Constantly feeling fearful and anxious, maybe you should check your GABA levels.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in our brain. Meaning it helps calm our brain by blocking excitatory nerve signals in our nervous system.
It plays a crucial role in our brain’s regulation of our thoughts, mood, sleep, muscle relaxation, and metabolism.
GABA works in synchrony with the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. GABA and glutamate are the yin and yang of our brain. Glutamate fires up the nerve transmission while GABA turns down the signaling. Both being in equal balance is vital in maintaining our brain-body homeostasis.
High concentrations of GABA are found in the limbic system, the brain area involved with emotions and survival responses. The amygdala which is a key part of the limbic system has a major portion of these GABA receptors. When faced with danger our sympathetic nervous system releases stress chemicals to fight off the danger. Once the threat has passed GABA acts as a brake and calms down our nervous system. Thus GABA has a tranquilizing effect on our emotions and stops us from being overwhelmed by stressful situations.
However, chronic stress associated with PTSD, particularly childhood trauma can impair the functioning of this braking system. This leads to low levels of GABA which affects many aspects of our life.
Reduced GABA levels have been linked to anxiety, depression, insomnia, mood disorders, autism, depression, schizophrenia epilepsy, and Huntington’s disease.
Our gut microbiome plays an important role in GABA production. It helps to convert glutamine and glutamic acid into GABA. A disordered microbiome is a major cause of low GABA production.
What Is GABA?
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that works as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It suppresses stress-induced actions of the amygdala. GABA receptors within the amygdala blосkѕ, оr іnhіbіtѕ, firing certain brain signals thus reducing activation of our nervous system.
Besides the brain, GABA is also found in your spinal cord, adrenal glands, pituitary gland, pancreas, and sex organs.
GABA also works in conjunction with another inhibitory neurotransmitter, serotonin, that helps stabilize our mood. Nonetheless, one must remember that neurotransmitters work in tandem, one affects the other and vice versa. And chronic stress disrupts the smooth functioning of this delicate neurochemical system.
What is GABA’s Relationship to Glutamate?
GABA and glutamate act like an ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch – working in opposite ways. GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in your brain, It stops the chemical messages from being transmitted across nerves. While glutamate, on the other hand, is the main excitatory neurotransmitter in your brain. It allows nerve impulses to be transmitted.
What’s surprising is that GABA is made from glutamate following a reaction with the enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase.
However, when we are in a state of arousal, more glutamate is needed which leaves less for the making of GABA.
Conversion from Glutamate to GABA
GABA is formed in the brain by a chemical process that uses glutamine acid and Vitamin B6.
The amino acid taurine helps increase the communication and productivity of this enzyme. And zinc helps the release of GABA from its receptors.
Magnesium too plays an important role in the release of GABA. It helps bind to and stimulates GABA receptors in the brain.
The GABA Switch
In immature brains, GABA acts in an excitatory capacity. The excitatory-to-inhibitory functional switch of GABA is referred to as the GABA switch. When exactly in human development a complete switch occurs is still not clear.
Nevertheless, one specific sensitive period in neural development occurs during the first and second-week post-birth. During this time, the excitatory-to-inhibitory functional switch of GABA takes place.
However, early-life stress, such as maternal separation (MS), delays the GABA switch. Delay of GABA switch due to early–life stress leads to an inappropriate physiological balance of excitatory and inhibitory neurons in the CNS. This suggests that GABA continues to be excitatory and a child’s brain lacks the ability to calm down.
Thus sub-optimal child caregiving over the first few weeks of life alters GABA receptors which in turn affects how that individual handles stress all through the course of his/her life.
What Happens In Chronic Stress
Chronic stress causes dysfunction of the GABA–Glutamate neurotransmitter system. Living in a state of constant fear and hypervigilance revs up glutamate in our system. This also spurs the body into producing more excitatory glutamate, thus reducing GABA production – remember GABA is catalyzed from glutamate.
Signal transmission across synapses is regulated by a balance between excitatory and inhibitory effects. In the normal course of events, neurons will fire at the right times and not fire at the wrong times.
However, when living in chronic stress and fear, this smooth changeover from excitatory and inhibitory goes haywire. We are either too revved up or we are down in the dumps. We are unable to reach that state of focused calm that’s so essential for learning. Not surprisingly, traumatized kids have difficulty learning.
The prolonged imbalance of this natural physiological homeostasis system leads to physical and mental health issues.
Do You Have Enough GABA?
Having optimal levels of GABA is essential to our well-being. Without adequate levels of GABA, our brain-body system would be in a state of hyperarousal. This could lead to numerous neurophysiological disorders.
When it comes to neurotransmitters, you need to have the proper balance — not too much and not too little.
Feeling easily stressed out, overwhelmed, and overstimulated, means you’re producing too little GABA.
Listed are some conditions that could be due to low GABA:
1) Anxiety, panic attacks, stress
2) Insomnia and Sleep disturbances
3) Autism Spectrum Disorder
5) Schizophrenia hallucinations and cognitive impairment
6) Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease
7) Muscle spasms, Tourette’s Syndrome
9) Obesity, Diabetes
10) Deficiency in human growth hormone
11) Poor digestion, bloating, flatulence, and constipation
12) Fibromylygia/ Dystonia and muscle spasticity
Improving GABA Levels Naturally
Our overall well-being depends on first finding ways to reduce stress and eat healthily.
Also, keep in mind, that quick-fix cures can be detrimental in the long run. Studies have shown that long-term usage of drugs that mimic GABA, like benzodiazepines, barbiturates, or alcohol results in the downregulation of GABA receptors. In layman’s terms, the brain stops making GABA.
Additionally, it’s also important to avoid these four neurotoxic elements:
- Excessive sugars, especially High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Highly processed carbohydrates, especially grains
- Excessive omega 6 fatty acids, especially from vegetable oils
- Added chemicals, colorings, preservatives, and emulsifiers found in processed and packaged foods
Eating Healthy Foods
Taking GABA supplements will itself have no effect because it can not pass through the blood-brain barrier. And foods do not contain organic GABA.
However, GABA is produced in the brain from glutamine/glutamate.
1) Eat glutamine-rich Food
GABA-producing foods containing L-glutamine include varieties of green, black, or Oolong teas, lentils, berries, grass-fed beef, and wild-caught fish, seaweed, potatoes, and tomatoes. Beetroots are one of the richest sources of glutamine, fermented beets are even better.
2) GABA In Your Gut – Fermented Foods (Probiotics)
GABA is also synthesized in the gut by beneficial bacteria. Fermented foods help increase GABA levels. Include foods rich in probiotics such as fermented pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, etc.
3) Vitamins and minerals can kick-start the production of GABA
a) Magnesium can help stimulate GABA-receptors
b) Taurine is an amino acid that can increase levels of GABA in our brains. Shellfish have some of the highest taurine content. Additionally, it is also found in meat, fish, nuts, dairy products, seaweed, and human milk.
c) B-6 (pyridoxine) along with glutamate decarboxylase help to catalyze glutamate in the production of GABA. Including foods rich in B-6 helps to support the production of GABA in the brain. Some good sources of B-6 include spinach, garlic, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and bananas.
d) Herbs like ashwagandha, valerian, hops, chamomile, passionflower, St John’s wort, magnolia, and kava are all herbs that have been found to increase GABA levels. Here again, don’t overdo it, take breaks, continuous taking of supplements can affect your body’s natural production of GABA.
Light physical exercise increases GABA levels. Choose exercises that engage the mind and body like yoga, tai chi, qigong, walking, and crawling.
5) Meditation and Relaxing Activities
Listen to sound healing music, guided meditation, practice breathing exercises, have warm Epsom salt baths, visit the sauna, massage with essential oils, etc. Also engaging in activities like knitting, painting, and baking, which require hand-eye coordination can make you feel calmer.
Boosting Your Natural Valium
GABA is your natural Valium, it lowers brain activity and helps you feel calm. However, you cannot simply increase one neurotransmitter without looking at the bigger picture – how your environment and eating habits affect your neurochemicals which in turn affect your mental and physical health.
Furthermore, you have to find ways to get your brains out of the overactive fear circuit of the amygdala. Find your safe place/ person – enlightened witness – even if it is for short periods. This is one important step in your healing. It can be either a therapist, friend or family member. Knowing that there is someone out there who cares about you can miraculously boost our calming neurotransmitters.
Only recently am I finally feeling safe after years of constantly being hyperaroused. Even now there are times I have to work on getting back into my window of tolerance and relaxation.
Three things that have helped me heal and become calmer are journaling/writing ( writing a blog post puts me in a flow state), listening to sound healing music, and daily ingesting homemade fermented foods and drinks.
Feeling calm and centered is the best state to be in.
Image Source: Pexels
The role of GABA neurotransmitter in the human central the nervous system, physiology, and pathophysiology
The Mood Cure – Julia Ross
Why Isn’t My Brain Working – Datis Kharrazian