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The GABA Neurotransmitter: Another Link Between Diet, Hormones, Mental Health, and Sleep

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Neurotransmitters: Exciting and Inhibiting

Gamma-Amino-Butyric-Acid, or GABA, is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human brain.  Along with serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, glycine, histamine,  and norepinephrine, among dozens of other neurotransmitters, GABA regulates brain function.     Different neurotransmitters are in relationship with different types of receptors, and these receptors signal excitation or inhibition.  For this reason, neurotransmitters are commonly classified by their excitatory or inhibitory activity.  Some neurotransmitters signal to both kinds of receptors and play both excitatory and inhibitory roles.  Others are just one or the other.  GABA is one of these.  It is powerfully inhibitory.

GABA: Calm, Resilience, and Sleep

The GABA neurotransmitter tells the brain to be quiet.   The vast majority of inhibitory synapses in the brain employ GABA.   For people who are depressed and fatigued, therefore, GABA might seem like a problematic molecule.  But that ends up not being the case.  GABA malfunctioning has been shown to play a role in almost all mood disorders, including depression.  GABA is strongly associated with well-being, calmness, proper memory function, proper circadian rhythms, and good sleep.  GABA inhibits amygdala activity, too, so it has also been shown to inhibit pain and fear.  For this reason, people have talked about GABA as being a molecule that promotes resilience and personal strength.

GABA is well known to be a prominent factor in mental well-being and feelings of calm.  Officially it results in “sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anxiety reducing!), anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant and amnesic” effects.  For this reason, a whole host of drugs that mimic GABA, called benzodiazepines, have been designed and proscribed prolifically.  Valium is one of them.  The long-term effects of these drugs are unpleasant, as they almost always result in withdrawal.  The symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal parallel GABA deficiency.  These iclude anxiety, tension, high blood pressure, insomnia, agitation, seizures, muscle spasms, and panic disorders.  For example, GABA-inhibited mice tested for anxiety demonstrate “a model of anxiety characterized by harm avoidance behavior and an explicit memory bias for threat cues, resulting in heightened sensitivity to negative associations.”

GABA is also one of the prominent molecules involved in sleep.  During sleep, many parts of the brain need to be quieted, and they need to do it all at once.  This is, in part, GABA’s job.    Without GABA, excitatory neurotransmitters continually keep different parts of the brain and the body firing, such that it can never shut down fully enough for deep sleep.   Valerian root, a natural herb and supplement, “encourages” the production of GABA.  It’s one of the most successful sleep aids one can use.  Melatonin is also powerful and is bio-identical, but it’s effects wane more markedly over time as the body becomes more and more used to higher levels of melatonin.   Over-the-counter and prescription drugs, while knocking people out, also inhibit the deep restfulness of REM sleep.  Valerian does not replace, but instead stimulates GABA production.  This is why it is so naturally (and without causing addiction) effective in promoting deep sleep.

GABA and The Pituitary

GABA, even while it inhibits frenetic activity in the brain, also stimulates activity in the anterior pituitary.  The anterior pituitary is where most of an individual’s hormone production takes place.  GABA, therefore, is crucial for people who would like to boost hormone production.  ACTH, TSH, FSH, LH, prolactin, and Human Growth Hormone are all secreted from the anterior pituitary.   Low TSH is profoundly implicated in hypothyroidism; having low FSH, LH, and prolactin levels is the root biological cause of hypothalamic amenorrhea; and growth hormone is one of the primary molecules responsible for healthy metabolism.  It’s activities include up-regulating fat utilization, protein sparing, and glucose-insulin sensitivity.  One study at the University of Milan found that 90 minutes after 5 grams of GABA supplementation, HGH levels increased 5-fold.

Increasing GABA with diet

-GABA itself is not present in foods, but one of its key constituents — glutamic acid/glutamate — is available in a wide array of readily available foods.    Glutamate-containing foods are plants and vegetables.  Examples include: broccoli, spinach, lentils, walnuts, citrus, tomatoes, cheese, corn, and mushrooms.   There are other foods in this category, such as wheat, wheat bran, soy, and cottonseed flour, and peanuts, but I do not recommend eating them.   High glutamic acid containg foods are generally animal products.  they include eggs, particularly the whites, many varieties of cheese, cod, gelatin, whitefish, and chicken, beef, and scallops.

-L-theanine also increases GABA activity. This amino acid is found in high doses in green tea.

-Foods rich in B-complex vitamins, particularly inositol, also prompt GABA production.  In fact, B-vitamins are necessary for the functioning of nearly all brain processes and chemicals.  Foods containing B-vitamins comprise a rich and varied list.  They include: fruits such as bananas, figs, cantaloupe oranges and figs, and vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables, such as beets, broccoli, kale, and spinach, and nuts, and seafood, and beef and beef liver, chicken liver, all organ meats, and all game/ruminant meats.

-A lower protein diet in general is associated with increased GABA activity.

-Finally, exercise and meditation can enhance GABA activity.  GABA is a lot like other body systems and muscles in that it has positive feedback effects.  The calmer someone is, the more likely it is that he will be able to produce proper amounts of GABA.  Some physical activities allow the mind and body to enter into calmed and relaxed state.   For this reason, many natural health practitioners recommend yoga as a means of increasing GABA.  Meditation and light forms of exercise such as walking also fit into that recommendation.

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Managing director of Paleo for Women and author of Sexy by Nature.

17 Comments

  1. Pingback: Paleo Pepper » Blog Archive » The GABA Neurotransmitter: Another Link Between Diet, Stress, Hormones and Sleep

  2. Hi. I picked up your website from Jimmy Moore’s New Paleo, Low-Carb & Health Blogs list for May 2012. I run a low carb/paleo blog and want to welcome you to the neighborhood! Jimmy has been a great help to me and if I can help you, just let me know. I run a news channel on my site (see below), so if you have some low carb or paleo news you’d like me to consider, please let me know at my email address: Joe at CravingSugar.net
    Put “news” someplace in your email title so I won’t miss it, please! My main site is http://CravingSugar.net and the news channel is http://CravingSugar.net/news/
    Thanks and hope to hear from you…
    …Joe Lindley…

  3. Is Kombu consumption related to enhanced GABA production?

    • I do not know what Kombu is (!)

      • it’s a seaweed

  4. Hi – i am waking up every night between 1- 3 am -wide awake and busyminded – i am perimenopausal so guessing my cortisol levels are rising but without enough estrogen to block the fight or flight message my brain is wounded up tight. Is there a gaba supplement, eating a certain food before bed or taking l-T before bed help me not wake up? – i.e. would raising my gaba help my E2 levels so my brain doesnt go nuts between 1 and 3 am?? any insights would be hugely appreciated.

    • Deep Sleep/ Delta Sleep is critical for memory consolidation. Without it, critical pathways between one’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are lost/ never created. Deep sleep is also “restorative sleep”, meaning it is when one’s body repairs done the previous day to it’s organs and tissues.

      Melatonin, & most OTC or prescription sleep “aids” prevent deep sleep, and are, therefore, damaging one’s health and promoting senility.

      GABA is the brain/CNS neurotransmitter that determines how much deep sleep one gets. But, GABA supplements DO NOT cross the blood-brain barrier. So, taking a GABA supplement is a total waste of money if one’s goal is to sleep better.

      Glutamine (from meat, fish, egg whites, dairy and some vegetables, especially spinach) is the essential amino acid precursor for BOTH glutamic acid (an excitatory neurotransmitter than can actually kill one’s brain cells) and GABA (an inhibitory neurotransmitter in 90% of CNS neurons).

      So one needs to eat to insure glutamine is preferentially converted to GABA prior to bedtime. Consuming foods high in Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6 & Quercetin is important.

    • I am a nurse, nutrition researcher, and health blogger. A few years back, I came across a study done in Japan about a way to combat insomnia. I tried it, and it worked then, still works for me. Couldn’t be simpler, but CAN be challenging: 20 minutes outdoors, between 1 & 4 pm solar time. The challenging part is, if you live much farther north than the U.S. South, you might need MORE winter minutes in daylight, especially if the outdoor temp is too cold for shirtsleeves. I find if I can follow this program, I become sleepy, fall asleep around 10 or 11 pm, and pretty much stay asleep. The sunlight on skin (and maybe in the eyes?) is supposed to trigger a melatonin cascade that culminates in sleepiness at a reasonable hour and staying asleep. When I miss my outdoor time more than 2 days in a row, I can tell a clear difference in sleep pattern. Sometimes I add 1/4 of a 1 mg melatonin tab and 125 mg magnesium under my tongue at bedtime to jumpstart the process. HTH / YMMV — ajw

      • Thanks for this info. I do live in the south – blue ridge mountains of NC. Does this work on days when its not sunny – i.e. cloudy, overcast, gray winter days?

    • tulipwood, I agree with AJ and would like to add, waking at this time can also be associated with low blood sugar at that time of night, your body waking you (with adrenaline) to eat. Slow release carbs last thing at night, a banana for eg or stewed apple, a few oats if you eat grains at all, can be helpful for some people whose blood sugar control is temporarily a bit off.

  5. My doc has highly urged me to take mirtazapine (for my depression, low weight, and lack of sleep) and lorazapam (for my anxiety)….Ive refused over the last 2 years. Now I’m almost regretful because I’m so anxious, low low mood, on edge, tense, easily distracted, lethargic, feel “not smaart” anymore…
    :(
    I don’t know what to do anymore. Sigh. A friend suggested I mention zoloft to my doc…

    Ugh.
    I was wondering if its perfetly safe to buy EITHER l-theanine or GABA at a health store and would it REALLY work?

    Hmm…I think I do eat a lot of protein…yikes :(

    I have a wealth of digestive issues and everything too. Stressed out bigtime :)

    • Yes, they are safe– at least safer and far less addictive than the drugs your doctors are suggesting.

      On the other hand, drugs can be a great intervention sometimes while you try and get other things on track (for example, your life :) ).

  6. Stefani, It is mazing how information gets copied from one place to another on the internet and then people write it down as gospel. High glutamate foods are not appropriate for increasing GABA levels. Look up the biochemistry. Glutamate is a neurostimulant neurotransmitter, whereas GABA is a neuroinhibitor neurotransmitter. So the two are opposite. Even though glutamate can be recycled into GABA with a few steps does not mean taking glutamate is good for increasing GABA levels. In fact quite the opposite. I am sure you have heard of monosodium glutamate, which is a neurostimulant. If you are recommending high glutamate foods for increasing GABA, then you should recommend MSG which wold follow your logic. I have seen this logic of taking high glutamate foods to become the building blocks of GABA all over the net. It is wrong, wrong, wrong. Please stop this really bad advice from proliferating.

  7. I am biochemist and agree with Peter. GABA and Glutamic acid are antagonist although interconvertible through Kreb’s cycle.

  8. GABA is taken by mouth for relieving anxiety, improving mood, reducing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and treating attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is also used for promoting lean muscle growth, burning fat, stabilizing blood pressure, and relieving pain..””,

    Best wishes
    http://healthfitnessbook.comdj

  9. Pingback: Glutamate, Inflammation, Restless Legs and Insomnia: PART 2 of 2 | The Restless Legs Blog (or how I tried to convince Big Pharma that my legs are better)

  10. Pingback: Sleep Gadget and Supplement Strategies | The Upgraded IndianThe Upgraded Indian

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