When our lives and bodies are in balance, we naturally “switch off” before bedtime as our mind shifts gears and starts to slow down. One of the key players in this relaxation process is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid produced naturally in the brain, which works as a neurotransmitter promoting calm, good sleep and overall metabolic health.
There are many neurotransmitters in your brain—some induce activity while others inhibit it. GABA is a type of neurotransmitter that has an inhibitory effect on the neuron, meaning it inhibits some brain signals and reduces activity in your nervous system and reduces the likelihood that the neuron will fire an action potential.
With the stressful lifestyles many of us are accustomed to, we can find ourselves reaching for a glass of wine at the end of the day to relax and sleep better. Instead, consider learning more about this remarkable organic compound that is already present in your body.
Today we will look at why GABA is so important, how it works and how you can increase its levels in a natural way.
- GABA is a type of neurotransmitter that has an inhibitory effect on the neuron, meaning it inhibits some brain signals and reduces activity in your nervous system and reduces the likelihood that the neuron will fire an action potential, thus earning the moniker ‘the brakes of the brain’.
- GABA improves sleep, relieves stress and anxiety and enhances metabolic health.
- Exercise-focused nutrition and meditation can increase the levels of this inhibitory neurotransmitter.
What’s GABA’s job?
GABA is responsible for slowing us down, reducing stress and increasing relaxation. This downtime for the body naturally leads to a balanced mood, pain relief and improved sleep. Towards the end of the day, the brain releases GABA to encourage sleepiness, helping us to rest and recover.
Not only is GABA considered the “brakes of the brain” but it’s also a key player in regulating muscle tone and contributes to the overall homeostasis (balance) of the body and mind.
In addition, GABA plays a role in the body’s immune and endocrine systems and is involved in our metabolism and appetite regulation. Research also suggests its connection to gut health and its role in helping to control inflammation, support motility and regulate hormones.
Given all the positive potential of this amino acid, it’s no surprise that very low GABA activity can result in some rather adverse effects, including chronic stress, depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, muscle pain, headaches, insomnia and even potential substance abuse.
Benefits of GABA
GABA has anti-seizure, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. This soothing neurotransmitter impacts several systems in our bodies. Here are some ways it really shines.
1. Improves sleep
GABA is essential for the mind and body to relax, and its deficiency has been linked to disrupted sleep and insomnia. One study showed that the levels of GABA in people with insomnia were nearly 30 per cent lower than in those who slept normally.
When your GABA levels aren’t high enough, there is a good chance you’ll be more restless and wake up during the night (this is also why many sleep medications target GABA in the brain). Interestingly, recent research shows that eating fermented food (more on that later) can help decrease the time it takes to fall asleep and increase overall sleep time.
2. Relieves stress and anxiety
GABA’s main function is to slow things down in the brain. This decrease in neural activity naturally leads to relaxation and alleviates stress and anxiety. One study showed that people with higher levels of GABA experienced a slowing down of brain waves, meaning they were less stressed, even after completing a stressful mental task.
Further studies have shown that people who have depression not only have low levels of serotonin (another prevalent neurotransmitter) but also decreased levels of GABA in their cerebrospinal fluid.
3. Lowers blood pressure
Research indicates that GABA activity may reduce high blood pressure. A natural drop in blood pressure is part of the body’s process of falling into sleep, and so the relaxing effects of GABA may help to shift us away from high blood pressure and its resultant state of hyperarousal.
4. Stabilizes blood sugar
A research team at Uppsala University in Sweden highlighted the importance of GABA in type 1 and 2 diabetes. The way our body manages glucose storage and processing are very dependent on GABA. It produces and maintains new insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreatic islets (endocrine region of the pancreas) and helps regulate insulin secretion and decreases inflammation.
Ways to increase GABA naturally
Cardiovascular activities like running, jogging, hiking or walking have been seen to help increase GABA levels in the brain. A regular routine gets better results than sporadic visits to the gym since consistency is key.
Try to ease your stress and anxiety through techniques such as yoga and meditation. Research has revealed that people who meditate have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of GABA.
Additionally, other studies showed that yoga has a beneficial effect on anxiety and mood because holding certain postures (while incorporating breathing techniques) directly impacts GABA activation.
Some foods contain the amino acid itself, while others support its production.
Foods containing GABA include beans, lentils, fish, shellfish, brown rice, potatoes, tomatoes, seaweed, berries, cocoa and noni fruit as well as green, black and oolong teas. However, the jury is still not out on whether these can cross the blood–brain barrier, which serves as a selective boundary between the circulating blood and the extracellular space of the brain and only permits certain substances to cross from the bloodstream into the brain. This is why the use of supplements is controversial in general. Still, it might be worth trying some of these natural GABA-rich examples.
3. Eat GABA (or GABA-producing) foods
GABA is made in the brain from another amino acid called glutamate, which is found in high concentrations in foods such as bone broths, soya beans, fish, eggs, mushrooms, broccoli, tomatoes, walnuts, slow-cooked meats as well as aged, cured and preserved foods such as cheese and certain meat.
In order to synthesize GABA, your brain also needs vitamin B6. You’ll find this in plenty in spinach, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, garlic and bananas.
Beneficial bacteria in the gut help in the production of GABA. You can get these microbes flourishing by eating fermented foods that are rich in probiotics, such as sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kimchi, yoghurt and kefir.
4. Incorporate herbs into your diet
Some herbs are natural GABA activators and encourage its production. Notable examples include kava, ashwagandha, valerian, passion flower and lemon balm.
5. Avoid alcohol and junk food
Alcohol, drugs and processed food can lead to a drastic fluctuation in GABA levels, which can result in anxiety, and depression and make you feel tired and sluggish.
GABA, naturally produced in the brain, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays an essential role in promoting sleep, slowing down our thoughts and relieving stress, and encouraging good metabolic and overall health.
We can naturally optimize the levels of GABA in our mind and body through regular exercise, yoga and mindfulness practice, eating foods rich in GABA and those which support its production and generally avoiding alcohol, drugs and processed food. Taking these steps will certainly benefit our quest for good health, calm and getting a good night’s rest.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns before undertaking a new healthcare regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.