When it comes to neurotransmitters, AKA, those powerful brain chemicals that regulate mood, pain, appetite, and so much more, you’ve likely heard of the big ones like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins—just to name a few. But have you heard of GABA?
GABA, which stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a vital neurotransmitter that is responsible for calming down overexcited neurons, stimulated by glutamate. When GABA is produced in the body, we feel relaxed, which is why it is so important for sleep, pain management, anxiety, and depression.
Glutamate is also a neurotransmitter, as well as the precursor to GABA. As GABA’s opposite, its function is to excite and motivate. When there’s too much glutamate and consequently hyper-excited neurons, this can manifest as headaches, muscle cramps, anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and psychiatric disorders. When GABA binds to receptors GABA-A and GABA-B in the brain, it calms that hyperactivity and you feel relaxed. Typically, excess glutamate is converted to GABA by the body, though imbalances can occur due to a variety of factors including genetics, poor diet, stress, insufficient sleep, antibiotics, lack of exercise, and gut disorders.
Why Maintaining a Healthy GABA Level is so Important
1. It supports sleep. Because GABA calms down overexcited neurons, it makes sense that it plays a vital role in relation to sleep quality. It does not cause drowsiness, rather allows the body and mind to relax, GABA helps you fall asleep faster and sleep deeper.
2. It prevents mood disorders and supports stress management. Studies have shown that GABA supplementation can help mitigate feelings of stress and anxiety—which makes sense, as many anti-anxiety drugs act on the GABA-A receptors in the brain. It is a safe and effective way to find a bit of calm.
3. It boosts brain function and mental clarity. A small study has shown the potential of GABA to improve cognitive focus and problem solving while reducing the physical and mental fatigue that can impair concentration. Research also shows that healthy GABA levels are vital to increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and proper function of neurons. Low BDNF levels have been associated with memory problems and Alzheimer’s, potentially linking healthy GABA levels with healthier brain as we age.
4. It supports a healthy gut microbiome. More and more research shows how inextricably linked our brain and gut are, so it makes sense that GABA also plays an important role in our digestive system. While our brains have GABA receptors, so does our intestinal lining. Research shows that certain “good” bacteria strains help produce GABA, meaning that keeping your microbiome healthy is an essential part of brain health—as well as a way to naturally stimulate GABA production.
5. It may regulate blood pressure. Although more research is needed, early studies have shown that GABA can promote healthy blood pressure; scientists theorize that GABA may help blood vessels better dilate.
Symptoms of a Potential GABA Imbalance
While true GABA deficiencies are rare, suboptimal levels may contribute to insomnia, depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse. For example, feelings of stress and anxiety can lead to alcohol cravings, as alcohol targets GABA receptors and imitates the relaxing effect real GABA has on the body.
Certain health conditions, such as schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, and epilepsy may all be linked to decreased GABA activity as well.
While GABA levels can only be tested through an invasive procedure—a lumbar spinal tap—possible assessment can be done through biomarker testing, though it is an indirect measurement. You may also see neurotransmitter panel urine tests offered as an option, though there is no scientific evidence that they are at all accurate.
How to Boost GABA Production Naturally
If you suspect you may be not be producing GABA at optimal levels, there are steps you can take before trying supplementation. Lifestyle and diet modifications that can help support synthesis of this important neurotransmitter include:
· Consistent exercise. Although exercise causes a surge of endorphins in the short-term, consistent, long-term physical activity is not only a proven way to reduce stress, it has also been shown to improve GABA synthesis.
· Yoga and meditation. Another powerful way to boost GABA production is by practicing mind-body techniques like yoga, meditation, and even breath work. Yoga in particular has been studied for its effects on GABA production. A 60-minute session has been shown to increase GABA levels up to 27%, while a consistent practice has been shown to maintain those elevated levels.
· Maintaining a healthy diet. GABA is found in some fermented foods including kimchi, miso, and tempeh. Other foods that contain or support GABA synthesis include brown rice, adzuki beans, sprouted grains, cruciferous veggies, and black, green, and oolong tea. It should be noted, however, that it is yet unknown how much GABA from dietary sources or supplementation can actually pass through the blood-brain barrier. However, by focusing on consuming whole foods and minimizing processed foods, you’ll keep inflammation low and allow your body to prioritize the GABA synthesis process rather than focusing on fighting the inflammation.
GABA Supplements and Support
Studies have shown that GABA supplements can be effective for those struggling with mild anxiety, mood disorders and/or insomnia. In addition to possibly crossing the blood-brain barrier, researchers believe GABA supplements might positively impact the gut microbiome, allowing for an increase in GABA production that way. Taking a QUALITY supplement is crucial.
Magnesium can also support GABA production, as it attaches to GABA receptors and produces similar effects to GABA. It calms your mind and muscles, allowing you to sleep more deeply.
It is important you speak with your healthcare provider before adding any herbal supplements to your regimen.
If you suspect that you be helped by increasing your GABA levels, please contact me. Together we can design a plan that gets you back to feeling your best.