Could Your Child's Anxiety Be A Pyrrole Disorder?

mood learning & behaviour
Pyrrole disorder in kids

What Is Pyrrole Disorder?

The theory of Pyrrole disorder was first put forth by Dr Abram Hoffer in the 1950s and further developed by Dr Carl Pheiffer in the 70s. They noted that elevated levels of pyrroles in the urine correlated with emotional stress as well as oxidative stress, and further found that supplementing with zinc and B6 brought down the pyrroles, the stress, and lead to more emotional stability. 

Dr William Walsh took up the research and further developed the theory. He is largely credited for where it stands now. Most of Dr Walsh's insights about how pyrroles influence mental wellness are captured in his book Nutrient Power, and he continues to develop his research on the biochemistry of mental illness and teach practitioners (myself included) how to apply nutritional solutions through his Walsh Research Institute.

Practitioners like Julia Ross and Trudy Scott also write about how pyrroles affect mood from a clinical perspective.

Pyrrole disorder is now described as a situation in which the body overproduces a particular byproduct of red blood cell production called hydroxyhemopyrrolin-2-one, or HPL. That molecule's nickname is Pyrrole


Excessive Pyrroles Can Contribute To Anxiety.


The proposed problem with excessive HPL is that due to its molecular configuration it can bind to Zinc and B-6 and pull them out in the urine leading to chronic deficiency of Zinc and B-6.

In many cases magnesium can also be deficient and, when pyrroles are very high they can also throw off the balance of fatty acids.

The nutrient deficiencies associated with high pyrroles keep kids stuck...

  • Zinc and B-6 are both used in the creation and transport of serotonin and dopamine so deficiencies can contribute to feelings like sadness, anxiety, being unmotivated, feeling foggy and inattentive.
  • Low dopamine and serotonin in new mothers and/or infants can interfere with crucial bonding and attachment in the early days leading to increased anxiety and fear later in life. 
  • Low zinc can open up the door to digestive and microbiome imbalances and malabsorption since zinc is used for digestion and also helps nourish a healthy gut lining.
  • Detoxification slows when zinc is low so the high toxic load can contribute to moodiness and anxiety.
  • B-6 is needed for energy production, sleep, and cognitive function; low B6 can contribute to anemia. 
  • Magnesium is neuroprotective and also involved in the production of calming neurotransmitters.
  • The excessive pyrroles themselves can also become a source of biological stress which can increase inflammation and demand for antioxidant resources.

So excessive pyrroles and the nutritional deficiencies associated with them can throw kids right into a vicious cyclone of stress and keep them there! 


What Does Pyrrole Disorder Look Like? 


Dr Walsh has analyzed over 40,000 urine pyrrole tests and correlated those results with various symptoms. Some of the symptoms he correlates with high pyrroles include:

  • anxiety (particularly social anxiety),
  • poor appetite,
  • nervous exhaustion,
  • stress avoidance,
  • negative thinking,
  • inner tension and hiding of feelings,
  • nausea and lack of hunger in the morning
  • sensitivity to noise and bright light
  • separation anxiety
  • volatile mood (major mood swings when stressed)

He also found that high pyrroles correlate most often with people who...

  • have experienced learning difficulties (especially reading)
  • come from a family of mostly females (ex lots of sisters, aunts etc)
  • experience early greying of hair 
  • tend to like salty and spicy food
  • have a "pot belly" (adults) with thin wrists and ankles
  • can't remember dreams (or have poor short-term memory)
  • have sensory sensitivities

High pyrroles have correlated with:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Down’s syndrome
  • Alcoholism
  • Mood disorders
  • ADHD
  • Adult criminal behavior (sudden deviance)

Please take close note... this is a list of some of the things that have correlated with high pyrroles. It's not diagnostic of anything. For example (I want to be clear)... if you have a pot belly you don't necessarily have high pyrroles (and vise versa). But if you have a pot belly and high anxiety and other symptoms associated with low zinc and B-6, elevated pyrroles might be something to look into. 

I have been curious about pyrroles in my anxious clients and have found elevated urinary pyrroles to be one of those things that can keep kids stuck in a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of stress. 

When we improve the diet and give these kids Zinc, B-6, and extra antioxidants for about 6 weeks, most of the time their pyrroles come down, they feel more calm and secure, and they become more emotionally flexible.

We also often see digestion and sleep improve as we take pressure off the nervous system.


How Do You Know If Pyrrole Disorder Is A Factor In Your Child's Anxiety?


HPL is naturally flushed from the body through urine, so you can check on pyrrole disorder using a simple urine test called a Kryptopyrrole Quantitative Urine test. 

According to DHA Labs (the only lab I trust for accurate Pyrrole testing),

"Pyrrole disorder is an abnormality in biochemistry resulting in the overproduction of pyrrole molecules. Excess pyrrole molecules effectively work to deplete vitamin B6 and zinc. A high incidence of pyrrole disorder is found in individuals with: ADHD, Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress, Behavioral Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Alzheimer's Disease, Autism, Schizophrenia." 

This urine test along with a pyrrole symptom questionnaire can be used to test out the hypothesis that excessive pyrroles are a contributing factor to a child's anxiety and their potential need for B-6, zinc, and antioxidants.

Pyrroles are extremely delicate and need to get to the lab within 24 hrs. So this test isn't available everywhere. 


What Causes Elevated Pyrroles?


As far as I can tell, this part hasn't yet really been figured out.

What is known is that pyrroles are a natural bi-product of red blood cell production and that some people produce too many of them. From there, there is much disagreement.

There's probably a genetic force driving them up, though no clear genetic link has yet been isolated. 

Some medications like prednisone can also temporarily drive up pyrroles.

Emotional stress seems to drive them up temporarily as well, as can biological stressors like blood sugar swings or gut dysfunction.

I wouldn't be surprised if we were to find out that in some cases pyrrole disorder is actually secondary to other things like mycotoxins and infections.

Bottom line is that when someone is under chronic stress - no matter where that stress is coming from - they might have high pyrroles. And if pyrroles are high they will be thrown into a state of chronic stress. Vicious cycle.


So How Important Is It To Know Pyrrole Status?


I find it more helpful to think of anxiety as a cyclical thing... a "stress cyclone" rather than something with a root cause. To ease anxiety we need to find and reduce the internal and external stressors that feed off each other, while slowly improving stress tolerance by nourishing the nervous system at the same time.

At this point, while some practitioners consider pyrrole disorder to be a foundational aspect that can lie upstream of dysfunction in any system that requires zinc and B-6, critics suggest that it's too transient a marker to be considered reliable. 

After training with the Walsh Research Institute and working with my own caseload of anxious kids, I'm convinced that elevated pyrroles are one possible explanation for an increased need for supplemental Zinc and B-6. It can help explain why some kids are moving through life with an overly sensitive nervous system and can shed light on why they might have been skewed towards a stressed state in the early days of life.  

But we also need to keep in mind that zinc and B-6 could be low for other reasons beyond high pyrroles. 

Are those nutrients coming in sufficiently through diet?

Is the digestive system efficiently extracting those nutrients from foods?

Are there genetic variants that reduce the efficacy of the enzymes involved in the transportation of these nutrients?

Are there other mineral deficiencies leading to poor absorption of Zinc and B-6?

Are they being used up quickly to support an overactive stress response?

It could be all those things.  

It could be high pyrroles.

So all that to say, if pyrroles are high upon testing a child would benefit from zinc, B-6, and antioxidants and the pyrrole test becomes a nice tracking tool to gauge progress.

But if the test is not high, that does not mean a child's zinc and B-6 needs are being met.


What To Do About High Pyrroles


The recommended solution to balance this out is to offer Zinc, B-6 in its active form (P-5-P) and its raw form (Pyridoxine), along with extra antioxidants according to weight.

When Pyrroles are excessively high it's recommended to avoid omega-3 fatty acids and to use Evening Primrose Oil to facilitate zinc absorption.

BUT also take note that total nutrient status is also important for correcting a pyrrole imbalance. Supplemental zinc and B-6 are not likely to be well absorbed if there is insufficient protein and insufficiency in a whole host of other micronutrients. So correcting this imbalance isn't just about popping nutrient capsules. It requires a healthy, diverse, whole foods diet.


The Bottom Line


At this point I think it best to consider that elevated pyrroles are one explanation as to why some people experience strong cycles of anxiety, an overly sensitive nervous system, and other symptoms relating to low zinc and B-6. It is a potential factor worth exploring (among other factors) that can explain behavior challenges in kids.

I have seen some kids with elevated urinary pyrroles do great when they supplement with zinc, B-6, and focus on getting more antioxidants in their diet to combat the oxidative stress of high pyrroles.

Their pyrrole numbers come down, they feel more relaxed, less emotionally stressed, and have better energy, sometimes in a matter of a few weeks. 

There's no doubt that zinc and B-6 are important for emotional stability and a whole myriad of other things so high pyrroles could explain a lot.

Whether it's pyrroles driving a higher-than-normal need for these nutrients remains a theory, but one I find compelling.

Since zinc and B-6 are involved in so many different processes including detoxification, neurotransmitter transport, digestion, and energy production, I still consider screening for excessive pyrroles using either a symptom questionnaire or a urine test if available to be helpful. 



About Jess Sherman, FDN-P, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition¬ģ Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist and a trauma-sensitive Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids.¬†She is also a teacher, with a Master's degree in education. Her¬†Calm & Clear Kids¬†introductory course,¬†her Amino Acids (with kids!) Quickstart program, and her signature¬†Roadmap to Resilient Kids,¬†¬†along with her book¬†Raising Resilience,¬†have¬†helped families¬†in at least 44 countries¬†improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, and mood disorders and reduce¬†their reliance on medication.¬†She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work¬†with families, and she¬†continues to¬†bring an understanding of the Nourishment Needs and Biological Stress to the mainstream conversation about children‚Äôs mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses, workshops and as a contributor to print and online magazines.¬†

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The content on this website and in the guides and courses offered here is meant to provide information so that parents can make informed decisions and discuss these issue with their health care teams. It is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or individualized care.