Breaking the Vicious Cycle By Elaine Gottschall

Breaking the Vicious Cycle By Elaine Gottschall

A Thumbs Up Book Review

Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health through Diet
By Elaine Gottschall, B.A., M.Sc.
The Kirkton Press, 2004
Review by Jill Ebbott

Sometimes great misery and hardship bear unexpected fruit. When Elaine Gottschall and her husband struggled in 1958 to find answers for their eight-year-old daughter’s ulcerative colitis, I cannot imagine that they might have envisioned the day when Mrs. Gottschall would detail their path to success for others with gastrointestinal disorders in her book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet, now in its twelfth printing.

The Gottschalls had endured three years of medical failures and their daughter’s steadily declining health, when specialists maintained that her condition was incurable, and surgery seemed imminent. With so little to lose, they turned to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet as outlined by Drs. Sidney V. and Merrill P. Haas.

Their first sign of the diet’s success was the disappearance of their daughter’s recurrent night terrors, and within two years she was free of all digestive difficulties. Most compelling for many to learn, however, is that she eventually returned to a more normal and unrestricted diet, and continues that way without difficulty today.

The central thesis of the book is that many digestive disorders arise from the fermentation of incompletely digested carbohydrates. While single sugar carbohydrates, or monosaccharides, require no further action on the part of the body to be fully absorbed and are therefore well tolerated, the more complex disaccharides (double sugars) and polysaccharides (starches) must be broken down by the fragile enzymes within the intestinal microvilli in order to pass into the bloodstream to be assimilated. When this process is incomplete and the sugars and starches remain in the intestine to ferment, the stage is set for intestinal disorders.

A host of conditions can compromise the function of the enzymes within the microvilli: a nutrient-poor diet; decreased stomach acid due to aging, antacids; iodine deficiency; antibiotic therapy; and a high consumption of sugars and starches. In fact, those with Crohn’s disease have been found to consume between 20 and 220 percent more carbohydrates than those without the disease.

Simply suffering from a folic acid or B12 deficiency will reduce the vitality and quantity of these enzymes, and I am reminded of yet another reason not to adopt a vegetarian regime: those who do not consume animal products find it difficult at best to maintain adequate levels of B12. Most vegetarians are advised to supplement with this nutrient.

Dr. Samuel Gee, a world-renowned specialist in pediatric digestive disorders, commented in his time that “what the patient takes beyond his power to digest does harm.” Gottschall details the damage that occurs within the intestine when sugars and starches are allowed to remain and ferment.

Just as the naturally alkaline rumen of cows is acidified by a grain-based diet, it is strongly suspected that when humans consume too many carbohydrates which cannot be fully digested, our intestinal pH is acidified as well. This sets in motion a chain of undesirable events.

The acidic environment facilitates mutation of harmless bacteria into pathogenic forms. Fermented byproducts nourish pathogenic bacteria, yeast and parasites, as well as encourage microbes from the colon to migrate up to the small intestine. As microbial overgrowth increases, the intestinal lining attempts to protect itself. Mucus-producing goblet cells grow in number and secrete a protective mucosal layer. As this barrier spreads, it forms a thick sludge, and the already compromised enzymes within the microvilli cannot make contact with sugars and starches. It is now impossible for digestion of these foods to occur. Fermentation increases, bacterial overgrowth and mutation f lourish, damage to the intestinal lining continues, and the vicious cycle is set in motion.

While modern medicine utilizes different criteria for diagnosing the various digestive maladies that are so common today, Gottschall maintains that Crohn’s and celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, chronic diarrhea and some of the other digestive disorders usually have this proliferation in bacterial fermentation in common.

There are different manifestations and details, of course. With ulcerative colitis, the goblet cells may become exhausted, fail to produce the protective mucus, and ulcerations of the intestinal lining occur. Diverticulitis produces painfully inflamed pockets in the wall of the intestine. Celiac patients, the author asserts, are sensitive not only to starches and sugars, but also to the gluten which is bound to starch.

But Gottschall argues that by addressing the faulty digestion of sugars and starches, most of these disorders can be permanently resolved, regardless of their variable idiosyncrasies. This entails the elimination, for a period of at least one to two years, of every food containing disaccharides and polysaccharides. Of course, this constitutes a vast wedge of the typical American food pie chart: fluid sweet milk products; all soy; grains and sugars; potatoes, yams, corn, and most other starchy vegetables; and almost all other processed food. But the reward for eliminating these and other assorted components from the diet can be a return to robust health.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Because digestive malfunction often occurs with psychological disorders (as was the case with her daughter’s night terrors), Gottschall goes on to detail how these conditions can be causally related. She quotes the French scientist, Dr. H. Baruk, summarizing his fifty years of research on schizophrenia and other mental disorders: “. . . it is preferable to consider the majority of psychoses or neuroses as reactions to biological factors which are very often digestive in origin.”

Interesting connections between gut and psychology abound. Doctors have reported that when patients undergo surgical shortening of the small intestine, some experience accompanying neurological symptoms such as aggressiveness, disorientation, slurred speech, staggering gait and delirium. Some babies with chronic diarrhea have epileptic seizures which disappear when the diarrhea is resolved. Most schizophrenics have some form of intestinal disease. Celiac specialists have reported that patients sometimes present with degeneration of the brain, spinal cord,and other nervous tissue. Gastroenterologists acknowledge that neurological effects can arise from liver disease. And a high percentage of autistic children suffer from intestinal distress, many of whom can resolve autistic behaviors through a change of diet that includes the elimination of sugars and starches.

Gottschall explains the fact that bacterial fermentation of incompletely digested carbohydrates produces an excess of short-chain volatile organic acids such as lactic, acetic and others; a higher blood acidity; overgrowth of intestinal bacteria; the mutation of some bacteria such as E. coli; and toxic byproducts.

As reported in The Journal of Developmental Disorders in 1985, high blood levels of D-lactic acid can produce “bizarre behavioral symptoms.” Dr. H. Baruk found that a harmful strain of E. coli could produce a toxin that affects the nervous system. Research by E. R. Bolte shows how the toxin of Clostridium tetani can travel from the intestine to the central nervous system by way of the vagus nerve. Both research and anecdotal evidence support the gut-brain connection.

While half of Breaking the Vicious Cycle leads us through the science behind the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, the other half translates that science into a highly detailed picture of what can and cannot be eaten, how to time the reintroduction of formerly excluded foods, and many, many recipes to ease the diet transition. This section is indispensable to the implementation of the plan, but it’s also where I begin to have a few quarrels.

While explaining that the heart of her approach is to deprive intestinal pathogens of their energy source—fermented bacteria—Gottschall mentions nothing about the support of beneficial bacteria. Apart from yogurt, no information on fermented foods is forthcoming, and one is left to wonder how much more rapid the results might be if the diet incorporated both approaches. In the same vein, when discussing fats there is nothing about coconut oil, and this seems like another lost opportunity. Coconut oil is anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-parasitic, anti-fungal, and it nourishes the growth of good bacteria. In short, it’s everything you want to ease a dysbiotic gut.

Another curiosity is the inclusion of some very processed items in a diet that otherwise eschews such foods. Saccharin gets equal billing with raw honey, diet sodas with aspartame are limited to once per week (because they may contain lactose) and those with saccharin can be consumed two to three times weekly. Inflammatory corn and soybean oils are permitted, yogurt can be made with all forms of milk, including powdered, and although saturated fat supports gut health, the author allows the substitution of low-fat foods.

But these, as I said, are smaller quarrels with an otherwise very valuable addition to the understanding of gut health. Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient without which humans can still thrive, so it is therefore no surprise that when they comprise the largest part of any diet, trouble will certainly follow.


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

11 Responses to Breaking the Vicious Cycle By Elaine Gottschall

  1. Paul Schram says:

    i would love to believe this is true. We are on the verge of using Remicade on our 13 year old boy. Nothing else has seemed to help. But it seems we need a someone by our side for an alternative, as it is so difficult to know what is right.

    • Mel Chaplin says:

      I doubt that this response will be published here!

      This book is totally lacking in scientific proof that the diet does anything. Scientific proof means controlled double blind studies not non-professional opinions. I have dealt with Crohn´s disease for over 50 years. Every person affected is different and every treatment must be tailored for the individual. I am sorry for you and your son and hope he feels better soon. Strict adherence to his medical treatment is important and whatever diet he tolerates is the diet he should follow. From my experience avoiding high fiber foods (certain fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds) as well as avoiding dairy products was my salvation during flares and helped stabilize the illness. Getting ample rest, drinking a lot of water and not feeling limited or sorry for myself allowed me to be an active successful person. Now I am Brasil and the treatment here is superb and totally free! I am in remission for the first time ever. Perhaps it is the difference in the climate or the environment but I suspect it is the quality of care.

  2. Jessica Ogner says:

    Hi Paul,

    I can’t discourage you enough from using remicade on your 13 year old son. I’ve been down that path; trying remicade, pentasa, prednisone, etc…. and it was awful. Remicade, which seemed like a wonder drug at first, started to lose effectiveness within about 4 months for me. First I was having infusions every 8 weeks… then every 7… then every 6. When it got down to every 4 weeks I realized this was not going to be a viable solution.

    I’ve suffered from crohn’s disease since the age of 16. I’m 27 now and have followed the specific carbohydrate diet as outlined in Breaking the Vicious Cycle for the last 5 years. My disease was classified as “severe” and I have been off of ALL medication for the last 5 years. I am the healthiest I can ever remember being. I know it’s scary to take that leap to more “alternative” forms of treatment at first. It doesn’t feel like anyone is on your side. Every medical professional you’ve come to rely on will look you right in the eyes and tell you that you are wrong, that diet has nothing to do with crohn’s and that your son will be on medication for the rest of his life. But I want to assure you that this is just simply not the case, and that there is nothing “alternative” about eating a healthy diet. It’s the most natural solution (both literally and figuratively) to any health problem.

    I know the diet can seem like a lot of work at first. It seems like there’s so much to know and so much work to do and feels like such a monumental life change, but the rewards are absolutely immeasurable… and in time everything falls into place and what once seemed like such an obstacle, just becomes common place. My life is as easy following the Specific Carbohydrate Diet as I could ever imagine it being. Once in a while I have to spend a little extra effort to come up with the right things to eat… but I’d choose that over the hopelessness and pain that accompany crohn’s disease any day.

    Discovering this diet and my health has without question been the best thing that has ever happened to me. It has completely opened my eyes and my world. I can’t encourage you enough to try it. You have absolutely nothing to lose and your son has everything in the world to gain.

    I wish you the best of luck and if you have any questions, as an experienced SCDer, I would be more than happy to answer any them and help in any way that I can.



  3. Anne Weaver says:

    I have Crohn’s Too, but after 5 months I really am beating it!
    I must agree. I have been on a similar version of the Carbohydrate Diet for the past 5 months, and I can happily say my pain and bleeding are gone. I have the beginning stages of a severe case of Crohn’s as well as the gene markers for Celiacs. When my doctor wanted to put me on a steroid again, I looked into alternative medicine. There was no harm in getting a second opinion, and I was desperate. The idea of being 21 years old and sick for the rest of my life scared me too much to take the doctors at their words. I did my research and decided to make the 3 1/2 hr drive to Dallas to see a specialist. That day changed my life. I’ve never really been well and never knew why. Now I give out my alternative doctor’s name to anyone I know. I even know a local ER doctor that gives out my number to people who come in with Crohn’s.

    It has been the hardest thing in my life to do, going this route alone while still holding a full load of college courses, but it is worth it. It is worth it though. Please know that the other route will only bring more pain and more complications. The only reason I’m doing as well as I am is because I did my research early (only 7 mo. into my diagnosis). You can be healthy, but the sooner you go the alternative route the better the results. Now is the best time.

    This research is good. There are other ways to go about it that are less severe using a combination of no sugars, anti-fungals, probiotics, and detox of the mucus on the intestinal lining. I’ve also been tested for what foods my body has antibody responses to, and I don’t eat those either. My body has associated these things (like whey, casein, and eggs) with the disease and thinks they are a pathogen. Thus my body attacks itself further creating more ulcers. Essentially, there are many roads to the same path to health, but they all share the same principles proposed in this article.

    I hope your son is doing well. Thank you for being a good parent and doing your research, reading articles like this. There aren’t enough parents doing what you are doing.

    Fight the Good Fight,

    • Fiona Blackwell says:

      Hi, I know this is a few years old now but my daughter is newly diagnosed UC at the age of 5. I have accepted meds (prednisalone and mesalazine) at this point as she was unwell and getting her inflammation settled quickly was important. Long term I need to know what I can do to improve her health as I am not happy with the attitude and long term med options.
      I am in the UK my email is so I can’t really go to Dallas to see your Doctor. However it is difficult to do the diet route with a child as medics won’t accept it. I would like to contact your Doctor to see if he has any links to people in the UK and any literature I can use to support my desire to use nutrition to support her.

      • Diana R. says:

        I would like to know the name of the specialist in Dallas too!!!

      • Kimberly G says:

        Hi Fiona,

        I would contact the Worsley Institute in the UK. It is a style of acupuncture, however, they may be able to refer you to someone in your area to assist with nutrition therapy. Many practitioners (like mine) are able to offer a broad spectrum of services which includes nutritional therapy. I have been practicing this style of acupuncture for many years and have received great healing from it. I was fortunate enough to have been treated by Judy Worsley herself last year while living in London.

        Best of luck!

    • Molly says:

      Hi can I please get your Dallas Doctor info. Also the date in the post I read was 2010. How are you doing now with crohnes ? My 18 yr old daughter has been diagnosed 4 mos ago with crohnes. Nothing is helping si far but I hate her being on all these pills !! Especially the steroids. Please let me know ! Thank you Molly

  4. anu says:

    Could you give me the name of the alternative medicine doc in dallas?

    I have been having similar problems.Could you give me the doctors name in dallas?I live in Dallas.

    My email is


  5. Carrie Garman says:

    I live in Dallas and would also like the name of this great doctor! I’m desperate, feel like no one in the medical field listens. Thank you!!

  6. real jb says:

    I’m interested to see more current posts on this topic or a redirect link with further guidance to using this type of approach to healing the gut. I get migraines and have food intolerances that trigger them . I have just eliminated anything that seems to coincide with a migraine. I was curious if everyone who reads this post realizes that the most common surgery in America is removal of the gall bladder. The gall bladder may or may not be my issue but food intolerance definitely causes all of my ills. I recently started a product by a Dr. Gundry called “Lectin shield” with hopes it will assist my issues. I have also used homeopathy and found a lot of healing and no advancement of my conditions, as well as improvements and shorter lengths to any illness( food intolerance symptoms) my email is

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