How To Increase GABA Naturally
What is GABA?
GABA is the abbreviated name for Gamma Amino Butyric Acid and is the body's major inhibitory, relaxing or tranquillising brain chemical, commonly know as a neurotransmitter. Adequate levels of GABA leads to a reduction in stress, anxiety, nervousness, feelings of being overwhelmed plus the improvement and quality of restful nights sleep.1,2,3 GABA acts like a brake on the excitatory neurotransmitters, in particular glutamate. It prevents glutamates nerve impulses, the ones associated with anxiety and stress, from reaching the motor centres of the brain by filling the benzodiazepine receptors with GABA.1,4,5
GABA helps to modulate our brainwaves in particular the balance between the alpha and beta brainwaves. Too much beta brainwave activity can lead to insomnia and nervous disorders such as anxiety or panic attacks. Alpha brainwaves on the other hand help calm and relax the body and are what connects our subconscious mind to our conscious mind.
Low levels of GABA can cause or contribute to a variety of health issues such as anxiety, panic disorders, depression (including postpartum depression), epilepsy, convulsions, stress, insomnia (especially waking with a racing mind or waking and not being able fall back to sleep), Tourette's syndrome, muscle spasms, hypertension, emotional issues associated with premenstrual syndrome, dry skin and wrinkles. GABA stimulates secretion of your digestive enzymes and low levels of digestive enzymes are associated with poor digestion, bloating, flatulence, poor bowel motions and malabsorption.
How does the body manufacture GABA?
The amino acid L-glutamine, the most abundant amino acid in your body, is the precursor to GABA production. What occurs is that glutamine is first converted within your body to glutamic acid or glutamate, which is your body's most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamic acid is responsible for your attention span, memory, brain energy, learning ability, staying awake and the metabolism of carbohydrates. From there the enzyme glutamate decarboxylase (big word I know means nothing to most people, only nerds like me) converts glutamate to GABA. Now for this enzyme to work effectively Vitamin B6, or more importantly the active form of vitamin B6 - Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate (P5P), is essential to increase it's production42,43 while the amino acid taurine increases the communication and productivity of that big worded enzyme.6, 7 Interestingly, studies have shown that anxiety may occur as a result of taurine deficiency.10, 11 Zinc on the other hand has been shown to enhance the release of GABA from its receptors. Both zinc and vitamin B6 are essential for the production of your other brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline and histamine.43
Nutrients required to increase GABA levels
All of your cells, organs, metabolic processes, hormones, blood and neurotransmitters require a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytonutrients to function effectively. Without these nutrients all of your essential body functions or processes won't work effectively, resulting in a variety of diseases and illnesses.
So for your body to manufacture GABA effectively it requires specific nutrients to achieve this. As we have already mentioned some of the main nutrients required are glutamine, Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate, taurine and zinc, but there are some other equally important nutrients also involved in the process that can enhance the production of GABA.
Theanine a plant-based amino acid found only in tea increases levels of GABA within the brain,8, 9 increases the production of alpha brainwaves12, 13, 14 and enhances GABA A receptor response.60 Studies have shown that theanine is useful in the treatment of anxiety due to its ability to sedate the central nervous system as well as improving the quality of sleep and counteract the toxic effects of stress.15, 16 How smart were the generations gone before us when someone was stressed their initial response was "come inside and sit down, I've just put on a pot of tea" not coffee which can be stimulating and have the opposite effect!
Inositol, a B group vitamin may help alleviate anxiety and depression, by enhancing the ability of GABA to bind to the benzodiazepine receptors within the brain.35, 36, 37, 38, 39 Inositol may also help to stimulate poorly sensitive serotonin receptors within the brain.20 and facilitate a good night's sleep.40
Magnesium deficiency is common in western society with up to 80% of women and 70% of men having some form of magnesium deficiency. Magnesium binds to and activates GABA receptors.54 Anxiety, panic disorders, apathy, poor attention span, depression, insomnia, irritability and nervousness may all result from magnesium deficiency.44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52 Magnesium may also improve the length and quality of slow wave sleep.53
Noni Fruit, a herb native to French Polynesia and traditionally used to help with many ailments including issues associated with the nervous system, was found to help alleviate anxiety by binding to the GABA receptors within the brain.33 Animal studies have shown that Noni may reduce the toxic effects on the body of excessive stress.34
Chamomile, a medicinal herb used for thousands of years and commonly found throughout the world as a tea has been shown to have sedative effects due to the flavonoid apigenin that binds to the benzodiazepine and GABA receptors within the brain.67 Traditionally chamomile has been used to help alleviate anxiety and improve insomnia by sedating the central nervous system.21, 22, 23, 24 Chamomile may also assist in normalising moods.25
St John's Wort may inhibit the reuptake of GABA (which leads to increased GABA levels and GABA activity.75
Valerian is known to prevent or reduce the breakdown of GABA within the brain. 71, 72, 73, 74
Kava inhibits noradrenaline (norepinephrine) uptake (too much noradrenaline causes you to feel like your are out of control and running around like a headless chook and leads to anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, blood clots, hypertension, depression and elevated stress).59
Ginkgo Biloba has been found in to increase GABA in the hippocampus region of the brain. The hippocampus plays an important role in long and short term memory it is also one of the first area affected by Alzheimers disease hence memory loss and disorentation.70
Other herbs such as passionflower, skullcap, hops, lemon balm, magnolia bark and phellondendron bark are well-known to have calming and relaxing properties that improves moods, insomnia and anxiety, but their mode of action is not exactly known. It is believed that these herbs act either as a GABA receptor agonists (fancy word that simply means to stimulate the receptor, thus having a calming effect) or they boost GABA levels.59
Other well known foods called, Fermented foods, also help with GABA levels. Foods such as fermented cabbage, fermented milk and fermented juice contain naturally occurring GABA61, 62, 63 as does fava beans, tomatoes, sunflower seeds and reishi mushroom. 64, 65, 66
Glycine, another amino acid, may help with GABA function and alleviate anxiety and panic attacks by reducing the stimulatory effects of noradrenaline within the brain.17, 18 Glycine functions as a calming neurotransmitter within the nervous system and it does this by causing a relaxing effect when it binds to and activates the glycine receptors within the spinal cord.19 Glycine may also help alleviate insomnia due to its role as a relaxing neurotransmitter.20
Potassium is required to help stimulate the release of GABA within the brain.68 Potassium deficiency may be responsible for anxiety, depression and irritability.50, 55, 56, 57 Potassium may improve the quality of sleep and reduce the frequency of awakenings after the onset of sleep.58
5HTP is a precursor to serotonin, and serotonin is well know to enhance the effects of GABA.69
A lot of technical jargon I know, sorry about that, but if it has put you to sleep there is a positive in that your GABA levels may have increased!
Why not just take a GABA supplement?
I know it sounds quite feasible that if you have low GABA levels and are suffering from anxiety, insomnia or depression that taking a GABA supplement makes sense. Even though the theory may sound good, how much GABA does your body actually need? One person may need 200mg a day, while another person may need 500mg, but they may both be taking a standard 750mg supplement. What does the body do with the excess GABA?
The toxic effects of too much GABA is that it may cause nausea, numbness, impair learning and memory, while inhibiting the release of serotonin. Serotonin is your 'feel good' neurotransmitter and low levels are associated with depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, low melatonin and carbohydrate cravings.
Like a car, your body, or more importantly every single cell within your body, needs the right fuel to function properly - not too many petrol cars run well on diesel fuel, so its best to feed your body the nutrients it needs to produce GABA by itself naturally. This to me makes a lot of sense as does the old adage "you are what you eat" meaning that your diet is the number one thing that you need to do to maintain great health.
In our clinic we recommend Be Calm, a pleasant tasting, vanilla berry powder, or B-Calm Capsules and GabRelax a natural herbal blend, both of which contain many of the nutrients mentioned above in therapeutic doses, to assist the body in increasing it's GABA levels naturally.
How to test GABA levels?
Diagnostic Testing is by far the best way to check your GABA levels and we offer a Mental Health Test that measures not only the amounts of GABA, but also other important neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline and glutamate. We find testing for the whole range of neurotransmitters gives us a greater understanding of the persons neurological or mental health status. This is a simple urine sample test that is sent away to pathology for analysis.
For more information
The information provided here is of a general nature intended for educational purposes only. We make no claims to diagnose, treat, prevent, alleviate or cure illnesses or diseases with any information or product stated. With any health issue we suggest you consult your healthcare professional before undertaking any health treatment.
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Greg Newson is a qualified Naturopath, Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Enthusiast who is passionate about wellness and dedicated in educating people of the enormous potential of natural medicine.
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