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GI Complaints in Kids Could Signal Future Emotional Problems

Children often seek out medical attention because of stomach problems — and it turns out a driving factor behind these visits may be more psychological than physical. Previous studies have linked child abuse, household mental illness and domestic violence to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Now, new research is looking more closely at GI complaints, brain development and childhood trauma.

According to a recent study of children adopted from orphanages or foster care before they were 2 years old, these three phenomena are connected. The researchers explored the possible association between the brain, bacteria in the gut, and parental deprivation by examining data from 344 children and teens between 3 and 18 years old. Of the subjects, 115 were exposed to early, adverse caregiving experiences by spending time in foster or institutional care as part of the international adoption process.

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What Did The Study Find?

The researchers found that children who weren’t raised by their biological parents from birth experienced more GI symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, constipation and diarrhea, than children raised by their biological parents.

As a second part of the study, the researchers collected brain images, stool samples and behavioral information from eight of the children in the adversity group and eight from the group who had been raised by their parents. Using gene sequencing, they examined the children’s stool samples to identify the levels and diversity of bacteria present.

Overall, kids from caregiving-disrupted backgrounds had distinct gut microbiomes from children raised by their parents from birth. The children from institutional care or foster homes had microbiomes with less diverse bacteria. Their brain scans differed, too.

“We demonstrated that previous, adverse care experiences were associated with increased incidence of gastrointestinal symptoms in youth,” the researchers said, noting that gastrointestinal symptoms were also associated with current and future anxiety.

They theorized that microbiome diversity is linked to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the region that helps regulate emotions. In short, early childhood trauma could lead to a less diverse microbiome, which may signal a prefrontal cortex that’s less developed.

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What Does This Mean For Healthcare Providers?

According to Nim Tottenham, professor psychology at Columbia University, senior author on the study, more research needs to be done to examine the brain-gut axis in children and how to intervene.

“It is too early to say anything conclusive, but our study indicates that adversity-associated changes in the gut microbiome are related to brain function, including differences in the regions of the brain associated with emotional processing,” Tottenham said in a statement.

Tottenham and colleagues believe the study’s findings indicate that GI symptoms in young children should at least be a red flag to pediatricians and other health care providers for future emotional health issues in their young patients.


Callaghan B, Fields, Gee D, Gabard-Durnam L, Caldera C, Humphreys K, Goff B, Flannery J, Telzer E, Shapiro M, Tottenham N. Mind and gut: Associations between mood and gastrointestinal distress in children exposed to adversity. Development and Psychology. 2019 Mar 28:1-20.

Park S, Videlock E, Shih W, Presson A, Mayer E, Chang L. Adverse Childhood Experiences are Associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Gastrointestinal Symptom Severity. Neurogastroenterology & Motility. 2016 Aug; 28(8): 1252-1260.

Last updated on 10/1/19.

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