The central nervous system processes thousands of inputs every millisecond. You can thank your CNS for nearly every detail of brain/body function, much of it with the ability to consciously control.
Sometimes, too many neurons fire their impulses at the same time. This can lead to anxiety, fear, or racing thoughts. That’s where GABA comes in.
The main purpose of GABA is to regulate this over-excitement that can occur in the brain. It puts the brakes on the overactive mind.
What is Gaba?
GABA stands for Gamma-aminobutyric acid. It’s a neurotransmitter that helps send messages between the brain and the nervous system. GABA is produced naturally in the brain as a function to reduce the activity of nerve cells in the central nervous system. This regulation helps lead to relaxation, reduced stress, balanced mood, and even better sleep.
GABA balances against glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter. Too much glutamate and you’ll end up with a seizure or mania. On the other hand, too much GABA will cause extreme sedation or put you in a coma. This is why a healthy GABA balance is so important.
When GABA is synthesized in the brain, it is made from glutamate using an enzyme called GAD and B6. This process is called the GABA shunt pathway, which is a by-product of the brain metabolizing glucose.
Research suggests GABA helps to control fear and anxiety when neurons become overexcited. Low levels of GABA in the brain are linked to schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and muscle stiffness.
GABA exerts its effects via ionotropic (GABAA) and metabotropic (GABAB) receptors 1. Both types of these receptors are targeted by popular prescription drugs used to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia, and aggressive behavior. Some examples include benzodiazepines, barbiturates, neuroactive steroids, anesthetics, and antidepressants.
How to Measure GABA levels
There are a few ways to gauge low GABA levels, although there isn’t a sure-fire method to know exactly what is going on in your brain. For instance, it is possible to measure GABA levels in your blood, but this isn’t necessarily correlated with GABA levels in the brain.
Neurotransmitter tests are intended to gauge GABA levels. These tests generally rely on measurements from saliva or urine. But before purchasing a pricey lab test, consider the following limitations of these tests:
You aren’t measuring GABA levels in your brain. These tests measure levels in saliva, urine, or blood. However, there isn’t a proven correlation between neurotransmitter levels in the brain and urine.
These tests are taking a snapshot of a moving target. Neurotransmitter levels change rapidly based on thoughts, diet, or environment. Using a pricey lab test to measure levels at one point-in-time may send you down the wrong path.
One of the best approaches is to compare your symptoms to those common with when a GABA deficiency is present.
Symptoms of GABA deficiency
The best place to start is to evaluate the symptoms you commonly experience. If you struggle with the following symptoms you might have a GABA deficiency.
Common Symptoms of Low GABA:
- Trouble relaxing
- Racing thoughts
- Stiff or tight muscles
- Cold hands and feet
- Shortness of breath
- Anxiety and panic disorders
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Use food, drugs, or alcohol to relax
- Sensitivity to bright lights or loud noises
- Difficulty concentrating and memory problems
If these symptoms apply to you, consult with your doctor to discuss the best options to resolve.
If you need help pinpointing deficiencies based on symptoms, Dr. Eric Braverman’s Brain Deficiency Quiz is a helpful guide to compare symptoms from deficiencies in acetylcholine, dopamine, GABA, and serotonin. He’s the founder and president of the PATH Foundation, a nonprofit organization that does research on brain health and healthy aging.
How to Increase GABA in Your Brain?
There are different options to help your body support the production of GABA through diet and supplements. These options work by stimulating the GABA and GABA receptors.
Supplements for GABA
Herbal supplements can help support the release of GABA where vitamin and mineral supplements can help correct deficiencies and imbalances that can lead to lower GABA production.
Valerian is a perennial flowering plant native to Europe and parts of Asia. This sedative herb can increase the release of GABA from the brain nerve endings and then prevent it from being taken back into the nerve cells again.
Valerenic acid is the active component in valerian root that positively modulates GABA receptors 2.
It is a common natural remedy for anxiety, insomnia, and menstrual cramps. Valerian root is generally a good option to take before bed, as it tends to have a sedative effect.
Magnesium is a mineral that is important for binding and activating GABA receptors. Without enough magnesium, we’re unable to activate GABA receptors and use effectively. Two common signs of magnesium deficiency are anxiety and insomnia 3.
In the U.S, a majority of people are not getting enough magnesium in their diet. Many factors that can lead to magnesium deficiency such as a low magnesium diet, excess alcohol consumption, conditions such as diabetes, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. Read more about the best magnesium supplements for anxiety here.
The process of converting glutamate to GABA is dependent upon the activated form of vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 plays an important role in cognitive development through the biosynthesis of neurotransmitters and in maintaining normal levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood 4.
Taurine is an amino acid found in high concentrations in the brain where it acts much like a neurotransmitter by activating GABA receptors. Additionally, animal studies show taurine encourages the release of and formation of GABA 5.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in black tea, green tea, and it’s also available in supplement form. Research suggests L-Theanine promotes relaxation without drowsiness or a sedative effect. It’s also shown to be the most effective for those who struggle with anxiety 6.
Animal neurochemistry studies suggest L-Theanine increases brain serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels. It was also discovered to act as a cognitive enhancing and neuroprotective agent 7.
Kava (Piper methysticum), also known as called kava kava, is a member of the nightshade family of plants. Native to the South Pacific islands, islanders have been using for hundreds of years as a ceremonial drink. It’s known for its relaxing and stress-reducing properties.
The active ingredients in Kava are called kavalactones, which have been shown to reduce anxiety, reduce pain, and protect neurons from damage. One study found that Kava moderately enhanced GABA elicited responses 8.
Withania somnifera, known as ashwagandha, is a healing plant in the nightshade family. It has been used for centuries for improved thinking, sleep, arthritis, cancer, anxiety, and more.
Ashwagandha root is popular in Ayurvedic medicine (Indian medicine) and has been used for over 3,000 years. Ashwagandha offers countless benefits to the body and mind. It’s an adaptogen, a substance defined by properties that help the body adapt to environmental challenges such as stress.
One study found Ashwagandha produced GABA-mimetic activity when GABA levels were low 9.
Read more about Ashwagandha for anxiety here.
Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis), also known as Houpu Magnolia and Kara-koboku, is a versatile herbal remedy. It’s used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat mental disorders such as anxiety and depression 10.
Magnolol and honokiol, the active ingredients in Magnolia Bark have been shown to act as positive allosteric modulators of GABA receptors 11. One study focused on its ability to reduce convulsions by modulating GABA receptors 12.
Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is a plant native to North America used for anxiety, insomnia, menstrual cramps, inflammation, and even epilepsy. it creates an “anxiolytic activity” in animals and humans. It’s most widely available as a tea or in a tincture.
Two flavones from Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi, act as positive allosteric modulators of the benzodiazepine sites of GABAA receptors 13.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a herbaceous plant in the mint family commonly used to reduce anxiety, fight inflammation, improve memory, and help with thyroid issues. It provides antioxidant properties. Rosmarinic acid is its most potent psychoactive compound, which is thought to reverse damage to the brain caused by chronic stress. It boosts GABA levels and keeps glutamate levels balanced 14.
Black Seed Oil
Black Seed Oil is extracted from the seeds of black cumin, a small shrub native to Southwest Asia. The oil extracted from its seeds have been shown to provide antioxidant properties. Some of its known benefits include reducing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, and asthma. It’s also used in beauty for anxiety, hydrating hair, and softening skin.
One study found Thymoquinone, a major constituent of Nigella sativa (Black Seed Oil) to increase GABA activity in mice 15.
Lavender is a flowering herb native to the Mediterranean and northern regions of Africa. The oil extracted from Lavender plants are commonly used for anxiety, depression, fungal infections, hair loss, and for an upset stomach.
One study found the scent of Lavender was effective in reducing anxiety in patients during dental procedures. It can act as a useful on-the-spot remedy to reduce anxiety 16.
One study on mice found, that borneol, a constituent of lavender essential oil, showed positive modulation of the activation of GABAA receptors.
Though GABA is produced naturally in the body it is also available in supplement form. Initial studies in the 50s found that GABA supplements are not able to cross the blood-brain barrier. More recent studies show that it may cross the BBB, although the conclusive research is limited 17.
5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) is an amino acid in the body that produces serotonin. Increased levels of serotonin which can further increase the activity of GABA. Neurotransmitter tests have show that GABA needs serotonin to function properly.
Psychobiotics are beneficial bacteria (probiotics) or support for such bacteria (prebiotics) that influence bacteria–brain relationships. Studies have found that probiotics can alter inhibitory GABA receptors which could correct imbalances 18.
Phenibut is a derivative a GABA (a synthetic compound) developed in Russia. It is most commonly used for anxiety, fear, insomnia, depression, and PTSD.
It works by binding to the GABA-B receptor, similar to alcohol and benzodiazepines. Since it targets the GABA-B receptor, a tolerance will develop with continued use. Approach this supplement with caution as it can lead to addiction, dependence, and withdrawal 19.
Picamilon is drug formed by the synthetic combination of GABA and niacin. It is currently sold in Russia as a prescription drug and is no longer available for sale in the United States. It’s been touted to improve memory, concentration, attention, while improving calmness, relaxation, and stabilizing mood.
Other Natural Ways to Boost GABA
There are also a number of natural ways to boost GABA levels that don’t involve supplements. Daily exercise, meditation, and diet can all improve GABA without any downsides!
Yoga is widely known for its numerous health benefits such as reducing stress and improving relaxation. It may also reduce inflammation, depression, chronic pain, and improve heart health, quality of life, and sleep quality. Incorporating yoga into your daily routine can greatly improve physical and mental health.
One study found test participants had a 27% increase in GABA after one 60-minute yoga session 20.
Cardio and Exercise in General
Exercising has been shown to improve mood, help with weight-loss, increase energy levels, improve skin health, brain health, sleep, and help with relaxation. Neuroscientists found that vigorous exercise increases both glutamate and GABA leading to improvements in mental fitness 21.
“The neurochemicals released during exercise are so potent that you could consider yourself a psychopharmacologist, self-medicating through exercise.” – The Athlete’s Way, by Christopher Bergland.
Meditation can encourage the growth of new neurons and form new connections between existing neurons. Based on its effect on neurotransmitters (such as GABA) and brain waves, meditation is considered an effective treatment for anxiety, without any negative side effects 22.
One study found significant increases in GABA levels after a 60-minute meditation session 23.
Oolong tea is made from Camellia sinensis, the same plant used to make black tea and green tea. It is produced by withering the plant under strong sun and oxidation before curling and twisting. This tea is packed with minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. Similar to Green tea, it contains L-Theanine which can enhance GABA activity.
GABA is not directly available in food, but a healthy balanced diet still comes into play. For example, glutamine is available in food and converts to GABA. The body naturally produces glutamine but it diminishes with chronic stress and intense exercise.
Top glutamine-rich foods:
- Grass-fed beef
- Free range chicken
- Free range eggs
- Whey protein
- Red cabbage
- GABA is neurotransmitter that regulates nerve cell activity between the brain and the central nervous system
- The best to measure GABA is by analyzing symptoms you are experiencing
- Low GABA levels can lead to anxiety, fear, irritability, and trouble relaxing
- Improve GABA levels with supplements, exercise, diet, and mindfulness practices such as meditation