Increased Reaction to Stress Linked to Gastrointestinal Issues in Autistic Children

A new study suggests that gastrointestinal issues in autistic children is related to an increased reaction to stress.

“We know that it is common for individuals with autism to have a more intense reaction to stress, and some of these patients seem to experience frequent constipation, abdominal pain, or other gastrointestinal issues,” said David Beversdorf, M.D., of  the University of Missouri and its Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

“To better understand why, we looked for a relationship between gastrointestinal symptoms and the immune markers responsible for stress response. We found a relationship between increased cortisol response to stress and these symptoms.”

One of the functions of cortisol, a hormone released by the body in times of stress, is to prevent the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation. These inflammatory substances — known as cytokines — have been associated with autism, gastrointestinal issues, and stress.

For their study, the researchers studied 120 individuals with autism who were treated at MU and Vanderbilt University. Parents completed a questionnaire to assess their children’s gastrointestinal symptoms, resulting in 51 patients with symptoms and 69 without gastrointestinal symptoms.

To elicit a stress response, the autistic patients took a 30-second stress test. Cortisol samples were gathered through saliva before and after the test.

The researchers discovered that the individuals with gastrointestinal symptoms had greater cortisol in response to the stress than those without gastrointestinal symptoms.

“When treating a patient with autism who has constipation and other lower gastrointestinal issues, physicians may give them a laxative to address these issues,” said Beversdorf, an associate professor in the departments of radiology, neurology, and psychological sciences at Missouri.

“Our findings suggest there may be a subset of patients for which there may be other contributing factors. More research is needed, but anxiety and stress reactivity may be an important factor when treating these patients.”

The study was published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, the journal of the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society.

Source:  University of Missouri-Columbia

Photo: David Beversdorf, M.D., associate professor in the departments of radiology, neurology and psychological sciences at MU and the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Credit: Justin Kelley/MU Health.