All About GABA: How This Brain Chemical Controls Your Mood + Anxiety
Your mood is controlled by various chemicals located in your brain called neurotransmitters. They control whether we are sad, happy, relaxed, anxious, or depressed. Now that’s power! Each neurotransmitter has its own role in how it affects your mood. In order to feel your best, there has to be proper balance between every neurotransmitter.
As a functional medicine practitioner, when working to optimize my patient’s brain health, I make sure to look at something called GABA. GABA stands for gamma-amino butyric acid and is your body’s signal to calm down. In anxiety, your brain’s cells get overly excited and boost their activity, much like a child on a sugar high. Certain neurons known as GABAnergic neurons, release GABA to calm down these hyper neurons.
Your body naturally produces and regulates GABA. However, this process sometimes malfunctions, causing (1) GABA levels to decrease, and anxiety, depression, and insomnia to increase. Who could have thought one chemical had so much power?
There is good news though – there are many natural ways to support GABA levels. So look no further than my complete guide to GABA.
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GABA Agonists + Your Brain
To stimulate a molecule it first has to bind to a receptor. These receptor-binding molecules are called agonists. GABA agonists can be produced (2) outside or inside of the body and include drugs as well as naturally occurring substances. So when you start to feel relaxed, just know that your GABA has been stimulated through this agonist-receptor relationship.
The two major GABA receptors are GABAA and GABAB. Activation (3) of GABAA can contribute to relaxation, sedation, lowered anxiety, and even short-term memory trouble. GABAB activation (4) will produce similar effects but on a slightly smaller scale. Modulators of this receptor are important (5) when it comes to relieving depression.
Your brain’s hypothalamus contains one of the highest amounts of GABA receptors. The hypothalamus works to maintain homeostasis in your body by controlling your pituitary gland and nervous system to regulate sleep, appetite, body temperature and HPA-axis function. Hypothalamus-related problems like adrenal fatigue can often be traced back to underlying GABA dysfunctions.
Glutamate is another one of your body’s neurotransmitters. Its main responsibility is to excite and motivate, which is the opposite of GABA. In fact, it is actually a precursor to GABA. Your body automatically converts excess glutamate to GABA to maintain balance (6) and keep you calm. GABA conversion problems lead to high glutamate levels, low GABA levels and increased anxiety and depression.
The Benefits of GABA
The amazing thing about GABA is that it doesn’t just affect your mood. Your body is inextricably connected, making the benefits of this neurotransmitter far-reaching.
1. GABA + Sleep
Multiple studies have shown that GABA plays an important role in sleep quality. GABA extracts have been linked (7) to better sleep even when caffeine was present in the body.
2. GABA + Gut Health
Your gut is often referred to as your “second brain.” In fact, your gut and brain were actually formed from the same fetal tissue and continue their connection through your life by the gut-brain axis. It only makes sense that our brain health influences our gut – GABA function included. Your intestinal lining also has its own GABA receptors which help to digest food and regulate (8) gastrointestinal activity by producing gastric acid.
If you need another reason to keep your microbiome healthy, research has shown that certain bacterial strains can produce GABA. For those struggling with inflammatory gut problems, this neurotransmitter is especially important since GABA can actually help regulate pain perception. In one study, (9) rats that were given oral bifidobacterium strains experienced less pain and their GABA production increased.
3. GABA + Brain Function
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that helps (10) the growth and function of neurons. Healthy GABA levels are necessary (11) for increasing BDNF which is important since low BDNF levels are associated (12) with impaired memory and Alzheimer’s.
There are certain supplements and herbs that help increase activation of GABA receptors which stimulate activity. Not surprisingly, some of my favorite herbs are adaptogens!
This plant contains a psychoactive compound called kavain which has been shown to ease anxiety by stimulating (13) GABAA receptors. Kava performed better than other herbal supplements in various studies and was found (14) to work just as well as benzodiazepines for lowering anxiety.
2. Valerian root
The active compound valerenic acid has the ability (15) to increase GABA. Many studies have shown (16) valerian root to be helpful in improving sleep quality and duration in those suffering with insomnia. It is also a next-level treatment (17) for anxiety.
This herb is packed with antioxidants. Supplementation has been linked (18) to enhanced neuron health and improved cognitive function.
Studies have shown (19) that consistent supplementation can reduce anxiety and stress and can even have a mild sedative effect.
5. Lemon balm
One of lemon balm’s many antioxidant properties is rosmarinic acid. It works to increase (20) GABA by inhibiting the 4-aminobutyrate transaminase enzyme which is responsible for contorting GABA to L-glutamine.
6. Green tea
Anyone who is close to me knows that green tea is my go-to beverage not only for taste, but for its many health benefits. Most of these are connected to its high EGCG (Epigallocatechin gallatate) content which helps to stimulate GABA activity.
Other herbs and supplements that help support GABA include:
Lifestyle Changes To Boost GABA
There are also many ways to increase GABA without having to add in another supplement:
Unlike endorphins that surge right after exercise, long-term physical activity has been shown (25) to reduce stress and enhance GABA synthesis.
One study (27) found that a single yoga session can increase GABA by 27 percent.
4. The ketogenic diet
High glutamate is associated with epilepsy and seizures which have been shown to be helped by a high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb, ketogenic diet. This diet can increase (28) the GAD enzyme and uses ketones as a precursor to GABA. My book, Ketotarian, is all about a plant-based ketogenic diet.
GABA + Your Microbiome
If you want to increase the ability of these GABA enhancers, you need to give them an environment to thrive in in order to get their job done. Going back to the gut-brain axis, if you are suffering from “leaky brain syndrome” – when your blood-brain barrier (BBB) is destroyed – it won’t matter how many supplements you take or therapies you incorporate.
Occludin and zonulin are the two proteins that control both your gut-lining and blood-brain barrier permeability. Elevated levels indicate leaky gut and leaky brain syndrome. When your brain’s protective barrier is compromised, (29) it activates your brain’s immune cells putting them into protective overdrive which causes a cascade of brain inflammation.
“The cytokine model of cognitive function” is a whole area of research (30) that examines how much inflammation is connected to anxiety, depression, brain fog, and autoimmune brain problems. In fact, inflammation decreases the firing rate (31) of neurons in the frontal lobe of the brain in people with depression. Since the underlying inflammatory response is not addressed it can make many antidepressants ineffective.
This can also decrease your brain’s communication with your gut, impairing your gut function and continuing the inflammation cycle. Research is also looking at the microRNA-155 molecule that is elevated when inflammation is higher. It creates (32) more gaps in the blood-brain barrier which perpetuates further brain inflammation. Talk about a vicious cycle!
Ultimately, it all comes back to the gut. Make sure to support your gut through eliminating gut irritating foods, and incorporating probiotic-rich foods like kimchi and sauerkraut. A functional medicine practitioner can also work with you to come up with a food medicine plan specific to your individual health case. Your brain and mood will thank you!
As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.
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- Mabunga DF, Gonzales EL, Kim HJ, Choung SY. Treatment of GABA from Fermented Rice Germ Ameliorates Caffeine-Induced Sleep Disturbance in Mice. Biomol Ther (Seoul). 2015;23(3):268-274. doi:10.4062/biomolther.2015.022
- Auteri M, Zizzo MG, Serio R. Pharmacol. 2015; 93:11-21. GABA and GABA receptors in the gastrointestinal tract: from motility to inflammation. Res doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2014.12.001
- Pokusaeva K, Johnson C, Luk B, et al. GABA-producing Bifidobacterium dentium modalates visceral sensitivity in the intestine. Neurogastroenterol. Motil 2017; 29(1):e12904. doi:10.1111/nmo.12904
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- Karl Obrietan, Xiao-Bing Gao, and Anthony N. van den Pol Excitatory Actions of GABA Increase BDNF Expression via a MAPK-CREB-Dependent Mechanism - A Positive Feedback Circuit in Developing Neurons Journal of Neurophysiology. 2002 88:2, 1005-1015
- Pirjo Komulainen, Maria Pedersen, Tuomo Hanninen, Halle Bruunsgaard, Timo A. Lakka, Miia Kivipelto, Maija Hassinen, Tuomas H. Rauramaa, Bente K. Pedersen, Rainer Rauramaa BDNF is a novel marker of cognitive function in ageing women: The DR’s EXTRA Study Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Volume 90, Issue 4, November 2008, Pages 596-603 doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2008.07.014
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.