Last updated: March 6th, 2019
Unlike other neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) doesn’t seem to enjoy the popularity it deserves. GABA is one of the most highly employed inhibitors in our central nervous system. What this means is that GABA prevents certain neurotransmitters from being effective, or at least, from being fully effective.
This way, GABA helps you relax or stop being afraid and ensures you get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, we live in a stressful world – but increasing GABA levels in your brain may be one of the solutions for getting rid of your sleep problems.
GABA the neurotransmitter
First of all, what is a neurotransmitter? It is a chemical in our brain which carries information from one neuron (nerve cell) to another.
In order to send out information, a neuron releases neurotransmitters into space between itself and another neuron. This space is called a synapse. Neurotransmitters then get attached to the receptors of the following neuron, giving out their piece of information. A signal called action potential fires and moves on through the neuron to keep the chain reaction going.
However, when GABA is released into a synapse, it sends information to the nerve cell that it should not fire an action potential.
For example, if we are under a lot of stress because we’re about to give a public speech, our body produces adrenaline. However, it also produces GABA, which prevents adrenaline from spreading out too much. As GABA inhibits adrenaline, we are able to calm down and get up on the stage.
In this example, GABA has attached to our neurons telling them to ignore the message from adrenaline. This doesn’t mean adrenaline is now completely stopped – it still produces its effect but to a smaller extent. GABA makes sure our neurons don’t overwork and get overexcited.
By inhibiting wakefulness-promoting neurotransmitters and reducing muscle tension, GABA prepares our body to fall asleep. Aside from sleep, GABA promotes mental health, immunity strength, and overall relaxation. Increased GABA gives us a feeling of happiness.
GABA receptors and their function
Each neuron has receptors onto which neurotransmitters get attached. There is a receptor for every type of neurotransmitter. GABA has two – GABA(A) and GABA(B).
GABA(A) receptors are responsible for your sleep, sedation, and relaxation. Alcohol in small amounts can help you feel relaxed because it mimics GABA and binds with your GABA(A) receptors. This may explain why some people prefer the ‘nightcap’ just before bed, however, don’t forget that alcohol before sleep can prevent your brain from reaching deep sleep and REM sleep stages.
GABA(B) receptors also help you relax both your mind and muscles, but they do not affect your brain as strongly as GABA(A) receptors do.
There are GABA receptors in our gut as well, although not as much as there are in the brain. A study has shown how the food we eat and the gut bacteria can influence our mood. The more good bacteria you take in, the more GABA is released in your brain. This is one way in which a healthy diet may lead to healthy sleep.
The benefits of GABA on your sleep
For about half a century, GABA-activating drugs have been used to promote sleep. Those drugs are known as barbiturates (aspirin, amobarbital, butabarbital, to name a few). Contrarily, drugs which work as GABA suppressors promote wakefulness and REM sleep, at the same time suppressing deep sleep, which is important for its restorative purpose.
High GABA levels can:
- Shorten sleep latency. This means it will take less time to fall asleep if your brain has plenty of GABA neurotransmitter.
- A study conducted in Japan has found that consuming GABA-rich foods may result in better sleep and longer NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep.
- Induce deep sleep. The same group of authors has seen a correlation between high GABA and longer time people spent in deep sleep – one of the NREM stages. Longer time in this restorative sleep leads to a better immune system, improved memory, reduced inflammation, lower risk of Alzheimer’s, and better learning.
- Keep your dreams pleasant. Many benzodiazepines work by blocking GABA receptors. People using these drugs report having much more nightmares.
GABA, sleep paralysis and other sleep disorders
A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has provided plausible evidence that irregularities of both GABA receptors (A and B) and glycine receptors are closely related with sleep paralysis in mice.
They have found that REM sleep atonia is connected with these three types of receptors in the brain. It is known that REM muscle paralysis is a normal sleep occurrence, however, a neural breakdown in this system can lead to disorders. After blocking GABA(A), GABA(B) and glycine receptors, they have managed to reverse REM sleep paralysis.
After this discovery, more research needs to be done in the field of other REM-related sleep disorders like REM behavior disorder (RBD), cataplexy and narcolepsy. Now that we know GABA plays a role in REM sleep movement, this may inspire future research on GABA and REM.
Another study published in the Journal of Sleep Research has reported that patients suffering from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have low levels of GABA and high levels of glutamate. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter which plays a role in learning and memory. However, it can overexcite a nerve cell and damage or even kill it. Therefore, glutamate has a good and a bad side, and when it causes cellular damage, it is referred to as an excitotoxin.
With low GABA levels around, nerve cells are not protected from getting overexcited. This means that, due to high levels of glutamate and low levels of GABA, OSA patients live and work under a lot of stress and can experience anxiety, restlessness, and inability to focus.
Symptoms and consequences of low GABA
Scientists have found that insomniacs have significantly lower GABA levels than those who have no problems falling asleep. Low GABA is also associated with sooner waking.
Depression, anxiety, and panic are symptoms of insufficient GABA levels and may be alleviated by the use of supplements and foods which increase GABA.
GABA seems to be linked with substance addiction – using alcohol and drugs that promote GABA increases the chances of getting addicted. Patients who are trying to quit substance abuse are frequently prescribed with GABA-promoting drugs which, although help with remittance, are addictive themselves.
How to increase GABA naturally?
We know that alcohol and some legal (and illegal) drugs can increase GABA, but their drawback is that they mess with the sensitivity of our neurons and lead to an imbalance in the natural production of GABA in our bodies. This further results in addiction.
Some scientists argue that GABA from the blood can’t reach the brain because of the blood-brain barrier. This is a natural defense mechanism which protects our brain from harmful chemicals. There is a number of studies which support this claim, however, some scientists insist that a small amount of GABA is able to reach the brain nevertheless.
There has been evidence that GABA from the bloodstream, when taken together with L-Arginine, is able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and increase GABA levels in the brain manifold. This is because of nitric oxide which is produced after L-Arginine consumption.
There are plenty of natural ways to increase GABA in our brains safely – be it foods or physical activity. Here are two lists of natural ways to obtain this precious neurotransmitter.
- Fermented foods. Foods containing lactobacillus are rich in GABA. Some of these are kefir, yogurt, kimchi (Asian fermented sour cabbage), sauerkraut, miso, and tempeh. As you already have GABA receptors in your gut, you may feel better soon after eating some of this food.
- Foods high in glutamine. Your body uses glutamine to produce GABA, so you will benefit from the following animal products – beef, chicken, and eggs, and plants like red cabbage, beets, and beans.
- Foods high in flavonoids. Tea, cocoa, and fruits like apples, pears, citruses, and berries are rich in flavonoids which may improve the function of GABA in your brain.
- Magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B6-rich foods. Spinach, almonds, cashew, and vegetables contain lots of magnesium, whereas fish, potatoes, carrots, peas, and seeds are high in B6. Zinc can be found in meat, dairy, seeds, legumes, and nuts.
- Exercise. Daily exercise helps improve your GABA levels. However, you should exercise regularly in order to see improvement. Exercise can help with most sleeping problems and is a part of good sleep hygiene.
- Meditation and breathing exercises. By learning how to relax, you are allowing your body to bring balance to all your neurotransmitters, including GABA.
GABA is not the only natural sleep aid. There are many more foods, supplements, and habits you can embrace to get a good night’s sleep. If you opt for GABA-promoting foods or supplements, make sure to take the L-Arginine with them.
GABA supplements – are they worth it?
You can buy GABA supplements at a drugstore, but there is a lot of speculation on whether they can be used by our body or not.
There are two main types of GABA supplements – PharmaGABA and synthetic GABA supplement (Phenibut). PharmaGABA is GABA obtained from nature, that is, from lactobacillus which produces it. Phenibut is a synthetically modified GABA, or, more accurately, beta-phenyl-GABA.
Although naturally obtained supplements seem to produce better effects, the exact effects of any GABA supplements are not quite clear to researchers yet. There has to be more work done in order to reach clear-cut conclusions on GABA intake and its actual effects.
If you choose to take GABA supplements, make sure you are well familiar with their side-effects and possible risks. Consult your doctor before making any major decisions.
Too much GABA isn’t good
Although there are ways to improve your GABA levels, if you overdo it, you may experience the very opposite results to those you are trying to achieve. Such an event is referred to as a paradoxical reaction. There is a number of physiological and psychological side-effects from consuming too much GABA. Some of them are paradoxical whereas some are not.
- Anxiety. Trying to treat anxiety by excessive consumption of this amino acid can result in its aggravation. You may have panic attacks and experience overall mood worsening.
- Insomnia. An inability to relax is connected with an inability to fall asleep. If you are fighting insomnia, try with small GABA dosages.
- Unusual skin sensations and redness. The effect of GABA on your nervous system may result in a tingling, crawling sensation on the skin. Redness may also appear with or without those sensations. These skin problems should pass quickly.
- Short breath. An inability to inhale fully may come as a consequence of the inhibitory nature of GABA. For example, adrenaline’s role is to increase breathing during a fast walk or due to stress, however, as GABA inhibits it, a person may feel the need for faster breathing but experience an inability to do so, which results in shortness of breath.
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