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What is Gaba

GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid that acts as the principal calming neurotransmitter in the human central nervous system. GABA inhibits nerve transmission in the brain, in turn calming nervous activity.

As a supplement GABA is promoted for the neurotransmitter effect as a natural tranquilizer and touted as increasing Human Growth Hormone levels, making it popular among body builders. The published research supporting any of these promotional claims is weak and current medical opinion states that GABA taken as a supplement does not cross the blood-brain barrier thus providing no effect or benefit aside from being a benign placebo. If GABA does not reach the brain, it cannot have an effect.

GABA was first synthesized in 1883, known only as a plant and microbe metabolic product.  In 1950 GABA was discovered to be an important part of the central nervous system as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and in 2007 it was discovered that GABA also affects the airways and is involved in the mechanism of asthma.

As a Neurotransmitter

GABA is the most prevalent calming neurotransmitter in the human body with 40% of synapses (structure that permits a nerve cell to pass a signal) utilizing GABA. Without GABA the nervous system would be overwhelmed with excitatory signals.

GABA is produced in brain cells from Glutamate. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter and when it binds to adjacent cells it encourages them to fire and send a nerve impulse. GABA operates in the opposite manner, telling the cells not to fire or send an impulse. GABA calms and hinders the transmission of nerve impulses. The feeling of too much caffeine is what the sensation of what Glutamate is like with sufficient GABA to control its mechanism.

GABA receptors are the most common in the nervous system and change their shape slightly to allow ions to pass through their channel. This channel allows negatively charged chloride ions to enter the neuron, thus reducing the excitability.  Due to this action, GABA is classified as an inhibitory neurotransmitter as opposed to excitatory neurotransmitters such as Glutamate.

Role in the Brain

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is essential for the proper functioning of the brain and central nervous system. GABA reduces excessive brain activity and promotes a state of calm. Stress, poor diet and many medications over-stimulate the brain, causing anxiety and insomnia. The highest concentration of GABA is located in the hypothalamus and hippocampus but is also present in the central brain and in all nerve cells.

GABA is produced during the Krebs or Citric Acid Cycle, responsible for cell respiration (the production of energy from carbohydrates).  The Krebs (Citric Acid Cycle) is the central metabolic pathway in or aerobic organisms, utilizing enzymatic reactions to produce carbon dioxide from carbohydrates, proteins and fatty acids. Vitamin B6 is involved in GABAs metabolism and a Vitamin B6 deficiency can lead to a deficiency in GABA that may result in seizures.

GABA works by limiting the firing of neurons in your brain, thus reducing general brain activity. The GABA receptors allow more chloride ions to enter the brain cells, thus maintaining the electrical charge.

The Hypothalamus

The Hypothalamus is the section of the brain responsible for the production of many essential hormones and governs functions such as temperature regulation, thirst, hunger, sleep, mood, sex drive and the release of other hormones within the body.  This area also includes the pituitary gland, responsible for melatonin secretion.

The Hypothalamus’ primary function is to maintain homeostasis, or balancing the body’s systems. This includes electrolyte and fluid balance, body temperature, blood pressure and body weight.

The Hippocampus

The Hippocampus is a small, curved formation in the brain that is critical to the formation of new memories and is also associated with learning and emotions. The hippocampus is also involved in the storage of long-term memories, including past experiences and knowledge. In particular the hippocampus plays a major role in declarative memory, the type of memory involving purposeful recall, such as facts or events.

The hippocampus is found in both hemispheres of the brain and by the time an adult reaches 80 years of age approximately 20% of the nerve connections in the hypocampus are lost. This contributes to the decline in memory performance.

How Benzodiazepines Affect GABA

Benzodiazepines work by imitating GABA’s effect, initially increasing GABA, but as tolerance to the drug occurs GABA is downregulated, decreasing available GABA. This increases anxiety, insomnia, pain, and causes muscle weakness along with many other symptoms.

Benzodiazepines initially increase the effectiveness of GABA by opening the chloride ion cells, allowing more chloride ion to enter the neurons. Caffeine does the opposite, and inhibits this property of GABA. Therefore, Benzodiazepines works as a tranquilizer and caffeine as a stimulant.

Alcohol has a similar effect to the benzodiazepines, increasing the release of chloride into the neurons, and is the major way in which alcohol affects the brain.

Tolerance to Benzodiazepines and alcohol and including the withdrawal symptoms is due to the receptors adapting to the drug. The GABA receptors increase in number meaning more of the drug is required (tolerance) to provide the same effect. As GABA is down regulated by the consistent use of the benzodiazepine it then becomes hypoactive when the drug withdrawn. This dramatically increases the initial the symptoms that the drug was intended to treat.

Benzodiazepines alter normal GABA function that in turn alters memory development and storage. Due to the Hippocalamus (previous section) and this explains the link to Alzheimers and Dementia.

Long-term use of benzodiazepines causes a decrease in GABA function. After the brain becomes dependent on the enhancing effects of GABA, discontinuing the drug too rapidly causes a state of GABA-underactivity, resulting in the entire nervous system going into a hyperexcitable state. The drug must be withdrawn very slowly to minimize the painful withdrawals.  In addition, many complain that even with a slow titration the withdrawal symptoms are excruciating unless the nervous system is safely calmed during the process.

Benzodiazepines should be used for no longer than one to two weeks in the treatment of anxiety disorders and should always be tapered off under medical supervision.

Natural Ways To Help Increase GABA

GABA is a non-protein amino acid functions as a neurotransmitter in the body. Deficiencies in Vitamin D and B6 can cause low GABA and a poor diet also erodes our natural GABA levels. Processed foods do not contain naturally occurring Glutamate or Glutamic Acid, which form Glutamine in the body and is a precursor to GABA. 

Using GABA supplements is not recommended, as they do not cross the blood brain barrier and increase GABA levels. In addition GABA supplements can interact with benzodiazepines.

1.  Increase foods naturally high in Glutamic Acid:

Glutamic Acid/Glutamate (Forms Glutamine) mgs Per 6-8 OZ. Serving

Almonds, tree nuts (10.3 g.)

Banana (220 mg.)

Beef liver (6.5 g.)

Broccoli (740 mg.)

Brown Rice (940 mg.)

Halibut (7.9 g.)

Lentils (2.8 g.)

Oats, whole grain (7.4 g)

Oranges, citrus fruits (210 mg.)

Potato (830 mg.)

Rice Bran (3.7 g)

Walnuts, tree nuts (5.4 g)

Spinach (680 mg.)

2. Exercise:

Exercise helps restore all neurotransmitters and studies indicate that yoga helps increase GABA, but all exercise assists in GABA production.

3. Calming Nutrients:

a.) Magnesium is essential for GABA activity, enhancing GABA sensitivity on nerve receptors and has a calming effect.

b.) Inositol reduces levels of anxiety and stress in the brain by binding at GABAa receptors.  (Please note that Inositol may interact with some medications).
c.) Vitamin D3 - A deficiency in Vitamin D is linked to poor GABA production. Vitamin D3, also known as cholecalciferol, is the most biologically active form of vitamin D found in humans.
d.) Vitamin B12 is used for the body to naturally synthesize GABA while also decreasing stimulating amino acids. Only the natural version of B12 (Methylcobalamin) is recommended.
e.) Vitamin B6 is required for GABA synthesis.