Increased reaction to stress linked to gastrointestinal issues in children with autism

January 4, 2017
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

One in 45 American children lives with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of these children also have significant gastrointestinal issues, but the cause of these symptoms is unknown. Now, researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine suggest that the gastrointestinal issues in these individuals with autism may be related to an increased reaction to stress. It's a finding the researchers hope could lead to better treatment options for these patients.

"We know that it is common for individuals with to have a more intense reaction to , and some of these patients seem to experience frequent constipation, abdominal pain or other gastrointestinal issues," said 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. "To better understand why, we looked for a relationship between and the immune markers responsible for stress response. We found a relationship between increased cortisol response to stress and these symptoms."

Cortisol is a hormone released by the body in times of stress, and one of its functions 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. The researchers studied 120 individuals with autism who were treated at MU and Vanderbilt University. The individuals' 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 , individuals took a 30-second stress test. Cortisol samples were gathered through participants' saliva before and after the test. The researchers found that the individuals with gastrointestinal symptoms had greater cortisol in response to the stress than the participants 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," Beversdorf said. "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."

Explore further: Could poor stomach absorption of drugs reduce autism medications' effectiveness?

Related Stories

Children with autism experience interrelated health issues

September 19, 2012

(Medical Xpress)—One in 88 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new study by a University of Missouri researcher ...

Probiotics mitigate stress in medical students at exam time

May 9, 2016

A probiotic given to medical students during the run-up to nationwide medical school examinations reduced stress among the students. "The probiotic strain, Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota can relieve many aspects of the ...

Recommended for you

Study shows there's a positive side to worrying

April 27, 2017

Worry - it does a body good. And, the mind as well. A new paper by Kate Sweeny, psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, argues there's an upside to worrying.

Study links cannabis use in adolescence to schizophrenia

April 26, 2017

Scientists believe that schizophrenia, a disorder caused by an imbalance in the brain's chemical reactions, is triggered by a genetic interaction with environmental factors. A new Tel Aviv University study published in Human ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.