloating, stomach paid and constipation, diarrhea, or both.

Sound familiar? These are in fact some of the most common symptoms of IBS. Studies show that following a low FODMAP diet reduces IBS symptoms by a moderate to large degree when compared to a control diet.

As a Registered Dietitian, I wouldn’t classify the low FODMAP diet as one that you would want to try just for fun. Make sure you don’t have a more serious condition that’s causing your symptoms before investing the time into following this diet. Likewise, this diet may be way more restrictive than necessary to relieve your symptoms.

Understanding the Low FODMAP Diet

To better understand the process, the low FODMAP diet starts with eliminating all FODMAP containing foods for a set time period. The next step us a very gradual, intentional reintroduction of certain FODMAP-containing foods to test for tolerance.

Here’s the interesting part. What each person eats on the Low FODMAP diet is specific to that person. The high FODMAP foods that you tend to tolerate can remain a part of your diet, along with all the low FODMAP foods that you love. 

Registered Dietitian, Cassie Madsen, shares in-depth information on the FODMAP diet in an easy to understand manner. Additionally, for a comprehensive list of High and Low FODMAP foods, I suggest downloading and printing this Low FODMAP PDF.

What is a FODMAP?

Common High FODMAP Foods

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Cauliflower
  • Peas
  • Ripe Bananas
  • Apples
  • Avocados
  • Granola
  • Wheat-Containing Foods
  • Cow, Sheep, Soy Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Ice Cream
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Honey
  • Apple Juice

Common Low FODMAP Foods

  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Corn
  • Green Beans
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Unripe Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Orange
  • Strawberries
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Oats
  • Popcorn
  • Nut milk
  • Butter
  • Chocolate
  • Cheddar Cheese
  • Orange Juice

What is the GAPS diet?

Now, let’s get to the part that you’ve been waiting for, the GAPS diet! The Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet was founded by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride nearly 20 years ago.

Dr. Campbell-McBride claims that the GAPS diet may be able to help with over 85 different diagnosis or conditions, including anything from ADHD, Autism, and eating disorders to heart attacks, psychosis, and irritable bowel.

The GAPS diet is heavily based on the concepts behind the gut brain connection, on the premise of healing and sealing the gut lining to restore balance.

The GAPS diet is much more specific and restrictive than other anti-inflammatory diets, such as the Mediterranean diet. Like the Mediterranean diet, the GAPS diet promotes good gut health through the inclusion of an abundance of anti-inflammatory and probiotic foods, while avoiding convenience foods and highly processed items.

Keep reading as we dive into the nitty gritty details a little more!

The GAPS protocol has three components:

  • Diet (GAPS Intro, GAPS Full, Reintroduction)
  • Supplementation (probiotics, omega-3, digestive enzymes)
  • Detoxification

The diet portion of the GAPS protocol includes three phases:

  • Introduction GAPS diet (Duration: several weeks up to 1 year)
  • Full GAPS diet (Duration: 1.5 – 2 years)
  • Reintroduction phase (Duration: up to several months)

What Foods Are Allowed on the GAPS diet?

Let’s lift the veil on the GAPS diet a little more here, because this is where it starts to get interesting! The GAPS diet is a very restrictive elimination diet, void of grains, most dairy, starchy vegetables, refined carbohydrates, and sugar.

Click on each category below for an outline of each phase and a full list of GAP diet approved foods.

Intro Gaps PDF

The GAPS introduction diet consists of six phases and appears to be the most stringent portion of the diet. The intro phase can last up to one year. This phase starts with eliminating all foods except homemade stock, boiled meats and non-fibrous vegetables and advances over several weeks to one year to gradually including foods such as raw fruits, cooked apples, eggs, and other GAP approved recipes.

Full Gaps PDF

The full gaps diet, also known as the maintenance phase, can last up to two years.  This phase of the diet predominantly consists of animal fats, fish, meat, vegetables, fermented / probiotic foods, and eggs.

Reintroduction

During this final phase of the diet, you can slowly start adding items back into your diet one at a time over a 2-3 day period. This may take up to 6 months.

Is the GAPS Diet good for IBS?

The GAPS diet is to improve certain neurological and mental health conditions by way of healing the gut. It is not per se a diet for irritable bowel syndrome, but rather more heavily focused on psychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Tourette’s Syndrome, and other mood related disorders.

However, it is well established in research that approximately 34% of individuals with IBS struggle with mood related disorders, such as anxiety and depression (3). We recently explored the link between stomach bloating and anxiety if you’d like to learn more about that connection.

Knowing that a healthy gut microbiome can positively affect the central nervous system and therefore improve mood-related symptoms, it makes sense to think that the GAPS diet may provide some benefit to individuals with IBS.

The GAPS diet does boast significant anti-inflammatory properties and limits many foods that are also limited on the FODMAP diet. But is it the right step for you to take on your IBS journey?

Is the GAPS diet safe?

Well, I’m glad you asked! Several things need to be considered before starting the GAPS diet so that it can be done in a safe and effective way.

Good gut health is key to vitality and it’s no secret that gut health is connected to so many important functions throughout the body. However, professionally speaking, strict elimination diets for long periods of time are not generally recommended. We will dive into that a little later in this post.  

So, the answer is yes and no. The GAPS diet can be done safely, but it could also possibly cause harm. This is especially true if you are not working with a qualified professional, such as a registered dietitian or medical provider, that specializes in this area.

When I say qualified medical professional, I don’t mean someone that advocates for or teaches the diet based just off their personal experiences. A qualified medical professional is someone that has received professional training, understands science and physiology, and is under ethical obligation to provide sound medical or nutrition advice and do no harm.

Things to Consider Before Starting the GAPS Diet for IBS

For starters, let’s clear the air. This summary of the GAPS diet for IBS is neither condemning nor condoning this diet. It will simply describe the main components of the diet and help you make an informed decision on whether you should attempt to follow this diet or not

The GAPS Diet is not scientifically proven

The GAPS diet for IBS is not evidence-based practice. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do what it claims to do, it just means that there’s not enough scientific evidence or available research to prove that it works and is effective.

Most of the information available on this diet is directly on the website of the founder, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. If fact, the GAPS Science Foundation recently published two studies of their own.

The first study was published in 2021, GAPS Nutritional Protocol: How Healing the Gut Removes the Basis for All Chronic Diseases. The second was published in 2022, Why the GAPS Protocol is a Promising Treatment for Tic and Tic-Related Disorders.

There are currently no independent or peer-reviewed studies available for the GAPS protocol.

The GAPS diet is a strict elimination diet

Both the GAPS and IBS diets are strict elimination diets, where large or whole food group are cut from your diet. If you or a family member are going to attempt to follow one of these diets, it should be done under the supervision of a qualified medical provider, such as a registered dietitian.

The GAPS diet may cause nutrient deficiencies

The elimination of all grains, dairy, and starchy vegetables could create nutrient deficiencies in individuals, especially if continued for a long period of time. This could be especially concerning for growing children who naturally require a lot of nutrients for their growing bodies. Yet another reason to work with a qualified medical professional.

The GAPS diet is labor intensive and therefore may be unrealistic

Following the GAPS diet requires that all or most meals are cooked at home. Most of the items, such as stocks and fermented foods, take longer to prepare. This could be particularly challenging for individuals that work outside of the home.

For best success, the entire family will need to follow this diet. This could prove to be tricky for picky eaters, so prepare to fight the good fight parents.

Conclusion

Wow. That was a lot to digest (no pun intended)! Whether you decide to follow the GAPS diet for IBS or not is a very personal decision on your part. We’ve uncovered that it can likely be done safely, under supervision, otherwise it may cause harm, especially to growing children.

If you’ve reached the end of your rope with trying all other modalities, then it may be worth giving a shot. It will take a lot of time, dedication, and attention to detail and there will likely be no major quick wins. Be prepared to go the long haul with the GAPS diet, devoting at least 2 years to the journey.

If you try it and have success, I’d love to know! Either way, I hope you’ve found this information helpful in making an informed decision about trying the GAPS diet for IBS.

The purpose of this information is to inform and empower the reader to make positive lifestyle changes. The intent is not to replace medical advice or instructions given by your doctor or healthcare provider.

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