The GAPS diet is becoming increasingly popular with people trying to reverse anything from eczema to autism; but what is it, and is it safe?

GAPS stands for Gut and Psychology Syndrome. Its rising popularity is based on the claim that disease starts in the gut, and by healing the gut, you can heal what ails you.

This diet is sometimes thought of as a trending fad and lumped in with other increasingly popular diets such as The Paleo Diet, and the Weston A. Price way of eating, but it is very different. The GAPS diet is not intended to be a way of life, it is intended to be used for a period of time, to help heal the gut and restore its flora.

The GAPS diet was created by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a neurologist and nutritional consultant from the UK, while trying to treat her sons’ autism. Campbell-McBride claims that this nutritional protocol helped get him off the autism spectrum.

The premise of the diet is that when the gut isn’t functioning at its full capacity, food is not digested properly, and becomes toxic in the body, leading to disease. Even with an immaculate diet full of essential vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, the body won’t be able to use them properly if the gut is impaired.

Since the gut also helps get rid of waste, when it’s not able to do its job, that waste can build up in the body causing a toxic environment. It is estimated that over 75 percent of our immune system resides in our intestinal tract, so it would stand to reason that impaired digestive function leaves us more prone to sickness and disease.

“I have seen improvements in patients suffering from gastrointestinal problems such as runny stools and constipation, as well as improvements in skin conditions such as eczema,” Dr. Randy Naidoo, a pediatrician at Shine Pediatrics and Wellness Center in Plano, Texas said of the GAPS diet.

But not all doctors agree that the GAPS diet is necessary to heal what ails you.

“Eliminating food sensitivities and repairing the gut through probiotics, digestive enzymes, omega-3s and zinc, among others, can repair the gut and restore balance in as little as three months -- without the need for the full GAPS diet,” said Dr. Deborah Bain, a pediatrician at Healthy Kids Pediatrics in Frisco, Texas.

The diet progresses in seven stages with patients moving at their own pace depending on their symptoms.

The first stage is very restrictive allowing only homemade bone broth, soups made with the broth, probiotic foods and ginger tea. Each stage that follows builds on the broth base, gradually adding in foods like eggs, meats, vegetables and pressed fruits as long as each food item is well tolerated.

Bain cautions that the restrictiveness of the GAPS diet – especially in the first stage – can cause psychological trauma and deprive patients of important nutrition.

Both Naidoo and Bain agree they have seen improvements in the health of their patients by implementing a ‘cleaner’ way of eating. This includes avoiding processed foods and employing an elimination diet to identify any food sensitivities.

“I recommend considering the GAPS diet if you have exhausted traditional care and are constantly needing to take medications for conditions such as constipation or chronic diarrhea; unresolved behavior problems, or chronic fatigue,” Naidoo said. “And [I] suggest finding a practitioner familiar with GAPS who understands the rare but severe diseases that can be missed that diet alone may not sufficiently address.”

There's no doubt about it that 'eating clean' can be helpful in maintaining good health and preventing disease. But there is no scientific data to back up the claims of the GAPS diet, so you should always talk to your doctor before making any diet or lifestyle changes. He or she may be able to help you find the best treatment based on your medical history and current health status.