| Dr. Charlie Ware
Stress comes from different sources. Deadlines at work, long-overdue assignments, conflict in relationships, and even noise from the surroundings can make the brain work overtime and decrease your general wellbeing. Healthy and normal individuals are able to cope up with the pressure and stress because of a well-functioning GABA system. This is a neurotransmitter that prevents the overstimulation of the brain. However, if a person becomes deficient in this chemical, tension, anxiety, insomnia, mental illness, and convulsions are just some of the problems that may occur.
What is GABA?
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a type of chemical messenger that prevents the overactivity of the brain cells. It inhibits or blocks certain chemicals and signals and decreases the activity of the central nervous system.
GABA functions as a brake on the neural circuits during a stressful situation. Such a low level of GABA is associated with restlessness, insomnia, and poor mood state. Taking GABA supplements relieves anxiety by increasing alpha brain waves, the mechanism associated with relaxation.
Because of the different studies supporting the functions and benefits of GABA, it is often marketed as a food supplement to boost mental function and prevent anxiety and stress. Apart from the nervous system, high levels of GABA are also detected in the pancreas, intestines, stomach, kidneys, lungs, liver and other parts of the female reproductive organs.
Mechanism of Action
The nervous system is made of millions of neurons or brain cells that are capable of transmitting electrical impulses. With a single stimulus, one excited neuron passes the impulse to the next by releasing neurotransmitters or chemical messengers. These messengers attach to receptors and “fires” on neurons and then another until your brain becomes overstimulated. The dysregulation in the neurobiological systems leads to anxiety and mental imbalance .
GABA’s role is to counterbalance the excitatory action of other neurotransmitters in the brain. It works by blocking the brain signals or also called neurotransmissions. It binds with receptors to stop the excitation of neurons. There are two known receptors of GABA – the GABAA and GABAB . Once GABA attaches to these receptors, it stops the transmission of nerve impulses and stops the “firing” of signals and creates a calming effect in the nervous system.
Without GABA, your neurons remain in an excited state and you experience unnecessary stimulation. The brain cells become overworked and panic attacks, headache, involuntary muscle movements, and cognitive impairment may occur. Studies show that a decrease in GABA is associated with symptoms of depression, epilepsy, anxiety, and insomnia .
Benefits of GABA
Normal levels of GABA help prevent stress and anxiety. Everyone knows the ill effects of stress on the body. Although unwanted, completely eliminating stress is impossible. Stress comes from the environment and in some individuals, it can be genetically predisposed. What you can do is to find ways to help you manage it. Supplementing with GABA is one effective way to prevent your brain from overwork. GABA promotes peacefulness and stimulates relaxation. The peaceful and calming effect helps relieve the symptoms of stress .
GABA also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), the protein that supports the growth and survival of brain cells. A good level of BDNF is associated with better mental health. It can boost cognitive functions, learning, and memory. In some studies, researchers have found the protein is beneficial in preventing age-related mental decline. It is often used by older individuals to avoid Alzheimer’s disease and by the younger generation to boost their mental functions.
In some cases, GABA is also used for weight loss programs. Studies claim that it can promote lean muscle growth, burn fat, and improve exercise tolerance . It is also being used to treat seizures, Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and panic attacks.
Sources of GABA
There is an existing controversy as to whether you can get GABA from food sources. Some articles say that you can take it from fermented products like miso, kimchi, and tempeh. However, there is no direct evidence to prove this. Other sources say that instead of getting it directly from foods, GABA can be synthesized by eating more foods rich in flavonoids. But if you want to ensure that you get enough of the chemical neurotransmitter, there are dietary supplements that contain a large amount of GABA.
Herbal supplements containing GABA come from natural plant sources and they are the most recommended because they are safe. Unlike drugs with synthetic GABA, herbal supplements do not cause addiction and dependence.
Withania somnifera, also known as Ashwagandha, is a part of traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Extracts are shown to increase GABA activity. The compound contains anolides, which is theorized to be the substance responsible for its beneficial effects.
In a study involving human volunteers, ashwagandha extracts reportedly reduction in stress, insomnia, and anxiety among the participants . It also induced a mild sedation effect. The same results were obtained with animal models where researchers noted that reduction in anxiety is similar in effect with animals who received benzodiazepine drugs.
Kava, or piper methysticum, is a traditional plant from the South Pacific. The plant’s psychoactive compound called kavain acts by stimulating the GABA receptors. One study that appeared in a peer-reviewed journal showed that drinking the powdered Kava improved the quality of sleep, cognition, and mental well-being of volunteers. Compared with other herbal remedies, the plant extract performed better in reducing anxiety and depression .
The use of Valerian Officinalis in relieving stress can be dated back to the time of ancient Greece. Valeric acid is the active compound that stimulates GABA production. The extract has been well studied among patients with sleep disorders and results are promising. Different studies show that valerian is as effective as benzodiazepines in treating anxiety disorders. Since it is safer and does not induce dependence, it is well tolerated by the body.
Ginkgo biloba is another traditional herbal supplement that can treat anxiety by activating GABA pathways and act as a benzodiazepine. In a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Residents, researchers employed a randomized, double-blind trial to test the effect of Ginkgo biloba. The results are amazing because recipients of the extracts experienced reduced anxiety.
Green tea has long been used to treat different medical conditions. The main component responsible for its ability to boost GABA levels is Theanine. This is an amino acid that increased not only GABA but also dopamine, the happy hormone in the body. In a clinical study that appeared in Human Psychopharmacology, human volunteers were subjected to experimental anxiety. One group was given theanine while another group was given benzodiazepine. After the experiment, researchers noted that those under the natural extract have lower levels of anxiety all throughout the procedure.
While continuous research is needed to prove the health benefits of supplements, GABA supplements are considered relatively safe. For this, they can be a helpful strategy to deal with sudden onsets of stress and preventing anxiety attacks. The supplement comes in pill, capsule, or powder form. What is important is to check on the label and read the variety of ingredients present in each bottle. In order to get the best benefits, always deal with a reputable company. The internet is the biggest site of fake products and consumers are warned against them. Always look for a quality seal from NSF international, ConsumerLab, or US Pharmacopeia to ensure the product’s safety and quality manufacturing process.
Natural Ways to Increase GABA
Apart from taking food supplements, it will also be helpful if you engage in exercise, yoga and meditative activities to boost the level of GABA in the body. The activities are mostly free and can be done anywhere even without the assistance of experts. Take advantage of these strategies to release your stress and calm your body and mind. You can also complement exercise with dietary changes to get the best results.
If your anxiety and stress persist, do not hesitate to see a health care provider. You may need an expert assessment to determine the source of your problem and other management techniques may be needed to help you with your condition.
Stress and anxiety come from the environment, genetics, or can be stimulated from social situations. The use of drugs are common options to experience relief but natural treatments with GABA play an important role. Research shows that it can relieve stress, deal with insomnia, reduce anxiety, and prevent seizures. Although more research is still needed to further prove the health benefits of food supplements containing GABA, the overall safety of the herb makes them a popular choice for those who wish to resort to natural alternatives. Stress and anxiety are so common that if safe herbal supplements are available, you better take the chances of reducing them instead of relying on addictive drugs.
Bonus: Watch this video from Dr. Ware on how to naturally boost GABA to relieve stress.
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Dietary and botanical anxiolytics
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