Why a Gut Healing Diet may NOT be the Place to Start

When I first started my baby steps into the world of real food nobody talked about Paleo or GAPS or Keto.

It was simple. Eat real food.

Start with one baby step at a time and work your way up to a processed-free life. Totally doable. That’s what Kitchen Stewardship® is all about, right?

These days the world of real food and natural health is almost too overwhelming and too confusing to navigate. You can find a podcast, blog post, eCourse or webinar on every health topic…and another one to contradict it.

Gut Health is King…or is it?

But one theme stands out among them – gut health. Poor gut health is at the root of many illnesses, including autoimmune diseases. So naturally it makes sense to fix them by healing the gut. Sounds logical. And there is a lot of evidence to support just how critical gut health is.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming emphasis on gut health has contributed to a lot of the other problems that are so prevalent today – adrenal fatigue, metabolic syndrome, infertility, weight gain and many others.

About seven years ago I too got caught up in the “gut health is king” mentality. I went from my happy WAPF lifestyle of sourdough bread and homemade ice cream to strict GAPS (you can read about how I got started here). No grains. No dairy. No nothing it seems. But I was struggling with some health issues and a serious gut healing protocol sounded like the perfect fit.

Instead of the immense healing I was hoping for, a year later I was so rundown I couldn’t keep up with life. Just carrying my son up the stairs felt like climbing a mountain. Every time I sat down to nurse him I fell asleep. I had more food sensitivities than ever before. My hormones were so low and out of balance. I had the estrogen levels of a 12-year old girl. My hair was thin. My acne was getting worse. The list could go on and on.

Related: What is the Perfect Diet for YOU? Listen to Your Body!

Gut health is not the first step to healing

What happened?

My “gut healing” diet did what just about every diet does – it put too much stress on my body. Physically I was not eating balanced meals  – could I get some meat with a side of bacon and eggs? (I was eating way too low carb for my body without even knowing what low carb was! I was just following the diet.) Mentally I was so worried about what I could and couldn’t eat that just the act of eating gave me anxiety. Emotionally I was a mess because I couldn’t eat like anybody else, and I felt like a failure. Surely, I must be doing something wrong if I wasn’t feeling better…even though I was following the diet perfectly.

Sadly, this is what far too many people do lately. We’re looking for the perfect diet to fix our problems.

We want that magic pill. That magic pill doesn’t exist!

The problem is it’s often not the diet in the first place. Sticking to a prescribed diet isn’t that hard.

What is the culprit?

It’s lifestyle.

We live in a world with so much stress. Everyone wants to have it all. We don’t get enough sleep because there is too much to do in a day. Our kids have to be involved in every possible activity (which means they don’t get enough rest either). We want to pursue our own passions and have a career. We barely even leave time to actually cook real food!

A gut healing diet in that kind of world is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. It’s not going to help. It actually makes things worse.

What SHOULD you do?

Gut health is not the first step to healing

Forget the strict diet. Start by working on the HPA-axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) and your metabolic health. These are the basic systems that control how your body works. Here are some simple ways to do just that.

  1. Don’t restrict your food.
    Just eat real food. Any and all real food. Flood your body with nourishment. No calorie or food group restriction. Be sure to enjoy it instead of feeling guilty about it (that guilt is another form of stress – stress related to food choices negates the food choice itself).
  2. Get enough sleep.
    This is not second on the list. It is just as important as nourishing, real food. I tried to ignore this one for the last fifteen years. I thought for sure I could fix everything with just food. Nope. It doesn’t work. Your body needs sleep to heal. 7 – 9 hours a night for most people. The more run down you are the more sleep you need. During the day your body has to work hard to keep up with life. When you sleep is when the restoration happens.
  3. Reduce stress.
    This is another tough one. There are so many good things you can do with your time. But just because it’s good doesn’t mean it’s good for you in this season. When you are in need of healing, that trumps just about everything else.

Most people want to go from feeling rotten right into a strict gut healing protocol. But if you are run down you simply can’t do it. Your adrenals will not be able to keep up without proper rest and sufficient calories. And you’ll just feel like you don’t have enough determination or will power (a recipe for disaster). But that’s not what is going on.

Learn how to make stress into your friend instead of your enemy to promote healing!

It’s not about will power. If your adrenals are run down the last thing you need is a low carb diet. Your adrenals need those carbs! You can get them from vegetables or grains or whatever works for your body. Lots of real salt is critical too. Yes, there is as reason you crave salty carbs!! Listen to your body.

Don’t force yourself to drink gallons of water either. That will contribute to adrenal fatigue as well.

Once you have given your body time to rest and recover you will be amazed at how much better you feel – even without a special diet! Your thyroid and adrenals control so many basic functions so when you allow them to heal your symptoms will begin to resolve.

Gut health is not the first step to healing

Ready for some simple steps to healing?

Don’t make it complicated. Good health for most people boils down to some basic principles.

  1. Balanced nutrition
    Eat every few hours to keep blood sugar stable, consuming protein, carbohydrates and fat together. Make nourishment your goal. Eliminate processed foods and high sugar foods. But don’t overthink it to the point it causes stress. When healing, getting adequate calories is very important. So eat good food, but don’t restrict calories.
  2. Quality sleep
    Get uninterrupted sleep every night, going to bed by 10 pm and sleeping until you feel rested (I know this is not always possible with young children – do your best to sleep at night and take naps or even just lay down for a few minutes during the day).
  3. Move your body gently
    Running marathons or doing CrossFit seven days a week have no place in a healing lifestyle. Focus on gentle movement – walking, yoga, T-Tapp, weight lifting. Simply incorporating movement in your day (gardening, doing laundry, cleaning, playing with your kids, etc.) is enough for many that need a lot of healing. If you are run down exercise is one more form of stress (and will make you gain weight!). Find something that feels good and leaves you feeling energized instead of tired.
  4. Monitor your body temperature
    If you are like me, you like to have evidence of the progress you are making. Check your basal body temperature (BBT) every morning. It will give you a general idea of how your metabolism, adrenals and thyroid are performing. BBT should be at least 97.4 degrees F upon waking. For women of reproductive age 97.4 – 98.2 is a good range during the follicular phase. 98.2 and above is good for the luteal phase. A low body temperature is indicative of thyroid problems. A body temperature that jumps up and down (instead of staying steady) is indicative of an adrenal problem. Low temperatures that jump up and down are indicative of both thyroid and adrenal problems. You will feel the difference in your health when you get your BBT up where it needs to be and stable.
  5. Take time for yourself
    Whether it’s five minutes to pray, a thirty minutes yoga video or allowing yourself to sit and read, making time to do something you love is so important.
Gut health is not the first step to healing

We’re all different.

The other problem with generic diets is that they don’t take into account how your body works and what it needs. Avocado might be on the “approved foods” list…but that doesn’t mean you tolerate it. Even if your best friend does.

So another step towards healing is to do hair tissue mineral analysis (HTMA). This will give you a detailed report of what vitamins and minerals are out of balance and where you are lacking. Then you can add supplementation to your diet to make sure you get what you need. No more guessing. (I worked with Lydia for this.)

Are gut healing diets bad?

Absolutely not! They are very important. But save the gut healing until you have allowed your body to fully rest and recover from stress. Then you will naturally gravitate towards a more Paleo or Ketogenic diet – without even having to try!

Healing is portrayed as such a complicated process these days. If we all just slow down a little, nourish our bodies and get some rest we’ll feel a lot better without the need for extremes.

Gut health is not the first step to healing

Your cortisol will balance. The weight in your belly will disappear. Your hormones will balance. Moods will stabilize. It’s really a beautiful thing.

Don’t forget that healing diets are meant to be temporary. Not a lifestyle. A lifestyle is something you can maintain for life without a lot of effort. If you are constantly bemoaning what you can and can’t eat you probably aren’t ready for the lifestyle you are attempting to create.

Don’t go to an extreme that makes you feel like you can’t partake in life. Healing is a temporary phase leading you to a manageable lifestyle.

My path

Why a gut healing diet may not be the place to start

It’s been about six years now since I jumped off the gut healing diet bandwagon (read about my mental shift after GAPS here).

And at 37 years old I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life!

I went from years of fertility treatments to conceiving naturally (you can read my story of healing here). I got my body temperature from below 95 degrees F to totally normal. Now in the luteal phase my BBT is usually 99 degrees F or higher!

  • My weight went from under 100 lbs. to a healthy weight.
  • I have more energy than ever.
  • My moods are stable.
  • My hormone levels are getting back in balance.
  • I have been able to expand my diet considerably. Foods that once caused me pain I can now eat without any problems.

It didn’t require any extreme diet or gut healing protocol. Just getting back to the basics of eating well, resting and moving gently. And doing a few HTMAs to figure out where things were out of balance so I could supplement accurately.

Now that my thyroid and adrenals are working I don’t need to rely on piles of bread or rice to keep me going.

I naturally eat a lower carbohydrate diet because that’s what my body wants. I actually eat loads of vegetables accompanied by healthy fats and proteins. I don’t have to force anything and put extra stress on my body. I just listen to my body. That’s what I now crave. It gives me so much joy to nourish myself.

It is true that gut health is a critical part of your overall health. But a gut healing diet is not the first step to leading a healthy life. Do you agree? Have you attempted a gut healing diet?

Note: There are more extreme illnesses like autism that may require a more serious healing protocol. Especially for kids. But most adults do not have extremes. They have symptoms of an undernourished and over-stressed body. Don’t confuse the two, because they require a very different treatment.

More on the Subject of Women’s Health and Getting Balanced

20 thoughts on “Why a Gut Healing Diet may NOT be the Place to Start”

  1. I love this article, but have a question – what’s “WAPF lifestyle”? Guess I’m not as up on all this as I’d like to be, cause I don’t know that acronym :p.

    1. Laura Snell @ Kitchen Stewardship

      WAPF stands for Weston A. Price Foundation 🙂
      https://www.westonaprice.org/

  2. I like eating like the seasons: fresh fruit and vegetables in summer as they come ripe, meat but not at same time as lots of starch. Then in fall, more root vegetables and broths, hearty breads. And by spring, intermittent fasting and lightening up, dandelions and greens. Only time we back off starches is during a parasite cleanse, or off of fruits to reduce yeast.

  3. This is a wonderful article! I too tried the GAPS diet several years ago and felt much worse. For a while I kept on with it since everyone talks about feeling worse before you feel better as a normal part of gut healing (which really makes no sense), but after I woke up one morning so weak that I wasn’t sure I could walk downstairs, I stopped GAPS. I felt like a failure, but I had an instinct that this was what my body needed. I started just eating real food (even some sugar and white flour occasionally) and I started to feel much better.

    Right now I have a young baby who is not sleeping great, so rest is what I need to focus on. I just love your message of lovingly taking care of your body. It’s so simple, yet powerful!

    1. My heart goes out to you, Lindsey! I’ve been there. That weakness is horrible. You just can’t keep up with life. Yes, just eat. Especially with a baby! Eat, eat, eat and rest. You can focus on your looks/getting in shape when your little one is older. For now rest and healing is much more important.

  4. My family and I were on the GAPS diet for a year. I started with GAPS intro and then transitioned to full GAPS and stayed pretty true to the dietary requirements for the entire year. The only exceptions were that we didn’t consume as many fermented vegetables or as much broth as we should have, although we were consuming both.

    We started GAPS because my daughter has struggled with reading for many years and I hoped that GAPS would help if there was a gut component in her struggles (I no longer think there was in her case).

    When we started, we were all in good health. I had about 65 pounds I hoped to lose and the only digestive symptoms I had were very occasional gas. Otherwise, my digestion had never been an issue for me. I had no other health challenges. I had been following WAPF principles for several years. The GAPS diet didn’t stress me out. In fact, I found it somewhat freeing, especially during intro, because our meals had to be so simple that cooking was quick and easy.

    Unfortunately, while I know of many other people that have done well on GAPS, I didn’t. A few months into the diet I developed severe digestive problems that went on for months and some really frightening heart symptoms. I hadn’t had any heart issues at all before starting the diet. I also suspect that my thyroid was weakened.

    The only positive thing that changed was that I lost 30 pounds. I’m glad I lost that weight, but it was frustrating at the same time. An average of 2.5 pounds a month seems absurdly slow when I had eliminated carbs and sugar from my diet.

    A year after starting, I decided to start incorporating carbs in my diet again. I’ve been back on carbs for about 5 months and things are slowly getting better. My digestion is a LOT better, although not quite normal yet. My heart symptoms are occurring less frequently and with less severity, but I still have a ways to go. My kids did not have any positive or negative changes as a result of the diet.

    I was born and raised vegetarian and didn’t start eating meat until my late 20’s (I’m almost 40 now). I have speculated that, because I didn’t consume any meat until much later in my life, perhaps my body is geared towards extracting nutrients out of carbs better than meat and as a result of eliminating carbs, I wasn’t getting those nutrients. Perhaps that’s why I did so poorly on the diet.

    1. Your story sounds similar to many, Alicia. People try an extreme diet when there was no medical necessity for it in the first place…and it creates an imbalance.

      Every body is different. I am a slow oxidizer and do MUCH better with adequate carbs in my diet. My adrenals need those carbs. As I heal I don’t need as many as I used to. But I don’t think I can ever eat low carb.

      HTMA (hair tissue mineral analysis) is a great way to start – you’ll learn if you are a slow or fast oxidizer and what type of diet will work best for you.

      1. I had a similar experience, kids did very well on GAPS first time around but I did better on AIP and never thought I’d give up polysaccharides again but this time on GAPS I’m eating way more veggies including lots of root veggies like rutabaga, beets, carrots, turnips and I’m handling it much better. I thought it was because I’m increasing veggie intake to replace starchy carbs instead of increasing meat but maybe because my body is now craving high fat/low carb like you said. I love WAPF best was just looking for a safe family cleanse to do for 40 days and my BBT increased on GAPS! (didn’t give up milk this time though just potatoes & sugar) Also important to remember that GAPS is not a low carb diet it’s more like the specific carbohydrate diet and can eat as many monosaccharides as crave I.e. fruit, dates, honey and veggies. I wonder if people do it wrong?

  5. Your story matches my story in so many ways. GAPS was a trainwreck for both me and my family, including my son with autism. He still remembers it as 11 months of torture and that was six years ago. I suffered memory loss, hair loss, weight gain, and utter hopelessness. Thankfully I found Paul Jaminet and he told me to slowly add white rice and potatoes. Gradually we got back to a mostly WAPF lifestyle without being legalistic.

    And T-Tapp has completely changed my life! I cannot recommend T-Tapp highly enough. I love my body at age 44 with five children. I look and feel fantastic. It’s worth every penny to get started on T-Tapp fitness.

      1. I think you’ll get a lot out of Trisch Richardson’s blog, Be Youthful and Fit.. She’s a master T-Tapp trainer and has recovered from adrenal fatigue so she knows how to exercise without taxing the adrenal gland.

  6. This is the route I have taken too, to healing my adrenals and thyroid… I am still not 100% but a different person to a year ago. Funnily enough I just bought the GAPs book to step up the gut healing but…. having just read this, I am thinking I may not take that next step yet :).

    I have also been T Tapping consistently along the way. It is the only thing EVER that has enabled me to lose inches – even before I started healing adrenal and thyroid issues. Believe me I had tried everything…

    For anyone who is thinking of trying it, check out “Healthy Hormones, Menopause Management”. This is the workout specifically designed for ppl with thyroid (and adrenal issues). The work out is 27 minutes but Trisch Richardson, master T Tapp trainer recommends just doing 3 moves a day if you are too tired – and listening to your body to tell you when to stop. I also alternate that workout with Step Away The Inches (23 minutes). You can also modify that one and not do some of the arm movements to make it less intense… There is a fantastic facebook support group too where you can find lots of advice, especially for those of us with the types of issues you discuss. Since I started T Tapp in June last year, and healing adrenals and thyroid in September last year, I have lost around 50 inches and 20 pounds and all the fluff around my middle – something that was impossible for me to do before.

  7. Love that you mentioned T-Tapp! It has been a wonderful workout to do during pregnancy–for its healing and emotionally equalizing capabilities. 🙂

  8. Hi Mary,

    Your article was hopeful as I read about eating real foods and not starving
    myself of needed carbs. Later, Paleo seemed to feel right for you which I can’t
    totally question, but for me, I would drop weight like a tree drops leaves. I am
    a different body type, I guess. Also, I have reservations about long term Paleo
    and very high fat diets (very acidic to bones and too much fat for our organs).
    It seems way out of balance, versus moderation in all things. But…different
    bodies seem to need different types of foods.

    To eat low carb would starve me to death. I try to eat all healthy carbs like
    soaked teff, quinoa, and buckwheat plus sweet/red potatoes, batsmati/wild
    rice and beans. Also, my son and my husband both feel depleted without the
    standard carb servings. Many of us are too thin and have metabolisms that
    won’t do well eating low calories and carbs or super high fats (over 60-80 gms
    PER DAY). To function well and feel satiated, we really need about moderate
    carbs (50-60 carbs PER MEAL).

    I don’t know the answers to healing our guts. Many doses of antibiotics
    throw off normal systems that could handle carbs, protein and fats, but to
    starve these carb-loving bad microbes starves us. Some of us can’t afford
    losing even 5 lbs and low carb takes off way more than that. Probiotics offer
    some gut solutions, but there are limitations and some can’t tolerate them.

    God’s grace allows me to mostly feel well, energetic and live an active life,
    but my OAT test and Stool tests show another side of imbalance and I can’t
    gain weight as my food intolerances limit me to 1800-2000 calories a day. I
    can maintain, but don’t gain.

    There must be a chorus of others out there like me looking for an answer and
    tired of seeing healthy diets that mention weight loss as a desired outcome!
    Can you advise us?

    Sincerely ,
    Jole
    (Olive Oyl)

    1. I totally get where you’re coming from, Olive Oyl! For years I was on the opposite end – struggling to gain weight. I think whether you want to gain or lose the key is still balance and plenty of rest. If you have a lot of food intolerences it sounds like there is still a lot of healing to do. I would suggest doing HTMA (hair tissue mineral analysis). It shows A LOT about where things are out of balance. As you get back in balance your body will tell you how to eat/what ratios of protein, carbs and fat work best.

  9. Your comments sound like good old fashioned common sense! Unfortunately, no one has a trademark or patent on sleep so the world isnt good at reminding us of this and other important aspects of wellness.
    I saw a few articles written about the Danish concept of mys, which is similar to the German one of Gemutlichkeit. It’s about raising the quality of life in our homes and everyday lives – a positive framework for change of living with rather than without. Good luck.

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