Children with chronic or frequent stomach pain are more likely to experience anxiety disorders in adulthood, a recent study shows. The study, conducted at Vanderbilt University, monitored 332 children suffering from functional gastrointestinal pain from onset to early adulthood, with a control group of 147 children that had not reported pain.

At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that 51% of the 332 children with stomach pain developed an anxiety disorder, while only 20% of the control group did. Additionally, 40% of those experiencing stomach pains developed a depressive disorder, compared to only 16% of the control group. These numbers are yet another clear indicator of the bio-psycho-social interaction of the brain and the gut.

The interaction between the brain and gut, or the brain-gut axis, has often been a heated topic of discussion in relation to anxiety simply because of its puzzling nature.

Dr. Alexander Bystritsky, director of UCLA's Anxiety Disorders Research Center, confirms the phenomenon. "It sounds very fantastic, but it may be reality," he says about the findings. "The brain develops from the same sheet of cells as the gut, and serotonin is very much involved in regulation of gut movement. There is much more serotonin released in the gut than in the brain," he explains.

PANDAS Present in Those with Stomach Problems?

Dr. Bystritsky plans to continue research surrounding the correlation between anxiety disorders and the gut. It is quite possible that certain bacteria residing in the large intestine can affect the brain in a way similar to Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections, or PANDAS.

PANDAS describes the early and rapid onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); the autoimmune disorder most often presents itself as a sore throat.

Dr. Judy Rappaport's studies through National Institute of Mental Health demonstrated that patients suffering from PANDAS may benefit from antibiotics and gamma-globulin infusions. However, these treatments are more effective in treating the symptomatic sore throat than the bacterial composition of the large intestines, which is typically set by age three.

Dr. Bystritsky hypothesizes that in children with persistent mystery stomach problems, the infection closely linked to PANDAS may be occurring in their gut, and is simply being overlooked by parents and pediatricians alike. He also hypothesizes that some new treatment modalities, such as fecal transplants from those with healthy intestinal bacteria, may in fact help contain these disease.

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Date of original publication:
Updated on: June 12, 2017

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