GABA is the abbreviated name for Gamma Amino Butyric Acid and is the body's major inhibitory, relaxing, sedating and tranquillising brain chemical or neurotransmitter. GABA acts like a brake on the excitatory neurotransmitters, in particular glutamate. It prevents glutamate's 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
Low GABA levels can cause or contribute to a variety of health issues including anxiety, panic attacks, convulsions, feeling overwhelmed and insomnia.1,2,3 GABA is paramount to facilitate the stimulation and secretion of pancreatic enzymes, with low levels leading to bloating, flatulence and malabsorption.
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 including anxiety and 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.
The body naturally produces GABA from the amino acid L-glutamine. Vitamin B6, Zinc and L-taurine are the catalysts in helping to turn Glutamine into GABA. What occurs is that glutamine is firstly converted to glutamate, which is responsible for attention span, memory, brain energy, learning ability, staying awake and the metabolism of carbohydrates. It is the function of the enzyme glutamate decarboxylase to convert glutamate into GABA and does so with the help of Vitamin B6. Low levels of Vitamin B6 equates to poor functioning and productivity of glutamate decarboxylase. 42,43 Reduced levels of Vitamin B6 are often seen in a variety of health conditions including Pyroluria , PMS, heart disease and Alzheimers's and as a result of inadequate consumption of Vitamin B6 rich foods, Dysbiosis, malabsorption and poor digestive function.
The amino acid L-taurine increases the communication and productivity of glutamate decarboxylase.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 all brain chemicals including serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline and histamine.43
Supplementation of these essential nutrients has shown to dramatically increase GABA levels, resulting in a reduction of low GABA symptoms including anxiety, panic disorders and insomnia.
In addition the the above mentioned Vitamin B6, Zinc, L-Glutamine and L-Taurine there are additional nutrients and herbs that help enhance GABA production or uptake by the GABA and Benzodiazepine receptors.
Theanine, a plant-based amino acid found only in tea increases levels of GABA within the brain,8, 9 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
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 inhibits the reuptake of GABA, which leads to increased brain GABA levels and GABA activity.75
Valerian, prevents and reduces the breakdown of GABA within the brain, thus leading to more stable levels. 71, 72, 73, 74
Kava Kava helps GABA bind to its receptors and increases the density of those receptors. 76,77 It also inhibits noradrenaline (norepinephrine) uptake. Too much noradrenaline causes people to feel like they are out of control, which can lead 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 Alzheimer's disease, hence memory loss and disorentation.70
Glycine, is amino acid that helps improve GABA function and alleviate anxiety and panic attacks by reducing the stimulatory effects of noradrenaline within the brain.17, 18 L-Glycine functions as a calming neurotransmitter within the nervous system 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
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, a fancy word that simply means to stimulate the receptor, thus having a calming effect or they boost GABA levels.59
Fermented foods help improve GABA levels as they contain naturally occurring GABA.61, 62, 63 Other foods that contain GABA are fava beans, tomatoes, sunflower seeds and reishi mushroom. 64, 65, 66
I know it sounds quite feasible that if you have low GABA levels and are suffering from anxiety, insomnia or depression then 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 poor 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. While increasing GABA levels are important it is best to let your body decide how much GABA it needs at any one time.
In our clinic we recommend Be Calm Powder or B-Calm Capsules and GabRelax an alcoholic free herbal blend, which assists the body in regulating GABA plus improving the health and numbers of the GABA and benzodiazepine receptors. The greater the health and numbers of the receptors the easier it is for the body to balance and maintain GABA.
Diagnostic Testing is an easy way to check GABA levels. The Mental Health Test is a simple do at home urine test that is sent to the laboratory for analysis. This test measures GABA plus other important neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline and glutamate. Testing the whole range of neurotransmitters gives a greater understanding of a persons neurological or mental health status.
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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