When I was 25, I was convinced I was dying. Of course, my fiancé had just passed away from cancer so that likely had something to do with my superstition and distrust of my own health. But I often lamented to anyone who would listen about my various symptoms: “I’m tired like, always” and “I never have any energy” and “I’m anxious all the time.”
I’m not sure whether it was exacerbated by grief or not; there was definitely some lingering depression issues going on, too. I considered cancer. Or maybe I had . ? No, maybe it was narcolepsy. Anemia — I did, after all, have an anemic past. ? Hypochondria? Now, looking back at my 25th year, it was likely that I was deficient in GABA.
People who take GABA as a supplement often are seeking to relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression, improve their overall mood, and improve sleep quality or alleviate symptoms of insomnia. GABA supplements can also be used in conjunction with discomfort and pain associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to relieve general pain, and to aid in burning fat and lowering blood pressure.
If you’re a well-seasoned wellness vet who has already devised a CBD supplement and/or essential oil game plan, then you might be interested in learning more about the benefits of this inhibitory neurotransmitter, particularly if you suffer from symptoms similar to the ones mentioned above. What can GABA do for you and how can it aid in your wellness journey? But first, the answer to one of the most frequently asked questions about GABA.
What exactly is it?
“GABA is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in behavior, cognition, and the body’s response to stress,” says Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, a Chinese & Integrative medicine expert with more than 30 years of experience.
GABA stands for Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for communicating between the nervous system and the brain. Through chemical messages, GABA liaisons between brain cells and the nervous system, appropriately measuring and communicating whether neuron or nerve cell activity needs to be reduced or increased. The brain and spine together comprise the Central Nervous System (CNS), the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS), and the Somatic, Enteric, and Autonomic systems.
As Dr. Heidi Iratcabal, a naturopath and Functional Medicine expert from Carpathai Collaborative explains, GABA is responsible for your brain’s ability to calm things down when emotions or physical symptoms become too intense.
“GABA is the only inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it is the calming factor in the brain function,” Dr. Heidi explains. “GABA is the guy in there saying, ‘Everyone just calm down.’ It helps us relax and feel serene, and also aids in sleep.”
Luckily, you can now take a Neurotransmitter Test to detect imbalances amid your major brain chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, GABA, glutamate, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and others). There are several versions of the test, and they can all help you determine whether or not your body is deficient in GABA. If you think you can benefit from taking a GABA supplement or implementing more GABA into your diet, here are 5 things you should know.
1. How To Recognize If You’re Low On GABA
Low levels of GABA have been linked to various anxiety and mood disorders, epilepsy, and chronic pain. GABA deficiency can also be correlated with insomnia, difficulty falling and staying asleep, and even schizophrenia. In order to nip these correlations in the bud, it’s essential to recognize the symptoms of low GABA levels — and test for them if you can.
“Low GABA [levels] has symptoms of anxiety, nervousness or panic, feeling of dread, feelings of being overwhelmed for no reason, feelings of guilt for everyday decisions, feelings of a ‘knot’ in your stomach, and/or inability to turn off mind when relaxing,” explains Dr. Iratcabal.
So what causes a deficiency in GABA? The prolonged presence of stress, inadequate diet, and even genetics are often to blame for low levels of GABA. Since serotonin is a positive regulator of GABA receptor interaction, low levels of serotonin may create a snowball effect and lower the levels of GABA as well. GABA levels may also be low because of a genetic polymorphism that reduces the efficacy of GABA neurotransmission. However, low levels of GABA aren’t always necessarily due to genetics.
If you are experiencing general feelings of anxiety and/or low energy levels, it might be worth looking into the possibility that you may have a GABA deficiency.
2. Natural Ways To Increase GABA
GABA is a neurotransmitter, which means it’s generated and made naturally by our bodies. Often times people experiencing fatigue, anxiety, depression, and/or negative mood swings will take a GABA supplement to increase their levels and combat those symptoms.
Consider also that GABA needs to crosses the blood-brain barrier. (If it doesn’t, you’re not actually receiving the benefits you think you are.) This is all to say that ingesting an oral GABA supplement isn’t necessarily the best way to reap the benefits of GABA.
In the case of experiencing the benefits of GABA, lipsomal delivery is likely the best option for those looking to receive the anti-anxiety, anti-fatigue, and other benefits that GABA supplements offer.
“A liposome is a vesicle made out of the same material as a cell membrane,” explains Elizabeth Moriarty, Clinical Herbalist, and Formulator at Luminary Medicine Company.
Liposomes can be filled with actives, whether drugs or nutrients. Membranes are usually made of phospholipids, which are molecules that have a hydrophobic end and a hydrophilic end. This feature allows for transport through cells. The biochemical nature of phospholipids are what allow for transport of energy and nutrients into the cell and transport of waste out of the cell; thus, key to cellular function.
Moving GABA by an active phospholipid vehicle is crucial to ensuring that its mood-lifting and anti-depression and anti-anxiety benefits are delivered.
“When we encapsulate a deliverable in a phospholipid vehicle, we are able to move it through cellular membranes,” Moriarty continues.
In the case of GABA, when we consume it orally, it isn’t able to cross the blood-brain barrier effectively. When GABA is reduced in size and encased in a phospholipid, it is transported across the blood-brain barrier and allowed entry.
Consider that liposomal supplements are best for vitamins or nutrients that are not reasonably bioavailable in a whole food form, which is often a better way to consume it. When it can be taken in a gastric supplement and is effectively available to the body, then it should be your next choice.
“Liposomal delivery should deliver the nutrient in a small molecular size, which increases cellular absorption and raises systemic levels of the compound in question. GABA can be made bioavailable by taking a liposomal form, either sublingual, transdermal, or intranasal,” adds Jackson, DPT. His specialty is helping people become the best versions of themselves by restoring balance and removing stressors from the body.
Meanwhile, foods can also have an impact on the production of GABA. They include fermented foods, chia seeds, (germinated) kimchi, fermented yogurt, and fermented soybean, adds Dr. Iratcabal. “Green tea, too, due to the threonine in it.” B vitamins, mainly B12, B6, and methylated folate, also. “The B vitamins are essential to the production of all neurotransmitters.”
According to Dr. Trattner, other natural ways to increase GABA include avoiding alcohol and integrating almonds, bananas, walnuts, broccoli, spinach, liver, and oranges into one’s diet.
These foods do not contain GABA themselves, however, they possess substances called flavonoids that impact GABA’s ability to work. Most fruits, vegetables, and organic GABA teas (made out of oolong, green, or black tea) are thought to positively influence the effect GABA has on the brain.
Dr. Trattner adds, “Another very important way you can increase GABA is by acupuncture. There have been many studies on acupuncture and the positive effects it has had on brain chemistry and the production of GABA.”
3. GABA For Better, Higher Quality Sleep
“There is different research on the use of GABA as a supplement. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is generally used in supplements to support people with anxiety or difficulty falling asleep,” adds Dr. Iratcabal.
There are many holistic supplements that can be used as an effective sleep aid: think cannabidiol (CBD), melatonin, lavender essential oils, valerian, chamomile supplements, and more. So why should you choose GABA over other options?
Of course, it depends on the person. What works for you might not work for another person’s and difficulty sleeping because the root may be different. However, what sets GABA apart from other natural sleep aids is its ability to “make neurons less excitable,” according to Dr. Trattner.
“GABA slows down the brain, especially in the case of monkey mind,” Dr. Trattner says. Trattner’s reference to “monkey mind” denotes a Buddhist principle that describes a stressed brain that’s overstimulated, bouncing from thought to thought without much organization or logic.
“A natural form of GABA is very effective for sleep enhancement and reducing anxiety without damage to the blood-brain barrier, as it is a much smaller molecule,” Dr. Iratcabal adds.
Before adding any kind of supplement into your regimen — including GABA — it is always best to consult a physician, preferably a functional medicine practitioner.
4. GABA For Pregnant Women Or Those Breastfeeding
There is not a ton of research on GABA that appropriately assesses its risks. Because GABA can cross the blood-brain barrier, it is generally recommended that pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding should avoid taking GABA supplements.
Although there is no research on taking GABA during pregnancy or nursing, pregnant or nursing mothers should not take this information to suggest that GABA might increase their milk supply. It might, but it also might stimulate early breast development and lactation in their infants.
5. GABA Works Differently In Men Versus Women
There is ample scientific research to back up the fact that alcohol affects the brains of men and women differently. But did you know that the way GABA receptors work in each gender’s brain plays a huge role?
“Generally, our work showed that alcohol causes more pronounced changes in both electrical and chemical neurotransmission in men than women,” study author Outi Kaarre told Forbes. “There are two types of GABA receptors, A and B. Long-term alcohol use affects neurotransmission through both types in males, but only one type, GABA-A, is affected in females.”
Healing Yourself With High-Grade GABA
I no longer think I’m dying or suffering from some terrible, inexplicable illness. Instead, I’ve come to accept that I have a ways to go in my own personal wellness journey. It’s not normal to feel anxious or depressed; it’s not normal to feel fatigued or battle insomnia night after night. And if this is the case for you, then you too might need to consult your serotonin and GABA levels.
Have you tried a GABA supplement before? Let us know in the comments how it has helped you!
Steph Osmanski is a freelance health and wellness writer, blogger, and brand consultant. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton.
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