Stress, Anxiety and Social Withdrawal Linked to GI Problems in Children with Autism

May 15, 2022

A Bidirectional Relationship Exists Between Internalizing Behaviors and Gastrointestinal Issues

Researchers at the University of Missouri have recently published a study that suggests a connection between gastrointestinal problems, anxiety and social withdrawal for some children with autism. While conducting their study, the authors analyzed parent reports of gastrointestinal issues and internalizing behaviors of 621 minors with autism. The research team used path models in a structural equation modeling framework to further investigate their data. After examining the parental reports, the researchers believed the best-fitting model for this brain/gut phenomenon was a bidirectional model where internalizing behaviors (e.g., withdrawn and anxious behaviors) were associated with gastrointestinal issues (e.g., constipation, diarrhea, nausea and stomach pain). Sadly, this cycle then repeats, causing an endless loop of suffering for children experiencing both GI problems and internalizing behaviors. Co-author Brad Fergson expounds on his team’s work, stating, “Stress signals from the brain can alter the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine in the gut, which control gastrointestinal motility, or the movement of stool through the intestines.” He adds, “Stress also impacts the balance of bacteria living in the gut, called the microbiota, which can alter gastrointestinal functioning. The gut then sends signals back to the brain, and that can, in turn, lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and social withdrawal. The cycle then repeats, so novel treatments addressing signals from both the brain and the gut may provide the most benefit for some kids with gastrointestinal disorders and autism.” Ferguson is currently involved in a clinical trial to assess how stress-reducing medication affects gastrointestinal problems. 

Original Article

Original Study Abstract

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