Stress is a normal (and necessary) part of life, but when symptoms of stress persist and control your life, your mind and body take a hit. When anxiousness takes over, it’s time to evaluate the cause.
*Neurotransmitters transmit impulses throughout the central nervous system and have a huge impact on mental and physiological health.
In this article, we dive into the neurotransmitter GABA, Gamma-AminoButyric Acid.
GABA is a calming neurotransmitter.
Food is the best source of brain nutrients. Protein is made up of amino acids and together with vitamins and minerals, neurotransmitters are made.
However sometimes diet and lifestyle are not enough. Sometimes these key neurotransmitters remain deficient. Supplements can be the best way to deal with these deficits in the short term.
Low levels of GABA are associated with anxiety, agitation, stress and poor sleep.
Sufficient levels are associated with feeling relaxed and stress-free.
Symptoms of Low GABA
With homage to Julia Ross, MA, author of The Mood Cure , Datis Kharrazian, DC, author of Why isn’t my Brain Working?, and Trudy Scott, CN, author of The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution who offer this composite list of self-identifying symptoms.
Which of these symptoms apply to you?
- Stress or feeling overwhelmed
- Feelings of inner excitability or tension
- Panic attacks
- Unable to relax your mind
- Stiff or tense muscles
- Burned-out feeling
- Craving carbs, alcohol or drugs for relaxation and calming
If you checked several of these symptoms, you may have low GABA.
it could be something else. Read on, my stressed out friend.
Causes of Chronic Stress
Although we tend to think of stress as being caused by our jobs, relationships or finances, for example, there are many other causes of stress. These factors can cause stress to our bodies and minds:
- HPA Axis dysregulation (more commonly known as Adrenal Fatigue)
- Blood sugar imbalances such as Hypoglycemia, Metabolic Syndrome or Type 2 Diabetes (See my Two Week Plan to Banish Sugar Cravings).
- Unbalanced sex hormones
- Infection or prolonged injury
- Pathogens in the gut (such as parasites or yeast overgrowth)
- Allergens or sensitivities (to food, especially gluten, or environmental substances)
- Excess exercise (Too much exercise can raise cortisol levels causing more anxiety)
- Chemical toxicity (Caffeine use will inhibit GABA in the brain)
- Medications such as diet pills, amphetamines, asthma medication, antihistamine, caffeine and steroids can all increase anxiety
Check out these causes with your healthcare practitioner to get at the root of your chronic stress.
Supplements will NOT be effective if these causes go unchecked.
Steps to Raise GABA levels
These steps will allow your body and brain to relax and to receive the nutrients needed to make the neurotransmitters it needs to function optimally.
- Take yoga, tai chi or meditation. Or simply take a walk.
- Moderate and regular exercise can relieve anxiety.
- Improve your stomach acid levels to properly digest and allow your body to use the nutrients you eat.
- Eat plenty of healthy fats and protein. Avoid these cooking oils and use plenty of these oils.
- Increase your Omega-3 essential fatty acid intake.
- Ditch processed foods and enjoy lots of whole, organic food.
- Drink plenty of clean water.
- Eat fermented foods that are rich in probiotics.
- Good sources of GABA-rich foods are walnuts, oats, spinach, beans, liver and mackerel.
- Consider amino acid supplements once your healthy nutrition is in place.
Other Causes of GABA Deficiency
GAD (glutamic acid decarboxylase) is an enzyme that is responsible for making GABA out of glutamate. Some people have an autoimmune disorder to GAD. Those folks need to address their autoimmune condition and any allergies to gluten and artificial glutamates like MSG (monosodium glutamate).
Also, a genetic disorder that impacts the production of GABA can be responsible for lifelong anxiety. An enzyme, glutamic acid transminase, converts glutamic acid into GABA. This disorder affects the enzyme’s activity.
Autoimmune thyroid, Hashimoto’s, can also mimic GABA deficiency.
Tests are available for each of these conditions.
Cofactors of GABA Production
Vitamin B6 (aka P5P), magnesium, zinc and manganese are all critical vitamins and minerals to the production of GABA.
Without these nutrients, simply supplementing with GABA or Phenibut is futile.
Supplements to Support GABA Levels
Select one, not all, of the supplements listed below, initially.
- As with all supplements, if you experience any adverse effects, stop taking them immediately. Excesses of neurotransmitters can be just as problematic as deficiencies.
- Consult with your healthcare practitioner if you have a serious illness such as cancer, severe liver or kidney problems, an ulcer, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.
- Check with your doctor if you are pregnant, nursing or are taking any prescribed mood medications such as an SSRI or MAOI.
- These supplements typically are not needed long term, three to six months is generally sufficient. Gradually taper off to determine if your symptoms have resolved.
- Quality matters when it comes to supplements.
- For brand recommendations, contact me for specific information.
GABA is an amino acid as well as being a neurotransmitter. Within a few minutes of taking GABA, you may feel more relaxed. Taking it at bedtime can help with sleep.
GABA helps brain cells calm down, aids in the control of muscle activity and plays an important part in vision.
Studies show that GABA, taken orally, doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier and enter into the brain in amounts substantial enough to have a calming effect. If GABA is effective for you, you may have a leaky blood-brain barrier which allows the larger molecules of GABA to cross the blood-brain barrier.
A good way to test yourself for a leaky blood brain barrier is the the GABA Challenge test.
A leaky brain is capable of allowing dangerous foreign materials into the brain that could trigger inflammation, such as environmental toxins or undigested food particles.
The good news is that even though the blood-brain barrier degrades easily, it also has the potential to regenerate easily. By eliminating the causes of chronic stress identified above as well as controlling homocysteine levels, an inflammatory compound, the blood-brain barrier can be restored.
- Take GABA between meals so it won’t compete with other amino acids in your meal.
- As with most supplements, start with a low dosage and gradually increase your dosage until you consistently feel calm.
Caution: Do not take GABA if you have low blood pressure.
Phenibut, beta-phenylgama-aminobutyric acid hydrochloride, is a derivative of GABA that acts on both dopamine and GABA receptors.
It is a good alternative to benzodiazepenes (prescription anxiety medication) and is useful for the short term treatment of withdrawal from addictions.
Phenibut can cross the blood-brain barrier. You may find this supplement more effective than GABA.
Caution: Phenibut may cause dependence. People using MAOI or epilepsy meds should consult their prescriber before using phenibut.
Other Supplements to Combine with GABA or Phenibut
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body. It increases GABA levels in the brain. The body normally makes enough glutamine on its own, but extreme stress can increase the need for this amino acid. Take it between meals.
Taurine can be obtained from fish and meat. It is anti-inflammatory and works with GABA to prevent overactivity of the neurotransmitters. Taurine levels decline significantly as we age. Take it between meals.
L-Theanine is an amino aid that has a very similar structure to GABA (like taurine). It is found in many teas. Take it between meals.
Not to be confused with Lithium Carbonate, the drug used to treat bipolar disorder, lithium orotate is a naturally occurring mineral. Low dosages of lithium orotate have been effective to increase GABA receptor sites. For more information, see Lithium: the Mood-healing Mineral with a Bad Rap.
Valerian Root is a well-known herb for sedation managing insomnia, restlessness and anxiety. Passion Flower Extract also increases the sensitivity of the GABA receptor sites and has been known to help with anxiety, insomnia, seizures and hysteria.
Why Supplements Sometimes Don’t Work
Taking the appropriate amino acids (the precursors of neurotransmitters) might seem like the best solution to raise GABA levels. They can be very effective for some people.
But for those with underlying imbalances or medical conditions, amino acids may have no effect at all (and can possibly worsen the situation).
If you go out and buy one of the supplements listed in the section below and it doesn’t help, you haven’t wasted your money. You’ve simply discovered that you need to dig deeper.
Here are some of the underlying conditions that can cause anxiety and mimic low GABA level symptoms:
- Thyroid imbalance
- Autoimmune diseases
- Blood Sugar Imbalance
- Estrogen and other Hormone levels
- Iron levels and anemia
- Lack of cofactors (vitamins/minerals/enzymes) to metabolize the amino acids (see above)
- Hypochlorhydria (lack of appropriate levels of stomach acid)
- Lack of digestive enzymes
- Anemia from Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Inadequate fatty acid levels
- Heavy metal toxicity
- Copper overload
- Inadequate magnesium, lithium, zinc, chromium
- Inadequate methylation
- Adrenal gland insufficiency or HPA axis disorder
- Environmental toxicity
- Inadequate gut flora
- Lack of sleep
- Medication side effects
With appropriate lab testing, functional testing and symptom analysis, you can isolate the cause(s) of your symptoms. If you have questions or need guidance, contact me.
How Can we Reclaim our Emotions?
The simple truth is that most mood and emotional symptoms are caused by one or more physiological (physical) imbalances, with the exception of past emotional trauma or abuse situations.
It’s not all in your head.
Frequently conventional medicine doesn’t dig deep enough to find the root of your moods.
Don’t give up.
We will coach you how to find the root of your moods. Once we know what the underlying issue is, together, we can formulate a personalized plan involving simple lifestyle changes and the right nutrients for you.
No drugs, no restrictive diets, no magic shakes, no boot camps and no voodoo.
We recognize that everyone is different. Each of us is a different person with a unique biochemical and physical profile, which means that imbalances affect us differently. Therefore, your coaching plan will be customized to your lifestyle, your tastes and your budget.
Contact me for a free 20 minute consultation to find out how you can reclaim your emotions by finding the root of your moods.
The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution, Trudy Scott, CN, 2011
The Mood Cure, Julia Ross, MA, 2002
Staying Healthy with Nutrition, Elson M. Haas, MD, 2006
A Mind of Your Own, 2016, Dr. Kelly Brogan
Breakthrough Depression Solution, James M. Greenblatt, MD, 2016
Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health, Leslie Korn, 2016
Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, Datis Kharrazian, DC, 2013