I first came across the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) about five years back when my husband was hospitalized for a major ulcerative colitis flare. He had lost a disturbing amount of weight and his digestive tract was so ravaged that he wasn’t even allowed to gnaw on ice chips. It took four days on IV steroids to calm his immune system and restore some order to his colon, and colon removal surgery was narrowly avoided.
I hadn’t done a whole lot of nutrition research into autoimmune diseases at that point. At his initial diagnosis, nearly a year before his first major flare, he requested that I allow him to manage the condition himself. He didn’t want me dictating his diet and I respected that request, resigning myself to lecturing friends and family about their eating habits instead.
His doctor didn’t have much to contribute on the food front, either. Aside from a gentle recommendation to avoid spicy foods, soda, and too much beer all at once, he suggested that A enjoy his usual diet.
“Are probiotic foods, like yogurt, helpful in any way?” I asked.
"Eh, don't worry about stuff like that," he replied, physically waving my question aside. “The point of the medication is to allow you to live your normally and not worry about your food.” It was an optimistic, if short-sighted, response.
In his defense, he was -is- a kind, caring, and intelligent doctor. Unfortunately, nutrition education isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a doctor, even -incredibly- for a gastrointestinal specialist. Should they choose to add nutrition classes to their studies, they’re usually limited to very politically correct, USDA-approved matter. This is a land where they’re still, against all evidence and common sense, pushing breakfast cereals as a healthy start to the day and recommended plant sterol-added margarine over butter. But as we continue to link more and more illnesses with gut health, the need for a change in nutrition education is glaringly apparent.
But back to food.
I figured that hospitalization negated our agreement on eating autonomy, so I donned my nutrition detective hat and dug into the research.
In the myriad of dietary recommendations that I slogged through, one protocol stood out to me. It was a system developed in the early 1900s that had proven incredibly effective at controlling symptoms in patients with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s, celiac disease, diverticulitis, and IBS. It had also been used to reduce autism symptoms, effectively enough that an offshoot, the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet was developed specifically for that cause.
What immediately impressed me was the science-based hypotheses at the core. Although research on the microbiome was nowhere near as extensive as it is now, the doctor and mom-turned-researcher team that developed the protocol were able to take what they knew about the food science, the digestive processes and got flora, and troubleshoot the malfunctioning digestive system. From there, they developed a meticulous diet to heal the gut lining and repair the microbiome.
It’s interesting to note that current research on the microbiome has been unintentionally confirming the principles behind the SCD diet. I recently read Dr. Perlmutter’s Brain Maker and, though it didn’t reference SCD in any way, the research he referenced throughout the book dovetailed perfectly into the science behind the SCD diet. Current research on the link between autoimmune disease in general and leaky gut syndrome is equally supportive. The healing that many people find on the paleo diet is also explained by the same science.
So before you go wild with suspense, I’ll do my best to summarize the SCD protocol.
Whatever the root cause may be (low stomach acid, for example, or poor enzyme function), the results follow a similar pattern. Carbohydrates with a certain molecular form -the complex carbohydrates found in grains, most starches, and sugars- avoid proper digestion in the small intestine, where they should be broken down into individual molecules and absorbed into the bloodstream. Instead, they move down the tract as partially undigested food fragments. If gut lining is damaged, either from diet (the lectins found in quick-cooked grains can be responsible, for example) or environmental factors (pesticide residue in our foods has been suspected), these food fragments can move into the bloodstream. There, the undigested and unusable particles trigger an immune response, training the immune system to react to particular compounds. If the gut isn't healed and the response isn't corrected, this response can lead to autoimmune symptoms, unexplained food allergies, and general inflammation.
Undigested carbohydrates are also the preferred food of the “bad” gut bacteria (as opposed to fiber for the goodies). These hang out in the large intestine waiting for their moment, which undigested complex carbohydrates provide. With a modern diet high in quickly prepared grains and refined sugars, the bad bacteria are well-fed by poorly digested carbohydrates. Gas, bloating, and pain result from the fermentation of these carbohydrates by bad bacteria and can result in chronic constipation, diarrhea, or a pendulum between the two.
Over the next few posts, I’ll break down the process and stages we went through during a recent gut reset for my husband. I used a blend of SCD and GAPS phases with a few tweaks from personal experience, which I’ll point out as they arise. For a more exhaustive explanation, check out the SCD bible called “Breaking the Vicious Cycle.” by Elaine Gottschall, and "Gut and Psychology Syndrome" by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride.
For anyone interested in resetting their own gut according to these principles, I’d recommend taking up to a week to prepare. It is immensely helpful to have “allowed” foods prepared and on hand to avoid from going hangry and giving up. This is a demanding protocol and not for the weak of heart!
A large supply of fresh and frozen bone broth will be your biggest support network, so start there. When I first started bone-brothing, we didn’t eat nearly enough meat to stockpile bones for gelatinous broths on the reg. And it turned out that grass-fed beef bones were not only hard to come by in my area, but quite pricey. I eventually discovered that I could purchase bags of chicken backs from our local butcher very inexpensively. These leftovers from after they’ve removed the breasts, thighs, and legs for sale are excellent for delightfully flavored and adequately gelatinous broths. For major gelatin bonus points, you can also buy bags of chicken feet and toss 2-6 in each pot. Sounds gross, looks creepy, but it’s way worth it, trust me. Another option is adding grass-fed gelatin (check out Vital Proteins) for a quick boost.
Keep in mind that bone broth can be as simple as submerging bones in water, adding a splash of cider vinegar to help extract nutrients, and simmering the mass for 12-24 hours. Peppercorns, garlic, bay leaves, and rosemary are simple taste upgrades. If you want to get crazy, onion (no need to peel), carrots, and celery will further develop the flavor.
Check out this post from Wellness Mama for tips and a simple recipe.
And stay tuned for Phase I of our gut-healing protocol!