Yup, GAPS can fail. And it’s probably not your fault.
Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet has a lot success stories… But what about the kids who fail on GAPS?
I have met a lot of those kids. After GAPS has just plain not worked (or worse – traumatized the family and injured the child, which can unfortunately happen) – I’m often the next stop.
These are smart people who followed the GAPS protocol carefully, and engaged lots of on line support; some worked with GAPS certified practitioners. But still: Fail. Their kids withered on bone broth; vomited or bled in stool on probiotic foods; and had bloating, rashes, and irritable stools with egg yolks, avocados, and nut butters. Their parents pressed on, for months or even longer; some moms have described to me the intense pressure they felt to stay with this protocol, and the deep sense of failure they internalized about it not working.
Okay, here’s the thing: There is no one diet for everyone. There never is. All children with autism, FPIES, or gut issues do not benefit from or need GAPS. I have met many who failed on it. GAPS works well for some. It fails for others. If it isn’t going well, odds are it’s not your fault. Your child just needs something different.
So, what can go wrong? Why not just try it?
Besides the possibility of wasting a lot of money and effort preparing scratch foods that may be wrong for your child, you’re going to waste time too – which some children simply can’t afford. The younger they are, and the more undernourished they are to start, the harder this can be on a child, if it isn’t the right measure.
And a mom’ s worry is no small thing. Chronic, strong apprehension and anxiety about anything is hard on parents. It changes your chemistry, and ups your cortisol. Sensitive children will sense your strain, and this will strain them. If you’re breastfeeding, altered cortisol levels are in your milk too. Cortisol changes blood sugar metabolism and endocrine function; it can disrupt sleep, appetite, feeding, and immune response. If implementing GAPS (or any special diet measure) is exceedingly stressful, pause; relax and enjoy your children; and secure professional guidance so you don’t have to carry the nutrition-flip project on your own shoulders.
Meanwhile, here’s what can go wrong, when GAPS is the wrong tool for the job:
Fungal Failure – Recently an old study jumped out at me. It examined how children in weaker nutrition status can’t control Candida (fungal) species very well. They have more Candida, and different, more irritating strains of Candida in their intestines, compared to children in good nutrition status. The study found that for children, simply being in better total nutrition status meant better control of Candida colonization.
What exactly does this mean?
For kids, nutrition status = growth status. It is the single most potent predictor of how well a child will manage any illness or infection.
Nutrition status in kids is not a measure of how many vegetables or probiotic foods they eat. Not whether they’re gluten free, GAPS, or Paleo. Not what supplements they’re on, not whether they drink raw camel milk. No matter what a child eats, if growth pattern has wandered below that child’s innate trend, all body systems struggle more.
Even when children eat lousy processed food, if they are in robust growth status, they still have more reserve to tackle a disruptive biome. Whether it’s a fungal load in gut, mycoplasma in lungs, MARCoNs in nasal passages, or a viral story in brain tissue, there is simply more energy and building material around to throw at it, in a kid with a strong growth pattern. This is such old news in nutrition science! Learn more about the cycle of malnutrition and infection in children here.
This does not mean that the quality of your child’s diet doesn’t matter. But it does mean that even if your child eats beautiful food, if they’re in a weak growth pattern, they are going to struggle more in every way – sleep, mood, infection fighting, learning, behavior – and, detoxifying a bum biome and healing the gut.
In the study mentioned above (from 1974, back when there were no GMOs, and less processed food available than is now fed to children worldwide), the groups compared were well fed white Australian children, poor aboriginal Australian children, and poor Indonesian children. The underfed children had weak total diets, meaning they had too little protein, too few total calories, insufficient vitamins and minerals, and sparse nourishing fats. They also had more Candida.
What does this have to do with GAPS? Read on.
A small child’s immune system will sputter when s/he’s underfed – like when eating just broth for more than a week. (Or when exclusively breastfed or formula-fed, with no solid foods, past the first year. Or when on deep dietary restrictions for healthy carbohydrates – which are fundamental to steady growth in children). There simply is not enough protein, energy (calories), and nutrients around to manage, balance, and fight. If an already weak, underweight child attempts GAPS, it may fail, because s/he was too depleted for multiple immune-essential nutrients and energy (calories) in the first place. A more recent study illustrates this well known tenet in infant and child nutrition: Just by not having enough food around, the gut barrier is disturbed, and tissue damage occurs. It doesn’t take long for this to happen in young children. Adding probiotic can hasten recovery, but only when an adequate total diet is also in place.
Hence the susceptibility to Candida – and quite likely, other bad actors in a gut biome, tissues, or organs. So although this first phase of GAPS may clear out some disruptive species from the gut, it can also drop your child’s total body immune response further, and permit other bum bugs to flourish. For kids who are underweight or have marginal iron stores to start, or who have deep total body dysbiosis, this can set up for failure. The detox is too fast, and the re-build fails, because the foundation was too weak to begin with.
Even mild nutrition deficits impact immune response in children. This is one of the reasons why GAPS fails. GAPS can be too restrictive for too long to help these kids recover. Just the introduction phase of this diet can take three weeks; this is an eternity for an already underweight toddler struggling at the bottom of the growth chart. Though broths, probiotic foods and egg yolks are fabulous, this may not be enough sustenance for a growth-impaired small child whose immune system is already straining. Yes, probiotics are critical to immune maturation – but, so is food itself, to nourish the gut tissue –> that harbors the biome –> that helps the immune system “learn”.
Carbs are especially essential for children. In infancy and toddlerhood, they are the fermentable food that normal gut flora require to thrive. Healthy gut flora make fatty acids like butyrate, which in turn fuel cells building your child’s gut tissue. I’ve met many parents who fear carbs, and over restrict them in their kids. This can fail too. Non-sugary, unprocessed carbs are a cornerstone to fuel the tutorials going on in a young child’s gut, between gut flora and the developing immune system. They also fuel growth and gain, and protect the lovely fats and proteins needed for other functions. The trick is finding which ones work best for your child’s circumstance. This is something I work with closely in my practice, for each individual child.
So even though GAPS aims to eradicate fungal load by restricting all carbs for a while and by adding extremely high potencies of probiotics with fermented foods, it can backfire. I often see disrupted stool cultures in kids coming off GAPS attempts, showing weak beneficial flora and ample dysbiotic bacteria, and even yeast in some cases.
When Leaky Gut Begets Leaky Gut – Some GAPS mainstay foods are renown suspects when it comes to intolerance or allergy. Eating broth with probiotic foods for three weeks is not long enough to clear pre-existing food antibodies, which circulate for months; in some kids, for years. If a child starts GAPS with hidden food allergy or sensitivity to egg or nuts, using these daily can exacerbate leaky gut, even when using that beautiful kraut or other probiotic food. I often find strong egg and nut reactions on IgE and/or IgG panels children who have used GAPS for several months. Even yolks can trigger immunoglobulin reactions that may not show on the “drop on wrist” test suggested in the GAPS protocol.
Better move: The “dot on wrist” test may not be enough. Do some food antibody testing before you start any special diet. Identify what foods are safest to work with before you begin. Check for both allergy (IgE) and sensitivity (IgG) to several foods, and work from there. If eggs and nuts light up your child’s panel, GAPS is not for you – or, it will be a bumpier road – consider easier paths than GAPS to gut healing in this case – there are many options.
In my practice, I find that ALCAT testing is less useful. It tends to show too many reactive foods, which makes menu planning really difficult. Even when IgG and IgE panels are alight with multiple foods, in young children, it is not practical or healthful to remove them all. I will remove the top four or five offenders, rotate others, and dial in gut restoration tools suited to that child. This can include anything from simple organic aloe to direct herbal antimicrobial measures to products like Apex RepairVite to arabinogalactan, butyrate, glutathione, or a low FODMAPS + SCD compliant meal plan for a few weeks to start.
FODMAPS Meltdown – Many kids have difficulty with foods that are high in FODMAPs. Another GAPS mainstay, avocado (which is indeed a great food) is a moderate FODMAPs food that is poorly tolerated by many in my practice, especially babies and toddlers with FPIES. I am encountering many FPIES families who turn to GAPS, with poor results (vomiting to shock, blood in stool, lagging growth). Learn why FPIES may be as much about carbohydrate fermentation in the gut than it is about food protein reactions here. Meanwhile, if your child has FPIES, I would hesitate to recommend GAPS, because FPIES reactions can be severe and dangerous. I am seeing success with FPIES in my practice with other strategies, so if you need help, contact me for an appointment.
Dairy Dilemma – Dairy yogurts are another wonderful food that are simply wrong for some of us. If these have worked for your family, that is good. In my house, I can eat dairy while my husband and son cannot. I love raw goat milk. I have occasional organic yogurt binges. I eat ice cream, goat cheddar, sheeps yogurt, and whatever I want. My family can’t. I have countless children in my practice who show clean lab findings for any sort of dairy reaction from opiate formation to IgG, IgE, and ALCAT – but who still disintegrate terribly on dairy. Usually this is a “behavioral” reaction – anxiety, impulsivity, rage reactions, stilted social processing, or poor sleep. For those moms who took my advice and tried the three month, uber strict, zero tolerance dairy free diet, and your kids got inexplicably way better, got off psych meds, and started to eat better, don’t thank me – I thank you. It’s hard to go out on a limb and try something that seems to make no sense. But, sometimes, a meticulous elimination trial is the only way to know if your child really can manage a food.
Are dairy yogurts okay for your child? If you really want to know what is going on, consider doing a Cyrex Array 4 for cross reactivity testing. Your child may react to dairy foods when eaten with other foods, and this panel will find if this is true for you child. This test plus sensitivity and allergy tests (IgG and IgE) can guide you before you begin.
Did GAPS Work For Your Kids? Great! Share your success stories here, I’d love to hear them. If it failed, don’t despair. Get individualized expertise for your child’s gut healing (and thus total body healing) journey. Your child deserves to visibly trend toward thriving. If you’re still struggling, get help, give me a call, set up an appointment. There are many ways to replenish, restore, and heal the gut; it’s okay if every kid is different. Honor your instincts as mom, because they are good as gold.