Can the GAPS Diet Really Cure Anxiety, Depression, and Other Illnesses?

You’ve heard the phrase “gut instinct.” In fact, you’ve probably experienced it yourself. It’s true that there’s a direct link between the gut and brain, in ways that researchers are only beginning to understand.

Enter the GAPS diet. It’s generating a lot of media buzz by claiming to leverage the gut-brain connection to effectively treat brain- and body- related problems, including anxiety, depression, autism, and ADHD, as well as inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune illnesses. Here, everything you need to know about the GAPS diet.

What is the GAPS diet supposed to do?

GAPS, which stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome, was developed by Natasha Campbell-McBride, a medical doctor trained in Russia who practiced as a neurologist and neurosurgeon. She’s now a practicing nutritionist in the U.K.

The six-phase diet eliminates grains, starchy vegetables, sugar, and refined carbohydrates and is supposed to ease digestion and cure leaky gut syndrome. In a nutshell, leaky gut, also called intestinal permeability, means that the usually tight junctions within the wall of the digestive tract loosen. This allows particles, including bacteria and chemicals, to pass from the GI tract into the bloodstream.

Some health professionals believe this exposure triggers inflammation and stresses the immune system, leading to autoimmune diseases, brain dysfunction, and other health problems. Campbell-McBride believes leaky gut syndrome is the origin of many physical and mental health disorders.

Campbell-McBride claims that the GAPS diet, which is supposed to “heal” the gut, can also help prevent or cure learning disabilities, OCD, eating disorders, and psychiatric conditions—including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

How to follow the GAPS diet

The first and most restrictive phase of the diet limits you to consuming only homemade meat or fish stock. Gradually you’re able to add in probiotic foods, such as homemade sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, and homemade yogurt or kefir (assuming you can tolerate dairy). Ginger, mint, or chamomile tea with a little honey is also encouraged between meals.

The following five phases continue to allow you to add more foods to your meal plan, with a focus on non-starchy vegetables, eggs (raw or slightly cooked), meat, fish, and healthy fats, including nuts, avocado, and cold-pressed olive oil.

Dieters are advised to follow the full GAPS diet for at least two years, which means complete avoidance of refined sugar and starches, including all grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and anything made from these foods. Moderate amounts of whole fruits are allowed, as is honey and dates made into paste.

Overall, the diet consists of nuts, non-starchy veggies; wild (not farm-raised) seafood; organic grass-fed meat; raw, aged, and grass-fed dairy (unpasteurized); organic free range eggs; a few types of beans; and specific oils. Fruit in moderation is also permissible, as are herbs, spices, sea salt, apple cider vinegar, herbal tea, and wine on occasion.

Nutritional supplements are also recommended, and some of the rules focus on how and when to eat permissible foods, such as avoiding meat and fruit together and consuming fermented foods with every meal. (Read all the rules all here.)

Should you try the GAPS diet?

The biggest question regarding the GAPS diet is: Does it work? Although Campbell-McBride claims to have clinical experience with thousands of GAPS children and adults around the world, there is no research on the GAPS diet and its outcomes, including reversing intestinal permeability or any of the illnesses the eating plan claims to treat.

Some people are willing to try a diet based on anecdotal reports rather than peer-reviewed research, in the hopes that it may help ease or cure a specific condition, especially if nothing else is working. However, there are a few important things to keep in mind if you decide to give it a go.

In addition to being strict, which may unnecessarily limit certain nutrients, GAPS requires obligations that may not be practical for many people. For example, rather than buying ready-to-eat bone broth and yogurt, you have to make it yourself. The diet also makes dining out difficult because you can’t have farm-raised fish or meat that isn’t organic or grass-fed, and you can only consume certain kinds of cooking oils.

While the list of allowed foods isn’t entirely skimpy, the ingredient sourcing and execution of the diet are far from simple. It’s also not vegetarian or vegan-friendly, for those who are committed to a plant-based diet.

Can the GAPS diet help you lose weight?

The GAPS plan is not a weight-loss diet, and it’s most definitely not a quick fix approach. It’s meant to be followed carefully and long-term. While encouraged by some practitioners, it requires a huge commitment and cannot offer any data or statistics related to its promises.

If you’re still thinking of trying GAPS, talk to your physician first, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with any of the conditions the diet can supposedly cure. If your MD supports your decision to move forward, work with a registered dietitian, who can guide you in properly following the plan, assess your intake to be sure you’re meeting your nutrient needs, and monitor your progress.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.

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