How Neurotransmitters Impact A Child's Mood and Learning

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Neurotransmitters influence mood and attention in kids

 

Nourishing Happy Minds: How Neurotransmitters Impact A Child's Mood and Learning

 

Neurotransmitters are tiny but mighty chemical messengers in our brains that influence how we feel, think, and behave. Think of neurotransmitters as the conductors of a symphony - responding to the music of life and orchestrating our emotions, moods, and behaviors.

They are the chemicals that respond to stress and help us cope.

There's more to a child's mood, behavior, and capacity to learn and pay attention than neurotransmitters, but when we understand how neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine work to carry messages through the brain and body, we start to understand how they shape emotional states in our kids. From that understanding, we can optimize neurotransmission and help them feel better and experience more success.

When we understand our kids we can help them.

 

What Are Neurotransmitters?

 

Neurotransmitters are like the brain's internal communication system. They pass messages between nerve cells (neurons) and are responsible for everything from the exhilaration of joy to the grip of anxiety, the focus of concentration to the depths of sadness.

There are four main neurotransmitters I want you to know about.

1. Serotonin - often dubbed the "feel-good" neurotransmitter because of its influence on mood and emotional stability.

2. Dopamine - best known as the activator of the brain's reward system and is linked to pleasure and motivation.

3. Norepinephrine - created from dopamine and associated with alertness and the "fight or flight" response.

4. GABA - our most abundant calming neurotransmitter, helping us feel emotionally flexible.

Understanding how these neurotransmitters work and how lifestyle, nutrition, and genetics influence their balance is like having the inside scoop on your brain's emotional thermostat.

So, let's dive into the captivating world of neurotransmitters and their incredible influence on our kids' daily lives. As I go through this, understand that I'm talking in very general terms - the brain is a complex place and I'm making some generalizations here. But as a parent, I want you to know the basics.

 

About Serotonin 

Serotonin is often referred to as the "feel-good" neurotransmitter. Serotonin also has an influence on the contractions of our gut muscles so low levels can contribute to chronic constipation.

Low serotonin can correlate with:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive thinking,
  • Ruminating thoughts,
  • Self-doubt, low confidence
  • Panic attacks
  • Rage, anger
  • Chronic constipation
  • Tendency toward perfectionism

As the precursor to melatonin (our main sleep hormone), low serotonin can contribute to poor sleep. Carbohydrate cravings can also be a signal that serotonin is low (think "stress eating" or "comfort foods"). Kids experiencing low serotonin may be volatile and lack motivation or feel lethargic.  

The main building block for Serotonin is an amino acid called Tryptophan. You can find tryptophan in foods like turkey, chicken, nuts, and seeds. The body will break the protein in those foods down into single amino acids, one of which is tryptophan. You can also find tryptophan as a supplement. 

Nutrients like vitamin B6 and magnesium act as cofactors in the process of converting tryptophan into serotonin. Incorporating foods rich in these nutrients, like leafy greens, bananas, and avocados, into your child's diet can help promote optimal serotonin production.

Certain opportunistic microbes like clostridia and yeast interfere with the synthesis of serotonin, so this is one of the reasons why a healthy gut equals a healthy mind.

There are also genes involved in serotonin transport and uptake, like MAOA (Monoamine Oxidase A) and HTR (Hydroxytryptamine Receptor), so variants in those genes can‚Äč impact how our brains use serotonin. 

 

About Dopamine

Dopamine is associated with focus, attention, and a get-up-and-go attitude. If your child struggles with staying on task or paying attention, low dopamine might be at play.

Low dopamine can correlate with: 

  • mood swings,
  • low motivation,
  • restless legs,
  • craving dopamine-boosting things like risky behavior or video games.

Kids with chronically low dopamine are more prone to addiction.

I've also seen low dopamine contribute to a child's persistent need for chaos. You know... the kids who continually push the buttons of those around them to create disruption? For some kids that gives them just the dopamine hit they need!

Tyrosine is main the nutritional building block of dopamine. So including sources of tyrosine like eggs, fish, red meat, nuts and avocado in the diet is vital to good dopamine production.

Nutrients like iron, B6, magnesium, and zinc are crucial for turning tyrosine into dopamine.

Some kids experience chronically high dopamine as well.

High dopamine can correlate with:

  • competitive nature,
  • aggression,
  • poor impulse control,
  • extraversion, restlessness, needing to move,
  • paranoia,
  • impatience

Genetic variations that influence the activity of enzymes like COMT (Catechol-O-methyltransferase) and DBH (Dopamine Beta Hydroxylase) can play a role in how efficiently your child's brain makes and manages dopamine. 

 

Norepinephrine & Epinephrine

Dopamine is converted into norepinephrine and epinephrine. Together, Dopamine, Noreipinepherine, and Epinephrine are called "catecholamines". 

Epinephrine is considered excitatory in nature because it activates the sympathetic nervous system;  Norepinephrine is more of a modulator that regulates the body's stress response.

Concentration and focus can be affected when either of these is high or low. 

When norepinephrine is high a child may feel impulsive, tired, hyper, anxious, or nervous.

Low norepinephrine can show up as low energy, depression, dizziness, and decreased ability to focus.

Opportunistic microbes (that gut-brain connection once again), mycotoxins (mold), and certain genetic variants can interfere with the conversion of dopamine into norepinephrine leading to a build-up of dopamine. High dopamine can make a child feel more extraverted; when it climbs too high we can see paranoia, need for instant gratification, worry, and introversion.

Copper is a key nutrient involved in the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine. When copper is very high this conversion can happen quickly creating low dopamine and high norepinephrine. We often see this in kids who have high anxiety along with poor attention and focus. When copper is very low we can see higher dopamine and lower norepinephrine which can show up as the low energy and poor focus associated with low norepinephrine, along with the competitive and aggressive nature and poor impulse control associated with high dopamine. 

 

About GABA

GABA(gamma-aminobutyric acid) is our most abundant calming neurotransmitter. It helps the body settle down and counters the influence of epinephrine. The body makes GABA from glutamate,  an amino acid found in food that excites the nervous system. We can also supplement with GABA directly.

Imbalances in the GABA-glutamate ratio (typically high glutamate, low GABA) can correlate with:

  • anger,
  • anxiety (especially social),
  • inner tension and tight muscles,
  • excessive worry,
  • feeling easily overwhelmed,

There is a lot of overlap between low GABA symptoms and low Serotonin symptoms as they are both calming neurochemicals. I find kids low in GABA tend to be extreme introverts and have social anxiety they feel in their neck and belly whereas when low in Serotonin dominates they tend to have darker, more gloomy thoughts and tend to really struggle with gut issues. This is general though, and a child can be low in both neurochemicals. The way to know is to either run a urinary neurotransmitter test (preferably alongside a genetic test) or to trial some nutrients to see if they help.

Genetic variations, especially in the GAD gene, can affect how efficiently your child's brain completes the conversion of glutamate to GABA.

Magnesium and B6 are important cofactors for GABA. Foods like dark chocolate, spinach, and nuts can help provide the magnesium your child's brain needs to maintain emotional balance, even in the presence of genetic variations.

 

Lifestyle Support For Neurotransmitters 

Genetics and nutrition influence healthy neurotransmitter regulation, but we can't forget other critical elements that have an influence.

  1. Environmental Factors: Exposure to toxins like lead and chemicals can influence the creation and transmission of neurotransmitters.

  2. Physical Activity: Regular exercise is a mood booster, especially supporting dopamine (and endorphins).  

  3. Screen Time: Excessive screen time, particularly before bedtime, can disrupt sleep patterns by interfering with serotonin and melatonin; flashy blue light can stimulate dopamine (making screens addictive when levels are low and adding to volatility when levels are high).

  4. Stress and Coping: Mindfulness practices and deep breathing exercises can help stimulate the calming neurotransmitters thereby shifting messages of threat and worry into messages of calm and safety.

  5. Social Connections: Positive relationships stimulate calming neurotransmitters while toxic relationships elevate messages of threat and stress.

  6. Consistency and Routine: For most kids predictability will keep the messages of calm flowing. 

The Impact of Genetics on Neurotransmitters

 

Our children inherit a unique genetic makeup from us, and this genetic blueprint can significantly influence how efficiently their bodies produce and utilize these crucial chemical messengers in the brain.

For more on the impact of genetics on a child's neurotransmitters, mood and behavior read this post: jesssherman.com/blog/is-your-child-wired-for-anxiety-inattention-irritability

 

The Bottom Line

 

There are many other chemicals that act as neurotransmitters and impact how we feel - histamine, glutamate, endorphins, oxytocin, and cortisol are some of them we haven't discussed here. But understanding these core chemicals I've covered in this article can be a great starting place for better understanding your child's inattention, anxiety, and moodiness.

The body is brilliant. It is designed to have a remarkably well-orchestrated response to stress and threat, and a homing device to find its way back to safety. The messengers of this system are neurotransmitters.

Genetics, food, and lifestyle factors all influence neurotransmission and, through that influence, affect the messages that flow through the body and brain. 

Remember - neurodiversity is a beautiful spectrum. When we're supporting a child's mood and behavior by supporting their neurotransmitters we're not trying to "fix them". We're trying to understand them so we can create the best environment around them and inside them to help them thrive and find balance. We're trying to find the supports we can use to help them get through their days with more ease and flow.

It's all about nourishing those developing brains for optimal emotional well-being!

 

Click HERE to learn how targetted nutritional supplementation can support positive neurotransmitter balance 

 

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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