The Link Among the Brain, the Gut, Adoption, and Trauma

I’ve known a lot of adoptees who have stomach issues, who have trouble digesting some food, who struggle with constipation, or who often feel nauseous. I’ve known a lot of adoptive parents who have wondered what’s going on with their kids’ gastrointestinal health. A recent report, published in Development and Psychopathology, suggests that “children with early caregiving disruptions had distinctly different gut microbiomes compared to kids raised by biological caregivers from birth.”

The report from Columbia University is titled “Mind and Gut: Associations Between mood and gastrointestinal distress in children exposed to adversity.” The article is behind a paywall of $35. My information here is from the summary in Science Daily, “Gastrointestinal complaints in children could signal mental health problem,”and from PsychCentral, “Trauma-Related Gut Changes in Kids Tied to Future Mental Health Issues.”

According to the summaries, this “study is among the first to link disruption of a child’s gastrointestinal microbiome triggered by early life adversity with brain activity in regions associated with emotional health,” according to Dr. Bridget Callahan.

In other words, the brains of children who experienced trauma at an early age developed differently than children raised with their biological family, and one difference was the amount of gut biome diversity. We all want gut biome diversity: the more we have, the healthier our gut biome is, and the happier our stomachs and digestive system will be.

There is an increasing body of research suggesting that there is a link between mental health and gut bacteria. Much of the research is done on adults. This new research studied children adopted internationally before they were 2 years old, and compared them with children who were raised by their biological parents. “The children with past caregiving disruptions showed higher levels of symptoms that include stomach aches, constipation, vomiting, and nausea…Brain scans of the children also revealed that brain activity patterns correlated with certain bacteria. For example, children raised with (biological) parents had increased gut micro diversity, which is linked to the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with relating emotions.”

Of course there is more research needed. Still, this suggests something that a lot of folks in the adoption community have probably wondered about: trauma and disruptions in a child’s care can impact the brain and emotions, and thus can also affect changes to the gut, our digestive system. Those stomach aches and digestion problems may have their foundation in adversity, which affects brain development. Fascinating stuff. I hope the report gets in the hands of adoptees, adoptive parents, pediatricians, and other doctors. The mind-body connection is a powerful force.

7 thoughts on “The Link Among the Brain, the Gut, Adoption, and Trauma

  1. This is enlightening. I read in my baby book the frustrated entries from my adopted mother. “She won’t eat. She throws up her food. She cries all the time. ” Reading these entries, I always knew it was adoption related. Your post adds to my understanding. Thank you.

  2. Oh and another thing, adoptees mostly aren’t breastfed by their biological mothers. So they miss out on all the benefits that (their own biological mother’s) breastmilk provides. They have to learn to tolerate nutrition that is not tailor made for them from a very young age and the associated immune system boost. Pretty sure that has a huge effect on gut and digestive health too.

  3. Epigenetics shows trauma can pass from generation to generation. And clearly an embryo is affected in utero by the chemical reactions taking place within the mother (eg cortisol, stress hormone).

    My view on gut and diet is that intercountry / intercultural adoptees are genetically set up for a diet they don’t grow up with (generally KOC adoptee by white parents) so there’s an obvious likelihood of a mismatch there. For example east Asians have a high likelihood of lactose intolerance genetically. And south Asians have a high predisposition towards diabetes, etc. For kids of colour brought up on a white western diet, their bodies weren’t designed to cope with that.

    Not to mention psychological effects – adoptees have a much higher incidence of eating disorders than the normal population. You could posit that’s due to adoption trauma, or nurture…

  4. I am not surprised at these findings. I have a brother with epilepsy and a colostomy. If he becomes emotionally upset this upsets the workings of his colostemy. If his colostomy is not working properly it triggers his epilepsy. It is a never ending cycle. Furthermore, in recent studies in Australia concerning the forced adoption practices last century, the level of trauma in adopted persons as well as their natural mothers was well recognized as well asinter-generational trauma. I have lost count of adopted persons as well the natural mothers whom I have met, who report the same gastro intestinal symptoms such as pain, constipation, chronic reflux or even bowel blockage. Thank you for alerting me to this research.

    • Thanks so much for commenting. I don’t take this research lightly. The impact that trauma has on the body is so real. Heartbreakingly real, as in the case of your brother and so many who suffer. Take care.

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