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Researchers find link between children's stomach issues and mental health

The study suggests that big changes in early life contribute to both physical and mental health

Photo (c) aldomurillo - Getty Images
As a means of better understanding the relationship between children’s mental and physical health, researchers from Columbia University recently explored how stomach pains are often associated with mental health struggles.

The study revealed that when children are faced with adversity at a young age, like being separated from a parent, they are more likely to experience gastrointestinal pain, which, in turn, should signal to physicians that there may be future mental health issues.

“One common reason children show up at doctors’ offices is intestinal complaints,” said researcher Tim Nottenham. “Our findings indicate that gastrointestinal symptoms in young children could be a red flag to primary care physicians for future emotional health problems.”

What’s in the gut

To see how gut and mental health were affected when children experienced separation from a parent, the researchers evaluated data from children who were raised by their biological parents and those who were adopted from foster care or orphanages.

The original groups included nearly 230 children raised by their biological parents and 115 adopted children. The researchers say the latter group reported more prevalent stomach issues, such as vomiting, nausea, constipation, and stomachaches.

The team then analyzed brain scans and stool samples for eight children from each parenting group to see how genetic makeup affected the likelihood of later mental health issues. The tests showed that there were fundamental differences between adopted children and those who were raised by their biological parents.

One of the major findings had to do with the diversity of the gut microbiomes of the two groups; the researchers found that greater diversity is a characteristic linked to the part of the brain that handles emotions, and this was more common in the children who were raised by their biological parents.

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

As this is the first study to explore how children’s gastrointestinal issues affected later mental health issues, the researchers cited previous studies that have produced similar results in both adults and animals. Not only is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) more common in adults who have experienced trauma, but the researchers note that mental health issues are common in adults who were separated from their parents at a young age.

Despite this small sample size, the researchers plan to put their findings to the test when they increase the number of participants in an upcoming study.

"Animal studies tell us that dietary interventions and probiotics can manipulate the gut microbiome and ameliorate the effects of adversity on the central nervous system, especially during the first years of life when the developing brain and microbiome are more plastic," Callaghan said. "It is possible that this type of research will help us to know if and how to best intervene in humans, and when."

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