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What is GABA Neurotransmitter’s Function in Immune Health?

Posted by Dr. Matt Hand on Dec 14, 2020 9:51:49 AM

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GABA has a significant impact on your immune system and response, but not necessarily in the way you might think.*

Mood is controlled by chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, which govern your wide range of emotions. Neurotransmitters need to work in balanced conjunction with one another, and each plays its own specific role. Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), for example, signals the brain to calm feelings of anxiousness—so you can imagine that it plays a pretty significant role in the body’s stress response.*

While GABA doesn’t impact immune health in a direct or linear way, low levels can have a huge impact on stress and sleep, which in turn can seriously lower immunity.* Research consistently shows a strong link between stress and decreased immune health, so learning to boost GABA is one important strategy in a well-rounded stress management plan.*

The Stress-Immune Connection

If you’ve ever noticed that you tend to get sick during or after periods of high stress, this is not a coincidence. Stress directly stimulates the body’s acute immune response, which is normal and necessary for healing wounds, avoiding infections, and more. High levels of stress over a long period of time can have the opposite effect and work to weaken the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to foreign invaders, and less able to recover in a timely manner.[1]

The growing field of mind-body research tells us that any sort of stress directly provokes a decreased immune response, and this pattern over time can wreak havoc on your immune health. In people who are older or already sick, this can also lead to more vulnerability to stress-related immune changes, like autoimmune conditions. Even sadness, or loneliness can weaken your immune system, leaving you more susceptible.[2]

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The GABA-Stress Connection

GABA is the body’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it signals the brain and body to calm down.* Many people with high levels of stress and anxiousness have low levels of GABA, and many lifestyle and genetic factors can set the stage for imbalances

GABA also plays a key role in healthy sleep patterns, as it allows the mind and body to relax, fall asleep, and stay asleep.* One study revealed that the GABA levels of people experiencing sleeplessness were about 30% lower than people who slept well.[3] Many common sleep support supplements contain precursors to GABA, like the amino acid taurine.

One of GABA’s primary actions is to balance the excitatory effects of glutamine. Many medical approaches target GABA-A receptors, which helps to mitigate the body’s stress response.* GABA can also support learning, improve focus, and boost concentration.*

How to Increase and Maintain Healthy GABA Levels

GABA levels tend to decrease somewhat with age. Diet, lifestyle, and supplementation can help maintain healthy levels and support a strong immune system.

Focusing your diet on whole foods—with the majority coming from plants—is key, along with omitting processed and packaged foods as much as possible. In terms of lifestyle, regular exercise, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and other forms of calming the mind are also important habits to establish.

While some practitioners do recommend nutritional supplements with a naturally sourced form of GABA called PharmaGABA, many others use supplements and herbs that increase the activation of GABA receptors, such as adaptogenic herbs like kava, valerian root, and ashwagandha, along with taurine, magnesium, and green tea.

Wrapping Up

Immune function is impacted by a number of factors, but stress seems to be the number one influence. If you live in a state of heightened stress and experience poor sleep, you are much more prone to getting sick. GABA helps improve both stress and sleep, positively impacting both the body’s immunity and overall health.*

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[1] Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin, 130(4), 601–630. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601

[2] Glaser R, Robles TF, Sheridan J, Malarkey WB, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Mild depressive symptoms are associated with amplified and prolonged inflammatory responses after influenza virus vaccination in older adults. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003 Oct;60(10):1009-14. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.60.10.1009. PMID: 14557146.

[3] 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

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