Posted by Dr. Matt Hand on Dec 23, 2020 11:57:37 AM
Did you know that your mood is orchestrated by various brain chemicals called neurotransmitters?
Whether you feel happy, sad, anxious, or excited is not entirely up to you, but there are actions you can take to support balanced neurotransmitters and an optimal mental and emotional state.
Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) is essentially the body’s signal to calm down, and has been known to the medical community for decades as a key neurotransmitter for feelings of anxiousness. However, it is difficult for GABA to cross the blood-brain barrier, which is likely why there is limited evidence supporting direct GABA supplementation.
It seems far more productive to optimize certain pathways for increased GABA production through a healthy lifestyle, adequate sleep, certain foods, and targeted nutrients.
GABA is known as an inhibitory neurotransmitter—it works to calm down hyper neurons in the brain that get overly excited and lead to anxiousness.* Its inhibitory action plays out by blocking signals in the central nervous system to counter excessive stimulation and excitement that can lead to various health issues in the long term.*
Like everything in the body, neurotransmitters work together and often have a cascade effect: when one is off-kilter, others follow suit. GABA works in close conjunction with glutamate, another neurotransmitter that has the opposite role of motivating and stimulating the brain. Glutamate and GABA serve to balance each other, and may be considered the yin and yang of the brain.
GABA supports calm and relaxation in a number of ways, primarily by facilitating better sleep and boosting brain function.*
Research shows that GABA is closely linked to improved sleep, as it allows the body and brain to relax enough to fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep through the night.* One study found that participants struggling with sleep problems tended to have GABA levels around 30% lower than those who slept well.*
GABA also works to trigger feelings of calm. Optimal GABA levels are also linked with improved mental focus and concentration, reduced mental fatigue and brain fog, and increased problem-solving capacities.*
Molecules are stimulated when bound to a receptor, and receptor-binding molecules are called agonists. GABA agonists are produced inside and outside of the body, and the major GABA receptors are referred to as GABAA and GABAB. When these receptors are stimulated, feelings of calm, relaxation, mild sedation, and lessened anxiousness are produced.*
The hypothalamus contains the highest concentration of GABA receptors and plays a major role in controlling the nervous system, sleep, HPA axis balance, adrenal function, body temperature, and more. Certain health struggles such as overtaxed adrenals or sleep problems might be partially due to low levels of GABA.*
As mentioned earlier, the neurotransmitter glutamate has an opposite effect to GABA, which is to stimulate and excite the brain. Interestingly, glutamate is also a precursor to GABA, and when glutamate is produced in excess, the body naturally converts it to GABA to avoid overstimulation. If there is a problem with making this conversion, you could end up with symptoms related to low GABA levels, like higher levels of anxiousness and other mood problems.
While GABA is mostly discussed in relation to the brain, it also affects other areas of the body. For example, GABA has been used for heart support and a healthy gut microbiome.* The intestinal tract even has its own GABA receptors that assist with digestion, and perhaps is one reason why the gut is often referred to as the “second brain.”*
While direct GABA nutritional supplementation is an option, it’s important to focus on optimizing pathways that naturally increase endogenous GABA levels via diet and lifestyle.
Eating a diet free of processed and refined carbohydrates and high in healthy fats, protein, and non-starchy vegetables may support an optimal glutamate-GABA balance. Inflammatory foods like white pasta and bread and refined sugar, paired with a lack of plant-based foods, can contribute to neurotransmitter imbalances.*
Regular physical activity has been shown to enhance GABA synthesis and increase feeling of calm. Shoot for a balanced fitness plan combining both cardio exercise and strength training. Yoga is also a great practice to target flexibility, strength, and mind-body connection, and has been shown to increase GABA.
People who meditate have been found to have higher levels of GABA, which may be due to the fact that meditation lowers the GABA-inhibiting stress hormone, cortisol.
Myo-inositol is a sugar alcohol found in the brain and other tissues, which helps with communication and responding to hormones, growth factors, and neurotransmitters. While inositol does seem to work with systems to optimize GABA levels, supplementation is not well-tolerated by everyone.*
L-theanine is an amino acid that promotes relaxation and high-quality sleep.* It encourages calmness in part by boosting levels of GABA and other relaxing brain chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine.* You can augment l-theanine levels through supplements or by drinking tea.
Magnesium is a GABA agonist, and foods rich in magnesium or supplementation can support optimal GABA levels. Foods highest in magnesium include dark leafy green vegetables, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
GABA is a key underlying factor in achieving and maintaining a calm state of mind, good quality sleep, and a balanced mood.* To support and optimize endogenous GABA production, focus on a diet rich in plants, healthy fats, adequate protein, and low in processed foods. Be sure to exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and consider a regular meditation practice.
If these lifestyle patterns are already in place but you still suspect you may be suffering from low GABA levels, talk with your functional medicine provider about possible supplementation with nutrients that support GABA pathways.*
 Mabunga DF, Gonzales EL, Kim HJ, Choung SY. Treatment of GABA from Fermented Rice Germ Ameliorates Caffeine-Induced Sleep Disturbance in Mice. Biomol Ther (Seoul). 2015 May;23(3):268-74. doi: 10.4062/biomolther.2015.022. Epub 2015 May 1. PMID: 25995826; PMCID: PMC4428720.
 Winkelman, J. W., Buxton, O. M., Jensen, J. E., Benson, K. L., O'Connor, S. P., Wang, W., & Renshaw, P. F. (2008). Reduced brain GABA in primary insomnia: preliminary data from 4T proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS). Sleep, 31(11), 1499–1506. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/31.11.1499
 Kanehira T, Nakamura Y, Nakamura K, Horie K, Horie N, Furugori K, Sauchi Y, Yokogoshi H. Relieving occupational fatigue by consumption of a beverage containing γ-amino butyric acid. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2011;57(1):9-15. doi: 10.3177/jnsv.57.9. PMID: 21512285.
 Ma, P., Li, T., Ji, F., Wang, H., & Pang, J. (2015). Effect of GABA on blood pressure and blood dynamics of anesthetic rats. International journal of clinical and experimental medicine, 8(8), 14296–14302.
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