GAPS (Low-Carb, High-Fat) Diet and Adrenal Problems
The Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Diet is recommended for curing a long list of autoimmune illnesses, including relatively mild symptoms such as allergies and eczema, and also more severe symptoms such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and even autism. The GAPS Diet typically takes one-to-three years to cure these autoimmune issues.
I decided to undertake the GAPS Diet back in Fall 2010, after having joint pain in my left shoulder for over eight months. This pain made it difficult to pick up my infant, exercise, or even to push the kids on the swings. In addition to my shoulder pain, I was also exhibiting signs of adrenal fatigue, such as balding lower legs, vertical lines on my fingertips, irritability, low energy, cold hands, and sensitivity to sunlight.
The first few months I was on the GAPS diet, I felt wonderful. My shoulder pain disappeared and my adrenal fatigue symptoms abated. I felt better than I had in years! But after about five months on the GAPS diet, I started to notice some energy problems. Specifically, I started having spells of extreme lethargy and fatigue. As in, "I have to go lay on the floor for awhile" and "I can't keep my eyes open". All of my adrenal fatigue symptoms came back and were even worse than ever. After lots of research and some self-experimentation, I figured out that this problem was caused in large part by eating too few carbohydrates.
Is the GAPS Diet Low-Carb?
The GAPS diet relies heavily on nutrient-dense foods such healthy fats, meats, vegetables, bone broths, and fermented foods. The diet allows no processed foods, starches (such as potatoes and corn), grains, or complex sugars. However, the GAPS diet is not necessarily a low-carbohydrate diet.
Fruits, veggies, lentils, white beans, and honey are all allowed on the diet. But, I tended to shy away from things like lentils and white beans while on GAPS because they caused digestive upset for some of the other members of my family. I also tended to not each much fruit or sweets. So it was easy for me to unintentionally eat very few carbs while on the GAPS diet. Meanwhile, my intake of fat while on GAPS was about 65% of my daily calories.
Does the Body Need Carbs?
Popular low-carb diets, such as Paleo, Keto, Primal and Atkins, are quick to point out that people do not need carbs, since the body can manufacture them from other energy sources. However, it became clear to me that I do need plenty of carbs to have normal energy levels.
As I have researched this issue, I have learned that the body actually prefers to use glucose as a fuel, and the brain prefers to use ONLY glucose as a fuel. Glucose is delivered to the brain via the glucose in our blood. With a low-carb diet, the body strives to maintain optimal blood glucose levels through the process of gluconeogenesis. To achieve this, the adrenal glands send messages to the liver and kidneys to convert protein and fat into glucose. These messages from the adrenal glands come in the form of cortisol, which is one of the body’s stress hormones. The body sees a lack of carbs as a stress, and in the long term this can be detrimental.
When the body is deprived of carbohydrates for an extended period of time, the adrenal glands have to keep sending signals for gluconeogenesis over and over again. This can cause the adrenal glands to become overworked. It can also lead to other problems because the body is constantly in a state of elevated stress.
GAPS Can Worsen Adrenal Issues!
In my case, I had adrenal problems even before going on the GAPS diet, and the low-carb version of GAPS I naturally followed made my adrenals have to work even harder. To compound this problem, I was also nursing an infant while on GAPS, and a large amount of glucose was leaving my body in the form of breastmilk. My poor adrenal glands!
In talking with others on the GAPS diet and researching this issue, I found out that adrenal issues such as low energy are not uncommon for people on the GAPS diet. The low energy problems seem to develop rather quickly for women who are pregnant or nursing, but they also develop for other women and men who stay on the diet for an extended period of time (and after all, the diet is recommended to last from one-to-three years, so it is intended to be used for an extended period of time).
How to Avoid Adrenal Problems While on GAPS
My body clearly indicated that it wasn’t ready to go off the GAPS Diet, with a recurrence of shoulder pain anytime I strayed from the strict GAPS diet. I had to learn how to nourish my adrenal glands while staying on GAPS, and this involved much more than changing my diet. The main principle of nourishing overworked adrenal glands is to allow them to rest by reducing all forms of stress on the body.
Any of the following can contribute to adrenal problems:
Being stressed out
Too much exercise
Inadequate protein, fat , and/or carb intake
Intake of stimulants such as caffeine (which cause the adrenals to release more stress hormones)
After much research and self-experimentation, I found the following to help in avoiding adrenal problems while on GAPS:
Get plenty of sleep. The more sleep you get, the better. 8 hours a day would be nice, but to really help adrenal health, aim for even more. Go to bed no later than 10pm, and stay in bed until at least 7am. If you feel tired, or if you have a hard time getting good nighttime sleep, take a nap every day! And don’t feel guilty about making sleep a priority, as this is really important for recovering adrenal health. Since my youngest child is not sleeping through the night yet, I have had to prioritize a daily afternoon nap for myself.
Do not workout excessively. When my adrenals were at their worst, I was surprised to learn that exercising made me feel worse and worse. If I did any intense exercise, such as strength training, sprinting, or interval training, the next day I would be absolutely exhausted and very irritable. Exercising also caused my basal body temperature to plummet, which is another sign of too much stress on the body and overworked adrenals. I stopped all exercise for a few months, and this was tremendously beneficial to my adrenal health. Then I started to gradually add in very mild exercise, such as yoga and walking. Initially, even those forms of exercise were too much for my body! Nowadays, I can do strength training and interval training with no ill effects.
Eat plenty of carbs. The following list of GAPS-legal carbs should be used liberally if you have any adrenal issues. I found it beneficial to eat at least one of the following with every meal, and to allow myself to eat much more fruit and GAPS-legal desserts than I would normally eat.
Milk kefir or yogurt
Winter squash, such as butternut, pumpkin, and spaghetti
GAPS-legal desserts such as ice cream and cookies
Follow your body’s cues. If you are willing to listen closely to your body, it will tell you what foods you need. I tend to really over-think what I eat, by thinking about what is “healthy” and what I “should” eat. When I am willing to pay attention to my body’s cues, I feel much better. (Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, the author of the GAPS Diet, also advocates listening to your body’s cues to determine what to eat.) When I started eating intuitively, I was shocked to see that my body really wanted ice cream, lots of ice cream, as in two or three bowls of ice cream each day. I would normally have denied my body the ice cream, out of fear that it was unhealthy, but after struggling with energy problems for over a year, I decided it was worth a shot to go with the flow of my body’s cues. This really helped my energy levels and helped me kick-start the path to adrenal recovery. After about 6 weeks, my desire for ice cream dropped off dramatically. Even now, though, I find that my body wants more sweets than I would normally allow, and if I go with the flow my energy levels are much more even.
Do NOT intentionally try to lose weight. Restricting calories, just like restricting carbs, results in your body releasing more stress hormones, and can thereby cause more adrenal problems. If you try to cut calories while your adrenals are already stressed, you will likely see a rapid increase in your adrenal symptoms. I gained about 10 pounds in the first few months of really trying to heal my adrenals; although not ideal, this weight gain has corresponded to me feeling much better overall. And if I have to choose between being a bit heavier or feeling like the walking dead every day, I’ll take the weight! (And my weight has remained steady for the last 7 months, so there hasn’t been a continual gain for me while I’ve implemented these adrenal recovery measures.)
Make relaxation and stress relief priorities. When the adrenals are healing, the body really needs plenty of time to relax, and stress-relief must be a priority. I found it helpful to make myself take some time to sit on the couch every day (which is something I don’t typically do). To keep “busy” during this time, I like either watching the kids play, reading a book, or working on a crochet project (I’m a newbie to crochet, but I love that it can be such a relaxing yet rewarding activity). Once I committed to making relaxation and stress relief priorities, I was also able to take a step back and see that I was spending way too much time in the kitchen. I have simplified meal preparations by relying more on simple foods, and this has freed up quite a bit of time.
If all else fails, start adding in GAPS transitional foods. If, like me, you have had adrenal problems for quite awhile, even liberally eating GAPS-legal carbs may not be enough. I had to find the balance between following GAPS and allowing some carb foods such as potatoes and even white rice (which is recommended as a “safe” starch in The Perfect Health Diet, and which is much easier on my digestion and joints than brown rice). If you are near the beginning of your GAPS journey, then adding in these foods may not be an option, but if you’ve been on GAPS for quite awhile you may want to start experimenting to see what foods your body can tolerate without a recurrence of symptoms.
While I am not completely recovered from my adrenal problems yet, I have come a long way towards health in the last year. For the first time since I started tracking my basal body temperature back in 2006, my temperatures are now normal. I’ve lost my sensitivity to sunlight, the vertical lines on my fingertips are nearly gone, and I no longer have balding lower legs or cold hands. My only remaining adrenal complaint is that I still struggle with low energy at times, but my energy levels are still vastly improved over a year ago. I hope that my experiences in regaining adrenal health can help others prevent or recover from similar problems.
UPDATE: to learn more about my health recovery in the years after the GAPS Diet, check out this post: Can a Perfect Diet Lead to Perfect Health?
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