July 14, 2017
2 min read

Stress, not diet, likely source of GI problems in children with autism

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Stress, not dietary intake, contributes to gastrointestinal issues in children with autism spectrum disorder, according to a presentation from the 2017 International Meeting for Autism Research.

“Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for those with autism to experience constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal issues,” Brad Ferguson, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow in the department of radiology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the University of Missouri Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, said in a press release. “We sought to find out whether nutritional intake in their individual diets was associated with gastrointestinal issues.”

In prior research, Ferguson and colleagues found a correlation between autonomic functioning, cortisol stress response and lower GI tract symptomology; however, the relationship between diet and GI symptoms among patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) remains largely unknown. In the present study, the researchers analyzed dietary composition in the same cohort of participants to determine whether nutrition contributed to the relationship between the response to stress and GI functioning in ASD.

Researchers examined the GI symptoms, stress response and diet of 75 children aged 5 to 18 years recruited from the Autism-Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN). Caregivers completed questionnaires to measure the participant’s GI symptoms and food intake over the past month. The investigators then compared the reported instances of GI problems with 32 different nutrients found in a standard diet. Participants also underwent two stress tests to determine cortisol response and heart rate variability.

Analysis revealed that the most common GI disorders were functional constipation (42.5%), IBS (11.7%), lower abdominal pain associated with bowel symptoms (9.2%) and upper pain associate with bowel symptoms (7.5%). Although initial evaluation showed a positive association between GI tract symptoms and total dietary fiber (P = .042) and vitamin B6 intake (P = .03), they were not significant after adjusting for the 32 nutrients, indicating no significant correlations between nutritional composition and GI tract issues in this cohort of patients with ASD. In contrast, the data did show a positive association between lower GI tract symptoms and cortisol response to stress-inducing stimuli (95% CI, 0.04-0.47).

“Contrary to what you may initially think, dietary composition does not appear to be a driving factor between stress response and gastrointestinal function in this sample,” Ferguson said. “More research is needed to better understand the causes of these issues, but an increased reaction to stress does appear to be a contributing factor.” – by Savannah Demko


Ferguson BJ, et al. Abstract 25251. Presented at: International Meeting for Autism Research; May 10-13, 2017; San Francisco.

Disclosure : The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.