On Grief and the Gut

In the adoption community, I’ve heard often about stomach and gut challenges related to adoption. Many adoptees deal with food hoarding, or with sensory issues around texture, or with eating disorders. Always consult a doctor or other medical professional, of courseā€”I am neither of those.

I have though written about the gut-brain connection, and its possible link to relinquishment and adoption: The Link Among the Brain, the Gut, Adoption, and Trauma. Research increasingly shows a connection among what we have experienced, how we feel, and how we eat. Sometimes the feelings are subconscious, sometimes they are rooted in trauma, and sometimes they rise to the surface, whether on traumaverseries or seemingly without a rationale.

Here’s a good article from Time about grief and the gut: “How Grief Upsets Your Gut Health.” While the article focuses around a person whose mother died, there is a resonance with adoption, where children “lose” their mothers, sometimes by death though more often by poverty, social stigma, addiction, illness, colonialism, economic inequities, patriarchy, or other reason. In any case, it is a substantial loss. It is grief. It is real, even in the cases where children are adopted at birth. From the Time article: “It’s challenging to solely examine bereavement, because grief includes other emotions such as anger, sadness, and denial. When these feelings linger, they can contribute to mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. These conditions’ ebbs and flows have been linked to the bacteria residing in the gut.”

Disturbed gut microbiomes (the community of bacteria/microorganisms living in our gut) can result in feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, as well as an overall loss of well-being. The article mentions dietary changes, probiotics, de-stressing, and breathing techniques as a few strategies to improve the “gut-brain axis.”

Food for thought.

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.