Whether you suffer from chronic mood conditions or deal with the highs and lows of everyday life, you may experience periods of anxiety or depression that you find it hard to snap out of. Occasionally, well-meaning friends or family may say, “it’s all in your head.”
In a way, they are right. Our moods and emotions are not only a product of our heart, as is commonly romanticized. Instead, our feelings all have very real chemical roots in the brain. One of those is GABA.
What Is GABA?
Your brain sends and receives signals to and from the rest of your body all day. Every decision you make, every thought you think is the result of the neurons in your brain making connections.
Maybe you’ve heard that parts of the brain “light up” when scientists are studying different functions of the brain? This is the result of those connections.
The neurons in the brain and nervous system are not all connected, yet they need to pass messages back and forth to each other. They do this by taking the electrical signals the brain makes and converting them into chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitters move between the neurons and pass the message along. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is one of those neurotransmitters. In fact, GABA acts in harmony with another important neurotransmitter. Glutamate is what excites your central nervous system (CNS) and GABA is what calms it down. (1)
What’s The Point of GABA?
Since your brain is busy all the time, it may seem counterintuitive for there to be a neurotransmitter that slows things down. But when the brain is overexcited, that is present in your body as well–often in the form of anxiety. GABA helps to slow that down, calming your brain and your body. Around 40 percent of the synapses in the human brain have GABA receptors, because it is so important. (2)
What If I Have A GABA Deficiency?
When our brains work smoothly, all is wonderful. However, the brain is a complex organ, and things do not always work as they should. That can lead to less GABA being produced than you need, a deficiency of the neurotransmitters.
Unfortunately, low GABA leads to things such as depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. (3)
In 2012, scientists ran a study on 41 children between the ages of 12 and 19. Of those 41, 21 were in a control group. The other 20 suffered from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), and were not on any medication to treat it. The study lasted 8 weeks, and at the end of it, the research team found that the subjects with MDD had significantly lower levels of GABA than the control group. They believe that GABA deficiency had a large impact on the development of mood disorders like Major Depressive Disorder in young people. (4)
We have talked a little about the role of GABA in anxiety already. But in 2010, the “effect of acute psychological stress on the human GABA-ergic system [were] still unknown” for psychiatrists. However, just recently a noninvasive way to measure changes in the GABA levels of the prefrontal cortex was developed, using magnetic resonance spectroscopy.
The scientists at Am J Psychiatry decided to test how a deficiency in GABA levels would be influenced by intense, acute stress, also known as anxiety. They selected 10 healthy adult subjects, and had them come into the lab on two different occasions. One of these days was ordinary. On the other day, the subjects were under a threat of being shocked during their session. On both of those days, the GABA in the prefrontal cortex was measured. GABA levels went down by 18% on the day where the participants were under the threat of being shocked. Furthermore, this “reduction was specific to GABA, since the concentrations of N-acetyl-aspartate, choline-containing compounds, and glutamate/glutamine levels obtained in the same spectra did not change significantly.” This suggests GABA deficiency is one of the chief causes of anxiety disorders. (5)
How Do I Treat A GABA Deficiency?
Unfortunately, there is a lack of scientific studies around treatment of a GABA deficiency. However, that does not mean there are no options to help treat a GABA deficiency. Below, we will examine three different options to boost your GABA. (3)
Traditionally, a class of medications, called benzodiazepines have been used. However, there are a number of issues with benzodiazepines. Firstly, benzodiazepines are a sedating drug, and so they are not ideal for daytime use. Secondly, benzodiazepines are potentially addictive and the human body can build up a tolerance to them. That can lead to a cycle of constantly needing higher doses, which is, of course, highly dangerous with a potententiallyaddictive drug. What’s more, “the conductance of the channel in the presence of GABA and benzodiazepines is not higher than the conductance that can be achieved with high concentrations of GABA alone.” Benzodiazepines cannot improve the amount of GABA produced or the functioning of GABA receptors. Therefore, natural ways to boost your GABA levels are just as effective as prescription drugs and without the potentially dangerous side effects. (6)
GABA is a neurotransmitter, and as such, not present in the food we eat. However, other things found in food, such as flavonoids, can influence how GABA works within the brain. Certain fruits and vegetables are a great source of flavonoids, as are teas and red wine. Sprouted grains, brown rice, and buckwheat are also beneficial. (3, 7)
Another alternative, more natural than medication, is to take GABA supplements, or to take herbs that work on the GABA Receptors. Unfortunately, as we have talked about, there has been a lack of research on GABA, and that includes the benefits of supplements. However, many people who have taken GABA supplements reported that they found them helpful. Furthermore, there have been very few side effects reported, so they are considered to be generally safe to use. However, as with any supplement, talk to your doctor before taking it, especially if you are on other medications. Blood thinners may put you at higher risk for poor interactions.
For more information on GABA and GABA supplements, as well as ways to treat anxiety, check this out.