GABA is short for “gamma-aminobutyric acid.” It’s the most abundant of our neurotransmitters, the natural chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells in the brain. Neurotransmitters greatly impact our mental health. They can make us happy, focused, driven, sleepy, confident, calm, creative, and more. Too much of one of these chemical messengers can be just as problematic as too little. The key is maintaining an overall balance while they ebb and flow to adapt to our daily activities and situations. GABA is known for its calming effects on the brain. You may have heard of a GABA-promoting drug called Gabapentin, which is usually prescribed for seizures and nerve pain. But GABA has many other functions, and there are natural ways to increase GABA levels.
What is GABA?
GABA belongs to a group of neurotransmitters referred to as “inhibitory neurotransmitters.” The “inhibitory” part refers to their ability to lessen or block certain signals between neurons in the brain. Excitatory neurotransmitters (such as glutamate and dopamine) act as the “foot on the gas” of your nervous system. The inhibitory neurotransmitters (GABA and serotonin) take the foot OFF the gas. Glutamate is the metabolic precursor of GABA. In other words, the most excitatory neurotransmitter is needed for the body to produce the most inhibitory transmitter.
The inhibitory neurotransmitters are calming and balancing to the central nervous system (CNS). They may also soothe certain types of pain.
Healthy GABA levels are associated with:
- Emotional stability
- Concern for others
- Restorative sleep
- A general feeling of well-being
The main role of GABA in the human body is to calm the nervous system. It also improves sleep, balances blood pressure, impacts hormone balance, and protects the pancreas from damage. A key function of GABA that we emphasize at The Wellness Way is maintaining healthy levels of IgA antibodies. These can be elevated if you’re eating foods to which you’re allergic.
Low GABA Levels
Having low GABA levels affects your mental health, pain levels, and ability to settle down to sleep. For that reason, doctors may use GABA-promoting (“GABAergic”) medications to calm the brain in one way or another. Seizures, essential tremor, and insomnia are a few conditions that may be treated with drugs that target GABA receptors in the brain.
GABA-targeting medications include the following:
- Benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax – used in the treatment of epilepsy.
- Barbiturates – used as sedatives.
- Vigabatrin (Sabril) – used to treat seizures and spasms in babies.
- Gabapentin (Neurontin) – used to treat seizures and nerve pain.
- Baclofen – used as a muscle relaxant.
These medications may cause a variety of side effects, including hair loss. Benzodiazepines and barbiturates can be very addictive.
Signs, Symptoms, and Conditions
Some signs and symptoms of low GABA levels include the following:
- Insomnia and other sleep disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory issues
- Muscle pain and headaches
- High blood pressure
- Type 1 diabetes
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alcohol addictions
These symptoms may also be caused by other things but are a good reason to get your neurotransmitters checked. Without optimal GABA levels, it can be difficult to feel good, relax, and enjoy life.
What Depletes GABA?
Low levels of GABA can also come from production, uptake, or conversion issues, which go back to chronic stress in the form of trauma, toxins, and thoughts. These three stressor categories are the culprits behind chronic inflammation. They can also lead to imbalances and conditions that may deplete GABA.
One of the most common causes of low GABA levels is excess glutamate and an impaired ability to convert it to GABA. Glutamate (also called glutamic acid) is an excitatory neurotransmitter that serves as a GABA precursor. Excess glutamate in the body is an indicator that the immune system isn’t functioning the way it should. It’s not making a mistake – It’s adapting to things in the environment, including allergenic foods, infections, toxins, and more.
The conversion from glutamate to GABA happens via an enzyme called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD). The effectiveness of the GAD enzyme can be impaired by the following:
- Rubella – This virus enters the body as a part of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine given to children. As the immune system responds to rubella, it may also attack GAD.
- Type 1 Diabetes – Those with this autoimmune condition tend to produce antibodies against the GAD enzyme, which can hinder its ability to convert.
- B6 deficiency – B6 or pyridoxine supports the GAD enzyme in synthesizing GABA from glutamate.
- Progesterone deficiency – A progesterone byproduct called allopregnanolone binds to GABA-A receptors. If progesterone is too low, GABA may go down.
- Lead toxicity – Lead reduces the ability of the GAD enzyme to work.
Other neurological conditions associated with antibodies to the GAD enzyme include Stiff-Person syndrome, cerebellar ataxia, limbic encephalitis, and temporal lobe epilepsy. There may be even more not yet discovered. GABA plays a significant role in our neurological health.
What Can Help?
Because there are so many causes of low GABA, testing for imbalances in the body is crucial. Once your Wellness Way practitioner has the results, they can help you address those imbalances and support proper GABA synthesis and usage. Some of the strategies for increasing GABA activity may include the following dietary and lifestyle changes:
- Take care of your gut! – Test food allergies and gut health. Infections and inflammation in the gut can cause brain inflammation and autoimmunity.
- Optimize the HCL in your stomach – Neurotransmitters come from proteins, and you need to be able to break down proteins into the building blocks that make up your neurotransmitters.
- Decrease glutamate levels – You can do this by avoiding your food allergies, lowering histamines, limiting your exposure to electromagnetic fields like WIFI, and lowering your inflammation in general.
- Balance hormones – Addressing estrogen dominance and optimizing progesterone levels. When cortisol levels are high, progesterone often goes down.
- Eat fermented foods – Kimchi, sourdough, fermented fish, fermented mulberries, and others provide trace amounts of GABA. However, this is not a good idea if you have histamine intolerance.
- Eat other GABA-rich foods – Scientists have also found traces of GABA in foods like sweet potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, and cruciferous vegetables like spinach, kale, and broccoli.
- Try herbal supplements – kava, valerian root, and passionflower may increase GABA levels.
- Consider ashwagandha – This adaptogenic herb can also help increase GABA activity
- Drink tea or take L-Theanine – L-Theanine is an amino acid naturally found in tea leaves that may increase GABA. L-Theanine, GABA, and passionflower are in our Alcedonia supplement.
- Check Vitamin B6 – Optimizing your vitamin B6 levels can help convert glutamate to GABA. Magnesium and taurine are other essential cofactors. (Taurine is also in Alcedonia)
- Ask about a GABA supplement – In other words… ask your Wellness Way practitioner about Alcedonia!
GABA supplements may help certain conditions like insomnia and anxiety. In a small study of 40 participants, those who took GABA an hour before bed fell asleep faster than those who received the placebo.
However, the way supplemental GABA works is debated because GABA itself cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and directly impact brain levels. So, if GABA supplements help symptoms, it may indicate a compromised blood-brain barrier. There can also be side effects of GABA supplementation.
Before buying GABA supplements, herbs, or adding GABA-containing foods to your diet, talk to your Wellness Way healthcare provider to see which approach is best for you.
High GABA Levels
It can also be a problem to have excessively high levels of GABA. This most often occurs as a response to stress. The body causes a rise in GABA levels to calm and balance a system in fight-or-flight.
Signs, Symptoms, and Conditions
Elevated GABA may lead to what doctors call a “paradoxical reaction,” which means it causes the symptoms it’s usually taken to address. For example, it may lead to:
- Shortness of breath
When chronically elevated, it may rise to toxic levels, potentially even leading to neurodegenerative disease.
What Causes Elevated GABA?
While it’s uncommon to have excessive levels of GABA, it may occur with a medication overdose or from combining high doses of too many GABA-promoting herbs.
What Can Help?
Balancing out elevated GABA levels requires lowering whatever is causing chronic stress in the body. This goes back to addressing trauma, toxins, and thoughts. If medications or supplements are creating a GABA overload, it is crucial to know what those are and work with your medical provider to lower the dosage or number.
No matter what, it all goes back to achieving healthy, balanced levels of neurotransmitters, which means lowering inflammation levels and working to restore overall health.
Don’t Guess – Test!
Many people turn to questionnaires or quizzes to find out their neurotransmitter levels. While doing so may give you some idea, it’s not accurate, and depending on which one you use, you could be completely off-base. At The Wellness Way, we can test your neurotransmitter levels – including your production, uptake, and conversion ability. We often begin with food allergy testing or stool testing, as imbalances in the gut influence neurotransmitter activity. After assessing your overall situation, we may also opt to test your neurotransmitters directly –if deemed necessary. Once we have the results, we investigate where the problem is occurring and create a customized plan of action to help you get back to balance. Contact a Wellness Way Clinic today to start feeling like yourself again.
- Glutamine as a precursor for transmitter glutamate, aspartate and GABA in the cerebellum: a role for phosphate-activated glutaminase – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Attenuates Ischemia Reperfusion-Induced Alterations in Intestinal Immunity – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA): What It Is, Function & Benefits (clevelandclinic.org)
- The Neuro-endocrinological Role of Microbial Glutamate and GABA Signaling – PMC (nih.gov)
- Gabapentin: An update of its pharmacological properties and therapeutic use in epilepsy – PMC (nih.gov)
- Adult-onset autoimmune diabetes identified by glutamic acid decarboxylase autoantibodies: a retrospective cohort study – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Role of pyridoxine in GABA synthesis and degradation in the hippocampus – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Allopregnanolone in mood disorders: Mechanism and therapeutic development – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Ascorbic Acid Supplementation Prevents the Detrimental Effects of Prenatal and Postnatal Lead Exposure on the Purkinje Cell and Related Proteins in the Cerebellum of Developing Rats – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Dietary Neurotransmitters: A Narrative Review on Current Knowledge – PMC (nih.gov)
- Hydroalcoholic Extract of Ashwagandha Improves Sleep by Modulating GABA/Histamine Receptors and EEG Slow-Wave Pattern in In Vitro – In Vivo Experimental Models – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Safety and Efficacy of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid from Fermented Rice Germ in Patients with Insomnia Symptoms: A Randomized, Double-Blind Trial – PMC (nih.gov)