Cortisol may link stress and GI trouble in autism

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The gastrointestinal issues common among people with autism may be related to an increased reaction to stress, say researchers.

“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,” says David Beversdorf, 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 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.”

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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 the University of Missouri 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 stress response, 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 says. “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 appears in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. The Autism Treatment Network and the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health by the Health Resources Services Administration supported the work.

Source: University of Missouri