Study Links Stress & Cortisol to Gastrointestinal Issues in Autism

Study Links Stress & Cortisol to Gastrointestinal Issues in Autism

“Individuals with autism often have a heightened reaction to stress, and many of these patients frequently experience constipation, abdominal pain, or other gastrointestinal issues,” says David Beversdorf, an associate professor in the departments of radiology, neurology, and psychological sciences at the University of Missouri and its Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

“To understand why this happens, we examined the link between gastrointestinal symptoms and immune markers related to the stress response. We discovered a connection between increased cortisol response to stress and these symptoms.”

Cortisol, a hormone released during stress, helps prevent the release of inflammatory substances known as cytokines, which have been linked to autism, gastrointestinal issues, and stress.

The researchers studied 120 individuals with autism treated at the University of Missouri and Vanderbilt University. Parents of the participants completed a questionnaire to assess their children’s gastrointestinal symptoms, identifying 51 patients with symptoms and 69 without.

To induce a stress response, participants took a 30-second stress test. Cortisol samples were collected from participants’ saliva before and after the test. The researchers found that individuals with gastrointestinal symptoms had higher cortisol responses to stress compared to those without gastrointestinal symptoms.

“When treating a patient with autism who has constipation and other gastrointestinal issues, physicians often prescribe laxatives,” Beversdorf says. “Our findings suggest that for some patients, other factors may contribute to their symptoms. More research is needed, but anxiety and stress reactivity could be important considerations when treating these patients.”

The study appears in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. The Autism Treatment Network and the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health, supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration, funded the work.

Our cortisol testing kit can help you gain insight into the levels of cortisol on your blood. 

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    Individuals with autism often have a heightened reaction to stress, leading to frequent gastrointestinal issues like constipation and abdominal pain, says David Beversdorf from the University of Missouri. His research...

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    Individuals with autism often have a heightened reaction to stress, leading to frequent gastrointestinal issues like constipation and abdominal pain, says David Beversdorf from the University of Missouri. His research...

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