If you’ve been reading my blog, then you know that there are a lot of different factors that feed into good health. Your physical condition is the most obvious one, mostly because you can see how you’re doing by looking in a mirror!
One of the big players in mental health is a chemical called GABA.
If your brain is making this substance normally, then you’ll be able to relax, sleep, and move normally.
But if your GABA levels are low, you may find yourself feeling tense, unable to rest, and achy.
It’s easy to eat right and exercise and that’s all that most people think about. But your health goes much deeper than just how you look. Even if your body is flawless, fluctuations of chemicals in your brain may make all the difference to how you feel inside.
Whether you call it mental health, emotional health, or just your mood, the way your mind responds to your daily life is a critical part of what makes you a healthy individual.
We’re going to talk about all the things that GABA does for you in some depth. But brain chemistry is kind of a big subject, so I want to start with a quick introduction. Think of it as Brain Science 101. First of all, we’re going to talk about what GABA is and what it does. To do that, we’re going to have to define what a neurotransmitter is.
The image in your head may be of a round, red disc zipping through your veins: a red blood cell. You may also be thinking of an egg, which is just one single cell contained by a hard outer coating.
Either way, most people think of cells as basically round. Not so neurotransmitters. These cells are long and skinny, with a transmitter at one end and a receiver at the other.
That’s right: your red blood cells carry oxygen, an egg becomes a chicken, and your neurons exist to send messages throughout your body.
They are arranged end-to-end, transmitter to receiver, throughout your nervous system. Think of them as a super fast relay system. These cells can use chemical signals or electricity to communicate, but usually, they use chemicals.
These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. GABA is one of the most important ones.
What is GABA
GABA is an acronym that stands for “gamma-Aminobutyric acid.” When I say that it’s one of the most important neurotransmitters, I’m not exaggerating. You see, not all of your neurons work with all of your neurotransmitters.
They specialize. Doctors call GABA-creating neurons “GABAergic.” (With that turn of phrase, maybe there’s a reason they didn’t become novelists instead!)
However, 40% of the neurons in your brain are constantly on the lookout for GABA! Considering that there are dozens of neurochemicals in your brain at any one time, that’s a lot of attention your brain is paying to this one critical chemical.
Neurons don’t generally accept a single neurotransmitter exclusively, so a neuron that’s on the lookout for GABA can still take other types of messages. Still, GABA’s clearly important. What makes it so special?
It all comes down to fear…
gamma-Aminobutyric acid, also known as our friend, the neurotransmitter GABA, is part of your body’s system for calming you down.
In fact, without GABA, you’d be in a state of high alert all the time, likely very anxious, and maybe a little too energetic for comfort.
Sometimes fear is a great for survival. The ancient human who saw a suspicious rock and assumed that it was a lion survived for longer than the ancient human who saw a suspicious rock and thought it might be a good spot for a picnic.
But being scared and alert all the time is terrible for your brain and exhausting for you. Plus, it’s hard to make rational decisions, get enough sleep, settle down to a meal, and socialize normally when you’re on edge all the time.
That’s why GABA is so important. When your entire plan for survival depends on being a worrywort, you’ve got to have an awfully strong system for chilling out!
As I mentioned before, there are a lot of other neurotransmitters in your brain. Your brain generates these chemicals naturally, so you don’t need to eat them in your diet. Here are some of the most common neurotransmitters aside from GABA:
- Glutamate. This chemical regulates your ability to learn and make new memories. Since you’re learning new things about neurotransmitters now, you may have some glutamate action happening in your brain this very minute!
- Dopamine. This one’s famous! Dopamine has to do with a lot of your brain’s most important functions, including making memories, moving, and building relationships with other people. It may play a role in drug addiction, too.
- Norepinephrine. When your palms are sweaty and you’re feeling stressed out, chances are good that your neurons are making a lot of this! Norepinephrine prompts your body to send more oxygen to your brain during times of stress.
- Epinephrine. You probably know this chemical by its other name: adrenaline! I don’t have to tell you what epinephrine does to your body. If you’ve ever screamed during a scary movie, you’ve experienced it!
- Serotonin. Think serotonin, think mood and sexual desire. In fact, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are antidepressant drugs that work by preventing your body from getting rid of your serotonin before it binds to your neurons.
There’s a system in place for when a neuron accepts GABA. Like everything else in the brain, the process is a little complicated and very cool!
First, let’s talk about what a neuron’s receptor looks like. A receptor exists on the cell’s membrane, or outer wall. This is where the cell will first encounter the GABA being sent by the transmitting end of the neuron closest to the receiver.
At the molecular level, a receptor’s shape mirrors that of the chemical it’s supposed to receive, just like the inside of a lock mirrors the shape of a key.
Different receptors affect the neuron in different ways when they bind to a receptor. We won’t go into the nitty-gritty details here because they get very, very technical.
What you need to know about GABA is that its receptor is what’s known as a “channel receptor.” As its name suggests, this receptor allows chemicals to flow through the cell.
Think of the receptor as a lock on a canal that opens when GABA comes around. When GABA binds to this receptor, the channel opens in such a way that chloride ions can flow through it. This reduces the neuron’s activity level, effectively calming you down.
We’ve talked a little bit about all the good things GABA does for you every day. But did you know that you can take extra GABA if you want to?
GABA is a natural substance that your neurons make. You don’t need to eat anything special to get more of it, and it’s not naturally found in food.
However, there are GABA supplements available online and in most health food stores. Many people find it useful to augment the amount of GABA that their bodies are already making, and research about the benefits of GABA is yielding some promising results.
One study suggests that taking GABA can help you get to sleep if you have insomnia. GABA also reduces inflammation, especially inflammation that results from rheumatoid arthritis, according to a 2015 study in mice.
There’s also some exciting new research on GABA and type I diabetes that suggests GABA may be useful against this disease in the future. Right now, though, there’s not enough information for doctors to be sure how to use it safely.
Finally, GABA may help you bulk up – in a good way! GABA triggers your body to create more human growth hormone, which is the chemical that tells your muscles to get big and strong.
There’s no evidence directly connecting GABA supplements with big muscles yet, but the fact that it can make your body react this way is pretty incredible!
You may have noticed that I left anxiety and depression off of this list. I did that for a reason. Makers of GABA supplements claim that taking GABA combats mood disorders, and while the GABA in your brain does accomplish this feat, there isn’t much research yet to back up the idea that taking extra GABA by mouth would be equally helpful.
To get specific, there’s disagreement in the medical community as to whether GABA is able to cross the blood-brain barrier.
I’ll talk a little more about what that is later on, but for now, it means that GABA supplements might work on neurons in the rest of your body, but possibly not on your brain, where your depression is happening.
Someday, maybe GABA will be an accepted treatment for anxiety and depression. But for now, there’s not enough evidence to say, and depression doesn’t wait.
If you are experiencing panic attacks or having suicidal thoughts, your best alternative is to see a doctor, therapist, or other mental health expert immediately.
Depression can and does kill. It is not just “in your head,” and nor is it a symptom of personal weakness.
If you take one thing away from this article, take the fact that your mental health is the result of complicated interactions between neurons and neurotransmitters that sometimes behave in a way that’s out of your control. Your surest path to health is to get help from a trained human being.
What Does GABA Do
In your brain, GABA slows down your neurons. This helps you to relax, de-stress, and calm down. It works on the nerves outside of your body, too, possibly quelling inflammation and chronic pain.
It acts as a balance to other neurochemicals, especially ones that make you alert, nervous, stressed, or hyper. Think of those “alert” chemicals as extremely efficient office workers, running around and getting things done quickly inside your head. GABA is the guy who comes in with a pizza and gives everyone a break now and then.
GABA supplements are supposed to increase the amount of GABA in your body. Though they’re still being studied, GABA supplements may reduce inflammation, promote growth hormone, and help you sleep.
GABA is usually administered in doses of 3,000 to 5,000 milligrams. This is usually for the purposes of stimulating human growth hormone.
However, there’s not much information on how much GABA to take for other purposes. Many studies on GABA give their subjects 18 grams every day for 4 days or 120 milligrams every day for 12 months. However, this dosage may vary depending on your size, health conditions, and other medications.
GABA Side Effects
Right now, very little is known about the side effects of GABA supplements. That’s because the number of studies about oral GABA are few and far between.
In the future, doctors might have a better idea of what to expect, but for now, avoid taking GABA if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking blood pressure medication.
These are general precautions that doctors give to anyone who’s particularly vulnerable to changes in body chemistry. It may be particularly important here since GABA naturally affects the development of a fetus or infant, and taking extra could have unexpected side effects.
Anecdotally, people who take GABA sometimes report feeling sleepy. I’m no doctor, but I imagine that taking a substance sometimes used as a sleep aid might just make you feel tired! To be safe, avoid operating heavy machinery after you’ve taken GABA. And, of course, ask your doctor about any new supplements you try.
GABA and Alcohol
In fact, that article I just linked to suggests that you may be more prone to alcoholism depending on natural variations in how your body reacts to GABA. Other studies support this idea.
This special reaction to GABA seems to have a genetic component, too, meaning that it can be passed down from parent to child. If you’ve had trouble controlling your drinking, then you may already understand why this is so exciting.
We already knew that alcoholism tends to run in families, but what if there were a genetic test to determine how likely it is that you’ll develop it?
Someday, knowing that alcoholism is a risk factor could empower millions of people to avoid or preemptively control their exposure to alcohol, eliminating an addiction before it has a chance to develop. All thanks to our understanding of one little neurotransmitter.
What is GABA Used For
The reasons people take GABA supplements usually have to do with calming down. However, GABA may also help build muscles and reduce inflammation. Here are some of the most common reasons that people take GABA:
- Creation of human growth hormone. This is to try and grow bigger muscles.
- Reduction of chronic inflammation. In mice with arthritis, GABA has been shown to be effective.
- Helping you sleep
- Reducing anxiety. Though there’s no evidence that GABA accomplishes this in humans, many people still take GABA for this purpose.
I’ve talked a lot about the fact that GABA helps you to calm down. Its entire purpose is to encourage your overworked neurons to relax and kick back for a while. But what happens if you naturally have too little GABA in your brain?
There are a few different answers to that, and they mostly depend on how serious your deficiency is. If you were born with a severe GABA deficiency, then you probably already know about it.
There’s a test that doctors can perform on your urine to tell if your body isn’t making enough GABA, and the signs of critical GABA deficiency are often very clear.
Someone suffering from very low GABA may experience seizures and developmental delays. People born with GABA disorders may also have a cleft lip. Luckily, problems this severe are fairly rare.
Less serious deficiencies may be more common. Research suggests that some people with ADHD may have a minor GABA problem, and people who are severely anxious seem to have fewer GABA receptors than their calmer friends.
There’s also some evidence that your body can stop producing enough GABA as you get older. If this happens, you may experience cognitive decline. In the future, doctors’ understanding of how GABA works may lead to new ways to help people with these disorders.
Low GABA Symptoms
So how might you know if you have too little GABA in your brain? Well, the easiest way may be to ask your doctor. They can perform a urine test that could tell you if your GABA levels are measurably low. Otherwise, look for these symptoms:
- These are common in people experiencing low GABA, and they can be very dangerous. If you have a seizure, seek the support of a medical professional right away!
- Trouble thinking. Older adults may suffer from mental decline partially because their bodies aren’t producing GABA like they used to.
- Although most people think of this common problem as a children’s disease, it never actually goes away. Low GABA levels may be partially to blame.
- Some anxiety may happen as a result of low GABA levels or a lack of GABA receptors.
What foods are high in GABA?
GABA, unlike vitamins and minerals, is not a nutrient. Your brain makes plenty all on its own! In fact, humans get none of their body’s GABA from food sources. However, foods heavy with flavonoids can change how your body reacts to GABA. Flavonoids come from plants and they’re just all-around excellent for your body in every way: they stop cancer before it starts, quell inflammation, protect you from diabetes, and may even fend off age-related dementia. Here are a few of my favorite flavonoid-heavy foods:
- Did you know that tea leaves produce chemicals that protect them against disease? In fact, these same chemicals may be related to why tea is so good for you!
- Also clementines, lemons, grapefruits, and tangerines. In fact, any citrus you meet will be positively loaded with flavonoids, and therefore good for your GABA! Apples and other fruits are flavonoid-rich, too.
- Chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, and peanuts are among the many members of this family that pack a flavonoid punch.
- Whether you prefer blueberries or strawberries, eating more of these delicious little treats is associated strongly with better physical and cognitive health, especially if you’re older.
- Red wine. You may already know that a little bit of red wine is good for you. In addition to flavonoids, red wine contains antioxidants and a substance called resveratrol, which is good for your heart!
Some kinds of exercise can increase the amount of GABA that your body produces, too. One study found that stretching prompts your brain to up its GABA production, boosting your mood and relaxing you at the same time. Stretch!
What effect does GABA have on the brain?
The GABA produced in your brain basically slows you down. When it binds to GABA receptors, it makes your neurons send and receive chemical messages more slowly.
Epilepsy is also a potential result of chronically low GABA levels, and medications for epilepsy often encourage your body to make more GABA to stop your symptoms. (I’ll talk a little about one of these, gabapentin, in the next section.)
Finally, you may experience chronic pain if your body loses the ability to generate enough GABA. Bottom line: having plenty of GABA is a good thing!
That said, there’s a pretty significant difference between GABA that your body produces and GABA that you take in a pill. I mentioned before that GABA supplements can reduce inflammation, particularly the type you may experience if you have arthritis, and spur your body to create human growth hormone.
Other claims about taking GABA, especially that GABA can change your mood, are a little shaky. I talked about this before, but it bears repeating and more explanation now. The main problem with the idea that you can take GABA for depression is that GABA may be unable to cross the blood-brain barrier.
This biological high-security zone keeps most substances in your body away from the sensitive tissues inside your head. That’s why doctors like to use gabapentin and other drugs that affect GABA production instead of giving patients GABA directly.
Some small studies do suggest that GABA as a supplement really does decrease your stress and anxiety levels, but they’re so limited in scope that it’s hard to rely on them alone.
Worse, they all have financial ties to companies that manufacture GABA and market it as a mood enhancer. Until there’s more evidence for GABA supplements as a treatment for depression and anxiety, I’ll have to call this use for GABA unconfirmed.
Please see a doctor immediately if you are experiencing mind mood problems its not a weakness.
Other herbal or natural supplements, such as dried passion flower, may have an effect on your body’s GABA production, even though they don’t directly deliver GABA to your brain. If you’re considering a natural or herbal path to health, your doctor is a good resource.
Is gabapentin and GABA the same thing?
GABA is a chemical that your neurons produce, and we’ve seen that GABA can be taken by mouth, like a medicine. But what about the popular epilepsy medication gabapentin? The word GABA is right in its name! There must be some connection, right?
In fact, GABA and gabapentin are not the same thing. Their chemical structures include some similarities, but the reason that gabapentin includes the word GABA is that this medication works in the brain to increase GABA production. This is why it’s so effective against epilepsy, and also why it may make you feel woozy.
Is GABA an antidepressant?
I mentioned before that the GABA your body makes affects your mood, and if you have a mood disorder, low GABA levels may be to blame. Mood disorders are complicated, and there’s usually no magic bullet for depression or anxiety.
Even if you’re on medication, therapy and a healthy lifestyle are critical to controlling your symptoms. Certain drugs modify how your body handles GABA, and this strategy has been studied as a possible treatment for depression.
As for the GABA supplements, there’s really no scientific evidence that they work against depression. If you or a loved one is clinically depressed, then it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible.
Is GABA an excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitter?
When I talked about GABA channel receptors, I mentioned that, when activated by GABA molecules, those receptors allowed their neurons to be flooded with chloride ions.
Because of the way that neurons work, a negatively charged ion like chloride reduces the excitability of that neuron, basically meaning that the neuron can’t generate as many signals as it could before GABA showed up and let all that chloride in. This is why GABA is called an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter.
It lowers, or inhibits, the number of chemical transactions that the neuron can make. If the neuron encountered some excitatory chemical, like glutamate, the neuron would experience the opposite effect: its ability to send and receive signals quickly would be enhanced. As you can see, GABA is to your brain as a brake is to a car. As much fun as it is to speed, it’s just as important to be able to slow down!
No wonder GABA is so critical to life and health. This neurotransmitter, secreted in tiny amounts by your brain, is the key to your ability to enjoy your life fully. It’s a mind-blowing example of how complicated, delicate, and truly amazing the human brain is. If that thought lifts your spirits, well, maybe GABA has something to do with that, too.
Any thoughts? Comment Below