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Autistic Children Prone to Stress-Induced Stomach Problems

While the culprit for the stomach pain and discomfort in autistic children was unknown for quite some time, new research suggests it could be caused by an “increased reaction to stress”.

Many children with autism spectrum disorder have reported cases of significant gastrointestinal issues. While the culprit for the stomach pain and discomfort was unknown for quite some time, new research suggests it could be caused by an “increased reaction to stress”.

Prior research had noted that some patients with autism spectrum disorder exhibited different reactivity levels to stress and altered immune markers that were relative to typically developing individuals — especially stress-responsive cytokines like tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF- α) and interleukin 6 (IL-6). This was a significant finding, because acute and chronic stress has been routinely associated with exacerbations of gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with autism spectrum disorder.

To assess increased stress hormone responses and their relationship to gastrointestinal symptoms, researchers from the University of Missouri (MU) School of Medicine, led by David Beversdorf, MD, Associate Professor in the departments of radiology, neurology, and psychological sciences, conducted a study with 120 patients who had autism treated at MU and Vanderbilt University.

The autistic patients’ parents were required to complete questionnaires analyzing their children’s gastrointestinal symptoms. The answers showed 51 patients experienced gastrointestinal symptoms, while 69 did not.

Past research had referenced that during stressful times, the body often releases a hormone called cortisol, which worked to prevent inflammatory substances like cytokines from triggering inflammation.

Interestingly, the same cytokines had also been associated with autism, gastrointestinal issues, and stress.

During this study, the team stimulated a stress response from a 30-second stress test. From cortisol samples gathered through patients’ saliva before and after the test, the team discovered patients with gastrointestinal symptoms “had greater cortisol in response to the stress than the participants without gastrointestinal symptoms”.

The team hypothesized that physicians might prescribe laxatives to any patients with autism who also suffered from constipation and other lower gastrointestinal issues.

Beversdorf concluded, “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 paper, “Associations between Cytokines, Endocrine Stress Response, and Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

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