Neurotransmitter Imbalances

Neurotransmitter imbalances are common in mood and behavior disorders such as:

Many children, especially those on the autism spectrum, also experience:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Self-stimulatory behaviors
  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Self-injurious behaviors

One way to really understand what is going on neurologically with your child is to test for different biochemical imbalances that which can help you determine where the issues are and how to nutritionally correct them.

It is important to note that neurotransmitter imbalances often begin in the gut, both because intestinal microbes play a critical role in the production and metabolism of neurotransmitters, but also because nutritional precursors to neurotransmitters are derived from the gut. If your child is exhibiting mood or behavioral symptoms, the first place to look is the health of their gut and the composition of their diet.

Below are some of the common neurotransmitter imbalances seen in children with mood and behavioral issues:


Neurotransmitter imbalances – whether high or low – can affect mood and behaviors of a child. Serotonin, known as the “happy hormone”, regulates and stabilizes mood, sleep, appetite, anxiety, impulse control and cognition. Serotonin is found in large quantities in the gastrointestinal system due to the digestive stimulatory properties, so healing the gastrointestinal tract is an important factor in increasing serotonin levels.


Dopamine and norepinephrine are both catecholamines, hormones and neurotransmitters. Too much dopamine can result in intense psychotic anxiety, inappropriate thinking process and even psychosis. Too little dopamine will often look like laziness, apathy or lack of motivation. Norepinephrine is the stress hormone that controls attention and response actions. If norepinephrine is too high, it can also cause manic episodes.

Excitatory Neurotransmitters

Glutamate, glutamic acid and glutamine are all excitatory neurotransmitters. Too many excitatory neurotransmitters produce excitotoxicity, causing nerve damage or cell death, the result of which triggers inflammation. Excess excitatory neurotransmitters can cause:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Mood swings
  • Tics
  • Seizures
  • Insomnia
  • Aggressive behaviors

If your child exhibits any of these behaviors, consider a low-glutamate diet to see if symptoms and behaviors improve.

Inhibitory Neurotransmitters

GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, calms behaviors, anxiety and aggression and regulates mood, but too many excitatory neurotransmitters can decrease GABA levels. L-taurine and L-tryptophan both have a calming effect on behaviors.

Other Neurotransmitters

L-phenylalanine and L-tyrosine can improve thyroid functioning, which improves energy levels and mood.

Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies

Zinc and Copper

The zinc/copper ratio is very important for mood.

Low zinc and high copper are associated with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mind-racing
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Panic attacks

B Vitamins and Vitamin C

Both vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins are all calming to the nervous system, create emotional stability and improve sleep. The B vitamins include:

  • Thiamine (B1)
  • Riboflavin (B2)
  • Niacin (B3)
  • Pantothenic acid (B5)
  • Pyridoxine (B6) P5P
  • Choline
  • Inositol: Children with obsessive compulsive behaviors, PANDAS, and tics often benefit from inositol.
  • Folate (B9): Low levels of folate (5methyltetrahydrofolate) or folinic acid can result in depression. Folate plays a critical role in the methylation cycle which can affect mood and behaviors.  Some children are unable to effectively utilize the synthetic forms of folate found so abundantly in processed wheat and cereal foods and thus require special supplementation.
  • Cobalamin (B12): Low levels of B12 can lead to the degeneration of the central nervous system and trigger brain fog, memory loss or psychotic and manic behaviors.

Calcium and Magnesium

Calcium and magnesium can relax the nervous system and improve sleep. Children with an inability to sleep often benefit from magnesium supplementation or increased magnesium in the diet.

Low Lithium

For over fifty years, lithium carbonate has been a drug used for bipolar, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. Children with anxiety, mood disorders, bipolar disorder and neurodevelopmental disorders may benefit from taking natural lithium in the form of lithium orotate to reduce mood swings and improve behaviors. Lithium can also be obtained from diet.

Low levels of lithium can cause:

  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Learning disabilities
  • Psychotic behaviors
  • Manic behaviors

Symptoms of low lithium can also be aggravated by low levels of B12. Lithium is needed for the uptake of folate and B12 into the cells. This is very important for methylation. The relationship between lithium, B12 and folate are crucial for children demonstrating mood and behavioral symptoms.

Lithium can also increase GABA in the brain and help protect against glutamate excitotoxicity. Lithium can also take from the thyroid hormone production, so it may be appropriate to supplement with iodine or put iodine on the skin to ensure proper thyroid functioning.

Other Contributing Factors to Mood and Behavioral Disorders

Blood-Brain Barrier Breach

A breach of the blood brain barrier can be caused by:

  • A concussion
  • High EMF exposure
  • Antibiotic therapy
  • Microbial infections

Microbial infections can contribute to mood and behavioral problems in children, especially:

  • Streptococcus
  • Borrelia burgdorferi
  • Babesia
  • Bartonella
  • Erlichia
  • Clostridia difficile

Conditions like PANDAS/PANS, chronic Lyme disease and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder often have a microbial component. In other words, the body is unable to effectively manage an ongoing infection, which in turn creates a whole cascade of inflammatory and neurological consequences.

Quinolinic Acid

Quinolinic acid, a known neurotoxin, is a downstream product of the kynurenine pathway, which metabolizes the amino acid tryptophan. Both of these can cause:

  • Excessive inflammation
  • Immune overstimulation
  • Excessive cortisol production due to stress and anxiety


Viruses can be the underlying triggers to many autoimmune disorders including PANS and can affect mood and behaviors. Common underlying herpetic viruses in mood and behavior disorders are:

  • Epstein Barr
  • Varicella
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Herpes #1
  • Herpes #2
  • Human Herpes Virus #6

Low Cholesterol

Low cholesterol, which is frequently found in children on the autism spectrum, can result in:

  • Violent behavior
  • Depression
  • Suicide
  • Anxiety
  • Delinquency

Low cholesterol is essential for the proper functioning of serotonin and oxytocin receptors.


Hypoglycemia occurs when glucose levels drop. A diet high in carbohydrates and low in minerals can trigger symptoms of:

  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Violence

Nutritional imbalances and addiction profiles usually lead to substance or alcohol abuse as a result of self-medicating. Testing neurotransmitter levels is recommended.


Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid and adrenal glands are both under-functioning, triggering problems with sleep, concentration and immunity.

Fatty Acids

Low fatty acid levels are known to cause depression, anxiety, mood and behavior disorders. DHA and EPA have been proven to be the most effective.

High Testosterone

High testosterone, common in children with autism, can cause children to be:

  • Violent
  • Self-mutilating
  • Aggressive
  • Unbelievable strength
  • Non-compliant

Environmental Toxins

Toxic environmental exposures of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, aluminum, cadmium, nickel, and arsenic cause disruption and imbalances in the functioning of neurotransmitters affecting mood and behaviors. Most heavy metals are free radicals that induce oxidative stress which also affects mood and behaviors.

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