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Anxiety is complex. And as such, it’s caused by a complex set of factors. As much as you’d like to, you can’t talk your child out of feeling anxious. No amount of reassurance is going to counteract the brain chemical imbalance often associated with anxiety – especially for kids who are affected by PANS/PANDAS or other brain inflammation disorders.

But that doesn’t mean you’re helpless. You can help your child with their anxiety by addressing some common brain chemical imbalances. 

In the last article, I talked about GABA and how supporting this neurotransmitter can reduce the signals that trigger feelings of anxiousness. This week we’re going to dive into the rock star of happy brain chemicals – serotonin.

What Is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a chemical produced by the nerves that’s responsible for sending signals from one nerve cell to another. You probably think of it as a brain chemical, but you can find it all over the body – in the digestive system, throughout the nervous system, and even in blood platelets.

When tryptophan (the essential amino acid everyone blames for their sleepiness after Thanksgiving dinner) combines with a chemical reactor called tryptophan hydroxylase, it forms serotonin.

We think of serotonin as a feel-good brain chemical. And it is a natural mood stabilizer – more on that in a minute. But serotonin also helps with motor skills, sleep, healing, and digestion. Most of the serotonin in your body isn’t actually made in your brain. In fact, about 90% of serotonin is made in the gut. 

Serotonin and Anxiety

Also called 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter that also acts as a hormone. As a neurotransmitter, serotonin carries signals between nerve cells in your brain and central nervous system throughout your body. These messages give the body instructions on how to work and are involved in many bodily functions. 

Symptoms of Serotonin Deficiency

Serotonin acts as a mood stabilizer and regulates feelings like happiness and anxiety. When serotonin levels are too low you’ll find symptoms like:

😕 Depressive symptoms and mood disorders
😕 Increase in anxiety
😕 Sleep issues
😕 Digestive problems
😕 Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
😕 Panic disorders / panic attacks

😕 Mental health conditions such as Schizophrenia, phobias, and seasonal affective disorder
😕Medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diarrhea
😕Physical symptoms such as dilated pupils, dry mouth, irregular heartbeat, muscle twitches, and slow blood clotting

Does Increasing Serotonin Help Anxiety?

Obviously, I can’t diagnose anyone in an article. But in my practice, I’ve gotten profound results from implementing strategies that boost serotonin levels in children with anxiety. And yes, I’ll share some of these strategies below.

But as always, it’s also important to address the root cause. Serotonin levels can be low either because your child’s body just isn’t producing enough, or because their body isn’t effectively using the serotonin they have. This can happen if your child has too few serotonin receptors, or if the receptors aren’t working properly.

How can I boost my child’s serotonin?

There are some common medications prescribed to boost low serotonin levels — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).

As always, check with your child’s practitioner for specific health recommendations. But in my practice, I’ve found that medication often isn’t the best option. Taking a gentle and natural approach often helps get the body back in balance and overcome serotonin deficiencies. And there are a lot of effective natural, non-invasive strategies that can boost a child’s serotonin levels.

😁 Laugh: Yes, laughter may just be the best medicine when it comes to serotonin production. Watch a funny show, do skits, play games, etc.

😁 Regular exercise: Regular exercise significantly increases serotonin levels in the brain so encourage your child to run and play energetically on a regular basis.

😁 Get outside: Even 15 minutes of exposure to natural light (especially in the morning) is good for serotonin production. During the dreary winter months, exposure to a full spectrum light box upon waking (light therapy) can encourage the release of serotonin as well.

😁 Heal and seal the gut: Gut health and brain health are VERY closely connected. You can read more about the connection between gut function and anxiety in this article. 

😁 Probiotics: Probiotics help restore balance and health to the gut microbiome. And since so much of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut, healthy gut bacteria are a must.

😁 Breathwork and Meditation: Some research shows that mindfulness practices like breathwork and meditation can help raise serotonin levels. A little googling and a Youtube search will yield lots of kid-friendly practices.

😁 Massage: Massage lowers the stress hormone cortisol, while also releasing serotonin. This boosts the body’s ability to reduce pain, anxiety, and feelings of sadness.

😁 Prioritize sleep: Sleep is important for balancing brain chemicals and brain health in general. Balanced brain chemicals help you sleep, and sleep helps you produce balanced brain chemicals.

😁 Smile – and find joy in everyday activities: Just the act of smiling increases serotonin production in the brain. So seek out things that make your child happy.

😁 Encourage a high fiber diet: High-fiber foods fuel healthy gut bacteria which is shown to play a role in levels of serotonin through the gut-brain axis.

😁 Eat serotonin foods to increase serotonin production: Tryptophan is the building block of serotonin. So making sure your child’s diet has plenty of tryptophan-rich serotonin foods can help, such as:

✔ Salmon
✔ Eggs
✔ Cheese
✔ Salmon
✔ Eggs

✔ Cheese
✔ Turkey
✔ Pineapples
✔ Nuts, oats, and seeds

😁 Essential oils: There are a number of essential oils that can help reduce anxiety including:

✔ Lavender
✔ Rosemary
✔ Sweet orange
✔ Bergamot
✔ Lemon
✔ Clary sage

✔ Frankincense 
✔ Rose
✔ Cinnamon 
✔ Peppermint
✔ Ylang-ylang

😁 Vitamin & Herbal Supplements: Sometimes it’s appropriate to include supplementation in the anxiety plan for your child. Just remember to check with your practitioner first. Here are a few supplements I have recommended to my clients:

✔ 5 HTP supplements
✔ 5 HTP liposomal spray
✔ 5 HTP 100mg
✔ 5 HTP Synergy (50mg plus B6)

✔ B vitamins
✔ Inositol
✔ Curcumin
✔ Ashwagandha

😁 Botanicals: A botanical is a plant or portion of a plant that functions therapeutically. You should always check with your practitioner before adding a botanical. But there are a number of botanicals that might help with your child’s anxiety: 

✔ Passionflower
✔ Valerian root
✔ Skullcap
✔ Lemon balm

✔ Melisa 
✔ Chamomile
✔ QS Lipocalm (GABA, skullcap, passionflower, chamomile)

How do I decide which strategies are right for my child?

As with any complex health condition, it’s important to work with a qualified practitioner. Obviously, some of these suggestions – getting more sunshine and laughter – are good for just about everyone. But if you want to figure out which of the more targeted strategies will be of the most benefit for your child, it might be time to get some extra help and support.

Watch for part 4 of this series where I will cover how dopamine may affect PANDAS.

If you’re wondering if your child’s symptoms might add up to more than just a behavioral issue or developmental phase consider taking my free PANS/PANDAS quiz.

Additional Resources: