GAPS Diet and Cancer

The following is an article written by Thomas Cowan, MD. It is a long article, the whole thing can be read here. It goes through various methods that Dr. Cowan uses to treat cancer, one of these being the GAPS diet. This is a really interesting article and really turns what we have been taught about grains and nutrition on its head.

I have heard the GAPS diet called the mother of all diets and various other things. In my experience (we have been on the GAPS diet for a year now and it has turned our lives around) the GAPS diet is a huge challenge as you have to not only go through a period of detoxing which can be a real agony (absolutely worth it), but you have to learn how to cook in a completely different way than we know in our modern world. We eat no industrial processed foods so I spend a lot of time cooking, much of our food is fermented so we have to be aware of the cycles of these friendly micro-organisms.

A Holistic Approach to Cancer: The Disease of Civilization by Thomas Cowan, MD of Fourfold Healing

Let’s begin with a definition of cancer. Cancer is the situation that occurs when a certain type of cell out of the many different types of cells in our body—such as blood cells, pancreas cells, brain cells, liver cells, connective tissue cells—decides to grow in an uncontrolled way, in an excessive way, and at the expense of all the other types of cells in the body.

If you had one word or brief phrase to answer the question, “What causes cancer?” what might it be? You might respond with “emotions,” “toxins,” “fungus,” “stress,” or “bad terrain of the body.” Those are all great answers. But they are not my answer. In my twenty-five years of being a doctor and thinking about food and cancer and health issues for pretty much every day of those twenty-five years, I can say—and I don’t wish to say this in an arrogant way—that I have no doubt in my mind that I know what causes cancer. I have come to the conclusion that I have this one right. My answer in one word is “civilization.”


I’m not the first person to think this way. That is actually the title of one of my favorite books, a book by Vilhjalmur Stefansson called Cancer: Disease of Civilization? (1960). The idea started some time before Stefansson in a lecture given at a Paris medical society in 1842 by Stanislas Tanchou, a physician and one of Napoleon’s surgeons. At that time France was a primary center of science and medicine in the world. You have to remember where we were in the world at that time: it was the era of scientific discovery and manifest destiny; white people were going to conquer and civilize the world and make it safe for Christianity. Against this political backdrop Tanchou in his lecture claimed he could predict the exact incidence of cancer in all the major European cities over the next fifty years, and it was all dependent on the percentage of grain in their diets.

Tanchou’s numbers were all recorded and in time they came exactly true—a certain cancer percentage for Berlin, a certain percentage for Munich, and so on. The cancer incidence all depended on the amount of cereal grains in the diet. This set off a huge furor around the world since the great mission of the age was to civilize every inch of the globe. Here was somebody in a center of civilization who declared that these people who don’t eat grains, who have the more indigenous hunter-gatherer diet, never get cancer.

This provocative idea motivated many thinkers between 1842 to about 1950, as archeologists, anthropologists, medical doctors, missionaries and explorers took up the challenge of answering the question. Whether he knew it or not, Weston Price’s research came as a result of Tanchou’s fundamental question. Price focused on dental health as a kind of proxy to the question, “Is it true that cancer is a disease of civilization?”

Another thinker who took up this challenge was George Caitlin, a mid-nineteenth century American lawyer and portraitist. Caitlin spent twenty years of his life living and studying with Native Americans in indigenous hunter-gatherer populations all over the western part of the United States. About the people with whom he lived, Caitlin noted: “I love a people who have always made me feel welcome to the best they had, who were honest without laws, who had no jails, no poor houses, who keep the commandments without ever having read them or heard them preached from the pulpit, never swear, never take the name of God in vain, love their neighbor as themselves, free of religious animosity. I love a people who have never raised a hand against me, or stole my property, when there was no law to punish them for either. I love a people who have never fought a battle with white men except on their own ground. I love a people who live and keep what is their own without locks and keys. And oh, how I love a people who don’t live for the love of money.”


The premise that we are examining is whether cancer is a disease of civilization, but I say that civilization is the cause of cancer. But first we need to define civilization. We know what cancer is: uncontrolled growth of one of the members of a community; that is, one cell type deciding to grow at an excessive rate compared to the rest of the community of cells. This civilization project, if you want to call it that, which started about ten thousand years ago, probably in the Tigris and Euphrates delta, is the process wherein humans decided to co-opt the natural resources of the land base and set off to grow themselves at the expense of the rest of the community. That is the definition of civilization, this co-opting of the resources of the land base, this mining of the resources which is essentially mining the soil. If you go on long enough, you turn productive soil into a desert, and the region of the Garden of Eden in the Tigris and Euphrates delta is now a desert. It took ten thousand years, which is the blink of an eye in the overall picture of humanity.

Civilization can also be seen as the process of extracting the resources from the earth in order to grow one particular species of the landed community, namely humans.

When I give that definition it might remind you of the cancer process. We believe deeply in growth. In order to grow we co-opt the resources from the rest of the earth’s community. Given enough time, the rest of the community withers and dies and this one particular species of the community grows more and more until it kills the land base or the person. That is the definition of civilization.

Think of the Great Plains—this once fertile region extending from Minnesota to Texas. According to early white explorers, the top soil on the Great Plains was twelve feet deep. Interestingly, by the 1930s, before chemical agriculture, before GMOs, before Monsanto, barely a hundred years of growing grains—and growing them organically—turned those twelve feet into a mere twelve inches, which in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s blew away to the Gulf of Mexico. That is what happened because of organic agriculture. For those of us who say the solution is to simply to go back to organic agriculture, remember that the Tigris and Euphrates Delta became the desert of Iraq solely through organic agriculture, and maybe some over-grazing.

But the point is that the hunter-gatherer indigenous populations that were dependent upon animals feeding on perennial grass-based environments lived free of cancer for literally thousands and thousands of years. Organic agriculture turned the soil into nearly a desert, and brought cancer to a people who had no cancer. Weston Price got in at the tail end of this inquiry in the 1930s and documented the health of these people from the standpoint of their teeth. But again whenever we look at the health of nonindustrialized peoples we see the same thing: these are people without cancer, and also without heart disease. Any anthropologist can tell you this bone was from a hunter-gatherer, a pre-grain eating person, and this bone, by contrast, from a grain-eating person, because the latter has holes in it and looks like it has arthritis and it not as thick and strong. You can see physical degeneration almost every place where people have switched from indigenous diets to primarily grain-based diets.


So the next step is to discover what these healthy people ate. As you know, Weston Price found healthy isolated peoples who were eating small amounts grains, usually prepared through a fermentation process. But the basic diet of these people was about 65 percent animal foods with a definite predominance of fats over protein. It was not a low-protein diet but a diet that included adequate protein, and then about thirty-five percent fermented grains, low-starch seeds, nuts and vegetables and perhaps a natural sweetener, such as honey.

Does that type of diet square with the human anatomy? I’m not against changing certain patterns of the diet based on what a person can tolerate. But when someone says this person because of their blood type needs to be an herbivore, a vegan, I think to myself well, yes, that would be fine if they had a rumen. Let me tell you, the first cancer patient who comes in with a rumen, I’m putting them on a vegetarian diet, I don’t care what blood type they are. If they have very long intestines and a rumen with bacteria to ferment cellulose, I’d put them on a vegetarian diet.


Interestingly, the primate that has the largest amount of plant food in the diet, the gorilla, has a very long digestive tract and the smallest brain of any primate. If you were in the jungle and had only leaves to eat, you would starve in the midst of abundance because you cannot digest leaves, at least most leaves. But the gorilla is so constructed that he can eat high-cellulose plant foods like leaves.

Remember that the herbivorous animals literally must eat all day to extract nutrients from grass, leaves and seeds. You, as the predator human, can get concentrated fats and protein from the herbivores, and you need only a short digestive system to get all you need to develop a healthy body and a healthier more robust brain to talk, think and create. You don’t have to eat all day long. When you revert to a more “gorilla-ish” way of life, you increase the number of times you have to eat, increase the size of your digestive apparatus, and shrink your brain, which is exactly what has happened to us over the last ten thousand years. I’m not so sure that this is the way we want to go.

I wish I had a dollar for every patient who walked into my office—usually a female patient— who has said, “My belly is bloated and I’m full of gas; I have digestive disturbance and a foggy brain.” Usually they end up with a diagnosis of hypothyroidism. When you ask them what they eat, they tell me, “I’m mostly vegetarian.” They have gorilla syndrome.

The human anatomy is precisely designed for a hunter-gatherer diet of about 70 percent animal food, predominantly fat (as much as they could tolerate and digest) including organ meats and bones (usually in the form of broth), but not so much protein—something like two to four ounces of protein, two to three times a day was about the average of what people ate. The remaining 30-35 percent plant foods provides variety and additional amounts of vitamins and minerals. The protein and fat part is what builds a healthy body structure, the endocrine and immune systems, and, most importantly, the brain and nervous systems. People ate plants for balancing their pH, for accessing different minerals and phytochemicals. Because these plant foods were often fermented, they served as food for bacteria, which greatly increased their vitamin content for the benefit of humans.

This is the framework to the hypothesis that cancer is a disease of civilization. Taking these ideas as a basis, my cancer therapy is based on the GAPS diet, low-dose naltroxone (LDN), Iscador (mistletoe extract) and cardiotonics in order to create a “pre-civilization” milieu for the cancer patient.


The diet I use for treating cancer patients is the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) diet, formulated by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride in her book of the same name. Let me give a brief description of how the GAPS diet works. The healthy intestine contains millions of tiny absorptive villi. It also contains a layer of good bacteria, a diverse colony. We have, or should have, more microorganisms in our gut—five to seven pounds of them—than we have human cells in our body. These bacteria represent our immune system. Children with autism have holes in their intestinal walls that allow toxic proteins and other chemicals to leak through their porous guts into their blood stream. The two most serious are casomorphin and gluteomorphin. These leak into the blood stream and cause neurological symptoms.

Think of your intestines as soil and grass: the villi are like the soil, and the layer of good bacteria is like the grass covering the soil. If you go to a meadow or a perennial grass field and you overgraze or do something to strip the grass, the soil will become eroded. If this condition continues, you get further erosion of soil, you get cracks in the soil, and surface material starts seeping into the ground water. That is exactly the same process that happens in the human gut. People “strip their grass” with antibiotics, with vaccines, with processed foods, with not getting the right flora via the birth canal due either to a C-section or gut dysbiosis in the mother. Lastly, “civilized” people today are no longer eating probiotic foods. All these factors create an unhealthy gut ecology, a flattening of the villi, and actual holes in the gut wall.

The villi are a source of the enzyme disaccharidase, which digests disaccharides, just as lipase digests lipids and protease digests protein. As you lose the integrity of the villi you lose the ability to digest disaccharides because you lose the ability to produce the enzymes solely responsible for this function. If you continue to eat disaccharides, they cannot be digested, and instead feed fungus, yeasts, and toxic microorganisms that are present in the gut. These are like crab grass growing on the soil. Crab grass doesn’t protect the soil, it doesn’t make the good micronutrients, it doesn’t make the B vitamins, and it doesn’t protect the lining. Instead, it results in bloating and gas and all the other things that people with sickness experience. As the condition of the villi worsens, even less disaccharidase is produced, and we have a vicious cycle. Eventually you get ulcerative colitis—an erosion through the mucosa into the muscle layer, and that is like a bad crater in the soil. As a result of this leakiness of the gut you end up with these two predominant chemicals, gluteomorphin and casomorphin, getting absorbed into the blood stream. These substances are opiates, and opiates essentially paralyze your immune response.

So in the GAPS diet we eliminate all disaccharides including sugar, potatoes, sweet potatoes and grains; lactose is also a disaccharide so fluid milk, even raw milk, needs to be avoided. The diet emphasizes lots of healthy fats like butter, ghee and coconut oil, grass-fed meats and organ meats, wild seafood, fermented raw dairy products, low-starch vegetables, some fruit, bone broths and cod liver oil.

I should add that I also prescribe pancreatic enzymes, based on the work of Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez (see review). I use lyophilized pancreatic enzymes from Allergy Research extracted from New Zealand pork, lamb and beef, all at one time. The dose is 10-15 capsules, three times per day, on an empty stomach.

Read the full article here.

(This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2009.)

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Lia

    Well written and informative. But it’s so hard to read off a coloured background. Any chance I can download what I want to read so it’s on a clear-white background? I really want to navigate your website some more but it’s so difficult for me to focus on the writing. Many thanks

    1. zzzeroX

      Thanks Lia! We’re planning a long overdue redesign of the site very soon, and all articles will be on a white background. In the meantime, your browser might have a “print” function under “File” in the main menu. If you click on that, instead of sending to a printer, you should also have the option to “Save as a PDF”. Select that, and save the file, and then open the file. It will have the article content on a white background (just scroll down past all the navigation stuff).

  2. Heathen heart

    Please note that the Pagans fighting the Christians were white men as well. If history is going to be used as a backdrop for the story; it should be correct. The white folkish culture was also being lost to the Christians.

    1. hellaD

      Yes, that is the point I was trying to make, sorry if it is unclear.

  3. Dave Weinkauf

    Your website looks interesting, but it is virtually impossible for me to read the light text. If you can change the text color to black, I’ll be back to check out what you have to offer.

  4. Richard

    What a great article. Is there a book on the GAPS diet that YOU recommend?

    I don’t, however, think it’s totally fair to equate the depletion of the prairie soils with organic agriculture. Sure they maybe didn’t use pesticides and fertilizers but there’s more to responsible organic farming than that!

    So have you tried taking this low-dose naltroxone in connection with your GAPS diet? I’m guessing it’s a prescription drug. Seems to me that Candice Pert might have used it in her research on opiate receptors, as described in her book “Molecules of Emotion”.

    1. hellaD

      Hey thanks, I just use the Gut and Psychology Syndrome book that was written by Natasha Campbell-McBride as well as a book called Specific Carbohydrate Diet that was written by a Canadian lady actually.

      I haven’t tried the low-dose naltroxone. I’ve seen on the GAPS forums that some folks with autistic kids have had some success with that but I don’t know that much about the stuff. Dr. Cowan also does a lot of stuff with vitamin C IV’s.

      I read Molecules of Emotion a while ago so I can’t really remember many details, but I really did enjoy her writing. I have been looking into some of her other books, but a few of them are really expensive!

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