What is GABA and What Role Does it Play in Anxiety and Depression?

GABA is both an amino acid and a neurotransmitter. Some foods naturally contain GABA, but it can be taken as a supplement or in a topical form. GABA consumption leads to the relaxation of an overstimulated nervous system. GABA stands for Gamma AminoButyric Acid.

We will take a look at the various roles of GABA including:

  • Dietary sources of GABA 
  • Role GABA plays in our mental health including
    • Autism
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
  • Benefits of GABA
  • Studies on GABA

GABA: The Inhibitory Neurotransmitter

GABA is the most important Neurotransmitter for calming an over-excited nervous system. GABA acts to bring balance into our brains, acting as the brakes on our nervous system if we get overstimulated. 

Another way to say this is that GABA Receptors in the brain lead to neurological inhibition.  GABA balances the role of serotonin and dopamine. If any of these are out of balance we will suffer mental decline.

What Happens When GABA Levels are High?

  • Balanced Mood
  • Increased Relaxation and Calm
  • Reduced Pain Perception
  • Improved Sleep Quality

What Happens When GABA Levels are Low?

Many common ailments are due to a lack of GABA in the brain, leading to over-excitation of the brain and nervous system. This may result in:

  • Anxiety, especially anxiety related to depression
  • Panic
  • Depression
  • Seizure disorders
  • ADHD
  • Behavioral disturbances in autism

What Foods Have GABA?

According to the medical journal Nutrients, the following foods are high in GABA:

  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts)
  • Mushrooms
  • Soy beans, especially if fermented as in Tempeh or Miso
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Adzuki beans
  • Buckwheat
  • Peas
  • Sprouted grains
  • Brown rice
  • Tea

GABA Benefits

Scientific research on GABA benefits is limited and labeled as inconclusive. There is no way to patent it and therefore little incentive for researchers to study it in large, expensive trials.  

However, GABA has been used for decades in many popular supplements with few reports of negative effects and is regarded as a safe and effective treatment strategy for stress and anxiousness. 

Studies on GABA

Insomnia

There’s some evidence that GABA supplements may help insomnia. 

  1. A double-blind clinical trial published in the Journal of Clinical Neurology showed that GABA supplements helped participants fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply than a placebo. The only side effects reported were drowsiness and abdominal discomfort.  
  2. Yamatsu et al. (2016) reported that Gaba administration significantly shortened sleep latency or onset and increased the total non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep time, indicating the essential role of GABA in the prevention of a sleep disorder.  

It is also important to note that almost all prescription sleep aids work via the GABA receptors in your brain. This includes all the most popular over-the-counter sleep aids, prescription sleeping medications, and alcohol.  

  1. This study showed the mixture of Gaba and l-theanine could decrease sleep latency, increase sleep duration, and up-regulate the expression of GABA and glutamate GluN1 receptor subunit.

Major Depression

This Study from 2014 measured the levels of GABA in the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) of volunteers and found the following:

  1. Declining GABA levels in the brains of the participants with advancing age. This means the older we get, the lower the GABA levels are. This has been a consistent finding in several different studies.
  2. Patients with depression and major depressive disorder had lowered levels of GABA. The anxiety that these depressed individuals expressed was inversely related to the GABA level in their brain. The lower the GABA, the higher the Anxiety score. This was not true for patients with anxiety without depression, but was clearly correlated for those with depression, especially for those with depression and advancing age.
  3. The authors of this study conclude:  “One GABA effect is on the severity of anxiety in major depression, and the second GABA effect is where it mediates the effect of age upon anxiety in major depression. Correlations cannot inform us about causal directions or pathways, but we hypothesize that the age-related decline in CSF GABA levels leads to, or permits, greater severity of psychic anxiety seen with increasing age in patients with major depression.”
  4. “Prominent anxiety in major depression is more common in older patients and has been associated with treatment resistance. Treatment of anxious depression may therefore warrant consideration of medications that enhance GABAergic function.”

GABA levels in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Many studies suggest that patients with autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have lower levels of GABA activity.  

This study from 2016 in Human Brain Mapping reports that GABA levels are consistently lower in those with autism and major depression.  It is possible that this correlates with the hyper-activity and over excitability of autistic patients.

Controversies

What are the Side Effects of GABA?

Some commonly reported side effects include:

  • Stomach upset
  • Sleepiness
  • Muscle relaxation and weakness

Since GABA can make some people drowsy, you shouldn’t drive or operate machinery after taking GABA.

Missing Research on GABA

While all of the research is very promising, more is needed such as:  

  • Studies to find out if GABA crosses the blood-brain barrier when taken as a supplement.
  • Larger studies and clinical trials on the effects of GABA supplementation on sleep, depression, anxiety, and autism.

Conclusion

GABA is a neuro-inhibitory and calming amino acid that has numerous effects throughout our brain. Research is promising, though not yet conclusive for the role that GABA plays in depression, depression with anxiety, autism, and insomnia.

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Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.

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