GABA (GAMMA-AMINOBUTYRIC ACID)
Written by Slawomir (“Swavak”) Gromadzki, MPH
WHAT IS GABA
GABA is an unusual brain chemical because apart from being one of the major neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other, it is also a simple amino acid (a building block of protein).
GABA is a calming inhibitory neurotransmitter which produces feelings of calm in our brain, lessens nervousness and stress, increases focus and is also an excellent sleep aid.
GABA and Serotonin enable the brain to calm and control anxious thoughts, so when they are deficient we become anxious, nervous, depressed, and unable to sleep or relax. In addition, since the nerves are overacting and keep firing, deficiency of these neurotransmitters contribute to various painful conditions such as fibromyalgia or migraines. GABA deficiency is also linked to autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and epilepsy.
GABA acts like a sponge, soaking up excess adrenaline and cortisol or other by-products of stress helping us to relax.
In certain experiment, participants were exercising at 65 percent of their oxygen consumption for 30 minutes. 20 minutes before they started the training they were given either 1,000 mg of GABA or a placebo. According to the study results GABA prevented exercise-induced increase of body temperature and reduced sweat rate and plasma catecholamine (stress hormone) concentrations during exercise. These results proved that GABA is able to reduce sympathetic nervous system activation during periods of stress.
EFFECTIVENESS OF GABA SUPPLEMENTS
Many users swear that synthetic GABA supplements help them reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, while others find them useless.
Although various GABA supplements are available and promoted as a safe way to reduce anxiety levels and help combat stress yet there are reasons to believe that their effectiveness may be poor simply because it is too big to cross the blood-brain barrier (the membrane that separates the brain from the blood) when GABA supplements are ingested orally.
However, although in theory GABA is supposed to be too large to pass the blood brain barrier yet some practitioners noticed that in the real world in some patients it seems to work anyway, and therefore it somehow had to get into the brain as it produced a calming effect. But since it works only in certain people, you have to try it in order to find out if is effective in your case. Unfortunately, if it does it may mean you have developed a leaky blood-brain barrier.
In some people GABA supplements work simply because although the size of GABA molecules is slightly too big to get through a healthy blood-brain barrier, yet it is small enough to pass a permeable blood-brain barrier, which in many people is damaged as a result of chronic stress and other factor.
Unfortunately, a damaged blood-brain barrier is a very dangerous problem as it allows also bad substances to rich the brain. In order to recover from leaky brain you should do the following: Learn to control stress, consume more raw vegetable salads and raw vegetable juices, raw sauerkraut (or take good probiotic supplement), regulate blood sugar, detoxify your body, avoid foods with refined sugar, gluten, white flour products, bad fats such as commercial oils and margarines, and eliminate or at least reduce meat and dairy products. In addition you need daily doses of 500mg Pantethine (active form of pantothenic acid), 500mg Rutin, 2 times 1000-2000 mg Acetyl L-carnitine, two times 600mg Alpha Lipoic Acid, 5000 IU Vitamin D3, 2 times 150-450mg well-absorbed Magnesium (such as citrate), 1000mg sublingual Methylcobalamin (B12), and organic Chlorella.
OTHER WAYS GABA SUPPLEMENTS CAN BE EFFECTIVE
Another way synthetic GABA supplements may influance the brain with calming effect is by boosting GABA in the gut, blood circulation, and nerves system. This seems to be also the way some probiotic bacteria increase GABA in the gut imposing relaxation via the gut-brain axis.
Although, it is believed that GABA supplements work only for those with a leaky blood-brain barrier, yet there are some new ideas suggesting it doesn’t have to be true. For example, it is suspected that certain regions of the brain allow small amounts of GABA to enter (>, >). According to another theory, it is possible that GABA binds with receptors found in the peripheral nervous system, rather than those in the brain (>, >).
Anyway, whatever is the true explanation, I wouldn’t give up on GABA supplements but since it is harmless I would give it a try and use it together with listed below factors that are known to increase this crucial neurotransmitter in the brain.
MORE BIOAVAILABLE FORM OF GABA SUPPLEMENTATION
The good news is that there is another form of GABA supplementation that seems to be more effective in passing the blood-brain barrier even if it is not leaky. It is also GABA but made by fermentation process which uses the beneficial probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus hilgardii. This form of GABA has been shown to be more effective than the synthetic form, made from the industrial solvent pyrrolidinone. The natural form, known as PharmaGABA, has been shown to produce relaxation by increasing the alpha to beta brainwave ratio, preserving salivary antibody production during stress and reducing amounts of the stress hormone cortisol.
To evaluate the ability of the fermented form of GABA to improve sleep, a study was conducted. The results demonstrated that PharmaGABA significantly shortened the time required to fall asleep and increased the time of quality sleep. The study also showed that the fermented form of GABA was quickly absorbed, and the blood levels of GABA were highest 30 minutes after oral administration (>). Therefore, the researchers suggest that ingesting 200mg of this GABA supplement about 30 minutes before bedtime should give best results. For improved stress control during the day, a dosage of 100 to 200 mg up to three times is recommended.
CONCERNS ABOUT PHARMAGABA
Unfortunately, the mentioned above and obviously sponsored by the manufacturer of PharmaGABA study, is the only one that provides the data about the effectiveness of this supplement. This fact, therefore, gives a reason to be suspicious, as there are no independent studies that show PharmaGABA can indeed cross the blood-brain barrier. Clinical studies using brain imaging would have to be involved to determine if it is true. In addition, the beneficial results achieved with PharmaGABA can be also indirect as this supplement may relax the brain through its beneficial effects on the gut and nerves that influance brain through the gut-brain axis (>, >). By the way, this is the way how some probiotic bacteria stimulate GABA reliese in the gut and impose a relaxing effect on the brain.
An official dosage hasn’t yet been established, but most supplements suggest 500-1000 mg per day.
SAFETY OF GABA SUPPLEMENTS
GABA does not have any major side-effects and is generally considered very safe (>).
There are no known adverse interactions between GABA and medications. However, on condition GABA is able to pass the blood-brain barrier it probably shouldn’t be used without consultation by someone on tranquillising and anti-anxiety medications such as Valium or benzodiazepine GABA may possibly increase their sedative effect.
Safety of GABA during pregnancy has not been determined.
SUPPLEMENTS & REMEDIES THAT BOOST GABA
Below I have included various supplements and natural remedies that are known to boost GABA as well as Serotonin activity that you can use to cope with stress, irritability, anxiety and depression. However, please keep in mind that in order to fully and permanently recover from various emotional problems you also need to address other important causes by improving your lifestyle and diet, and by implementing principles and using remedies listed in the article on DEPRESSION & ANXIETY >.
– Exercise not only increase Serotonin but also GABA. A 2013 study found that the brains of stressed exercising rats developed more neurones (brain cells) that release GABA (>).
– Researchers have found some GABA in many unrefined plant foods. The best sources are brown rice germ, sprouted grains, raw auerkraut, kimchii, and spinach (>).
– Picamilon (Nicotinoyl-Gaba) is a supplement containing GABA and Niacin (Vitamin B3). It was developed in the former Soviet Union to create a substance that is supposed to be able to enter the brain (>). Researchers at the All-Union lab combined GABA with Niacin because Niacin is able to cross the blood-brain barrier very effectively. They discovered that when the two were properly combined together, the Niacin was able to carry GABA through the blood-brain barrier and deliver it to the brain. In Russia, it is available as a prescription medication to treat depression, anxiety, chronic stress, stroke, sleep problems, high blood pressure, and migraine headaches. Picamilon is also used by students to boost memory, focus and mental performance (>). It is interesting that, Picamilon was pulled from the shelves by the US Food and Drug Administration because it does not meet the official definition of a dietary supplement (>), but it is still available online. In the United Kingdom Picamilon is considered a dietary supplement (>).
– Phenibut (>) is an extreamlly interesting supplement made by modifying GABA with a phenyl group (beta-phenyl-GABA). It seems to be very effective in treating insomnia and inducing relexing effect but should be used according to strictly regulated dosege principle as otherwise it can be addictive and cause withdrawal synmptms. In the US it’s classified as a supplement while in UK it doesn’t seem to be available anymore as a supplement due to the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, although it is not clear, because on the same basis also stimulants such as caffeine or alcohol should be prohibited (>). The explanation is probably found in the fact that Phenibut seems to be more effective, and wisely used, produces much less side effects than antidepressant and antianxiety drugs…
– High daily doses of Vitamins B3 (Niacin) especially in the form of nicotinic acid produces an GABA-like anti-anxiety effect. Unfortunately B3 can produce hot-flushes although they are harmless and normally disappear after about 30 minutes. The good news is that if you start from lower doses such as 50mg and gradually increase to about 1000mg per day the body gets used to it without causing hot flashes. Instead of nicotinic acid you can also use the none-flash nicotinamide form of vitamin B3 but it is regarded as less effective.
– Researcher found that certain types of Probiotic Bacteria living within the intestines may positively influence our mood as it plays a large role in creating the various brain neurotransmitters and feel good hormones. Probiotics that produce mental health benefits are called psychobiotics. One of the main ways psychobiotic bacteria accomplish this effect is by creating neurotransmitters, including GABA (>).
There are over two dozen probiotic strains that produce GABA. The most effective seem to be some specific strains of Lactobacillus (>) (especially L. rhamnosus and L. brevis included, for instance, in MoodProbio) and Bifidobacterium (such as B. dentium) (>). They are known to be able to optimize the production and function of important chemicals like GABA, serotonin and dopamine involved in mood and required in the brain for healthy cognitive function and focus. They use the gut-brain connection to improve mental health. For instance, we know that the Lactobacillus strains facilitate direct communication between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve to reduce stress and anxiety (>).
In addition, a healthy bacterial balance in human gastro-intestinal tract is positively correlated with higher levels of amino acid tryptophan which is used by our body to make vital antidepressant and good mood factors such as serotonin and niacin (vitamin B3). It means that deficiency of certain strains of probiotic bacteria in the colon may contribute to bad mood, anxiety, depression and other problems associated with mental health. In one study participants who took a probiotic supplement every day for thirty days felt happier and reported feeling less affected by stressful situations than those who didn’t take probiotics. Other studies also suggest that supplements with probiotic bacteria can help to cope with bad mood, depression and anxiety.
Find more fascinating facts in: Psychobiotics (Probiotics) & Mood >
– Amino acid L-glutamine is the precursor of GABA and therefore should increase its production. However, the conversion from glutamine to GABA requires vitamin B6 or P5P (the active form of this vitamin). Unlike GABA supplements, L-glutamine easily passes the blood-brain barrier and in the brain is first converted into glutamic acid or glutamate (brain’s primary stimulatory neurotransmitter) which is finally converted into GABA (brain’s primary inhibitory or calming neurotransmitter). Unfortunately, supplementing L-glutamine to increase GABA in the brain may not always be a good solution, because L-glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter and there is some evidence that in certain individuals (not in all people) supplementing with L-glutamine may lead to a harmful glutamate accumulation in the glial cells contributing to some neurodegenerative problems including Alzheimer’s. That is why there are many articles warning against consumption of foods containing monosodium glutamate. L-glutamine seems to be harmful when ingested as an isolated amino acid and it is thought to be safe or safer when it is consumed with other amino acids (>).
– Millions suffer from Magnesium deficiency without even knowing it. It is estimated that 80% of us are deficient in magnesium. In addition, magnesium deficiency is often misdiagnosed because it does not show up in blood tests as only 1% of the body’s Magnesium is stored in the blood. Magnesium enables us to control stress and is vital in our body for proper functioning of the nervous system and brain, promoting good mood, and improves our sleep patterns. It’s been suggested that this is because magnesium is involved in the synthesis and function of GABA and serotonin, neurotransmitters known to be most effective in calming the brain and promoting relaxation. That is why Dr. Berzin calls Magnesium “the nature’s anti-anxiety drug”.
– Ashwagandha reduces anxiety, depression & sleep problems; Promotes feeling of calmness and relaxation by enhancing GABA signalling and serotonin levels in the brain. Ashwagandha’s Latin name “somnifera” can be translated as “sleep-inducing”. The anti-anxiety effect of Ashwagandha may be also due to the ability of Withanolides to mimic the activity of the calming neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which reduces overactivity in neurons, acting as a nerve tonic and helping relax, improve mood, reduce anxiety, and promote good sleep. (>)
– Black seed (Nigella sativa) calmed and protected developing brains in rats, even though they were under stress (>). It reduced anxiety in mice (>). Also in a human 4 weeks study it decreased anxiety and improved mood and cognition in 48 adolescent male subjects. The treated participants took daily dose of 1g of black cumin in capsule form (>). It is believed that this effect is caused by increasing serotonin and GABA levels in the brain (>, >).
– A Japanese study showed oral L-Theanine administration of a single dose of 200 mg led to increased alpha-brain waves and sense of relaxation. By now we know that brain converts L-Theanine into body’s key relaxing neurotransmitters GABA, dopamine and serotonin. Scientists have found that L-Theanine’s relaxing and anti-stress effect is most evident in people with high baseline anxiety.
– Amino acid L-Cysteine is used in our body to manufacture L-Taurine which plays a key role in maintaining proper function of our central nervous system and is also required for the conversion of glutamic acid into GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) which makes taurine very beneficial in improving mood and reducing risk of seizures caused by excess Glutamic acid building up in the brain.
– Normal Zinc levels increase GABA while deficiency will reduce it (>)
– Melatonin appears to enhance the GABA, which also helps to stop or inhibit seizures. In addition, melatonin blocks the neurochemical glutamate which promotes seizures.
– Valerian root interacts with the GABA system in the brain, thus helping reduce brain activity and allowing users to fall asleep more easily.
– L-lysine facilitates the brain’s production of GABA. On the other hand, animal studies gave some evidence that Taurine and Glycine may block GABA receptors in the brain, reducing its effectiveness because they compete with GABA for absorption.
– The amino acid Taurine increases the communication and productivity of P5P (active form of Vitamin B6) and promotes the production of GABA. Studies have shown that a deficiency of taurine can contribute to anxiety (>).
– You can boost GABA production in the brain by using other supplements such vitamin B complex.
– Relaxing herbs such as tulsi (holy basil), hops, lemon balm, chamomile, valerian, passionflower have been used for ages to promote relaxation and healthy sleep. It is, therefore, no coincidence that these popular herbal remedies are often found to be also linked to increased GABA in the brain (>, >, >, >, >).
– Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) is a traditional Chinese remedy, sold as a nootropic (for cognitive enhancement), for stress relief, and as a sleep aid. One of the ways it works is by binding with GABA receptors (>).
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