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The Facts About GABA and Your Health

Neuroaffect Circuit

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH

What is GABA?

Knowing about GABA helps to understand how it can have a natural relaxing effect and help calm our nerves.What is GABA, and what should I know about GABA to help improve my health and well-being? GABA, gamma-amino butyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that is the body’s natural system in place for relaxing the brain. Because there is a connection between the mind and body, when your mind is relaxed, your body relaxes. To better understand how the body and mind relax, it is important to learn about GABA. GABA functions to turn off certain activities in the brain that are triggered by response to stress. The body has many regulatory pathways to respond to stressful triggers in your life. One of these responses is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is a part of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls your “fight or flight” response when stress is present and the “rest and digest” response, when appropriate. Each of these options is a branch of the autonomic nervous system. “Rest and digest” is directed by the parasympathetic nervous system, and “fight or flight” is directed by the sympathetic nervous system.  So, what about GABA is good and helpful to you?  Keep reading to find out.

The “fight or flight” was beneficial evolutionarily because it stimulated the body to respond effectively to danger. This response of the sympathetic nervous system uses the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are your brain’s stress neurotransmitters and control the stress response, which includes increasing your heart rate, breathing rate, and activating systems to make energy available for you to escape the danger, or to stay and fight off the danger presented.

These days, in everyday modern life, the sympathetic nervous system might be triggered on your commute to work, after a fight with a co-worker or partner, or another event that might make you angry and stressed. If left unchecked, your body would be under constant stress, so there must be a way to counteract this stress response. This is where the neurotransmitter GABA dominates, and where knowing about GABA can be helpful. GABA works to relax your body and has the opposite effect of epinephrine and norepinephrine.

Reactions to stress, and activation of the sympathetic nervous system give you feelings of anxiety, fear, restlessness and the inability to fall asleep because of racing thoughts and “what if’s”. When active and functioning correctly, GABA is released to deactivate or inhibit these effects. GABA is referred to as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, because it turns these functions of the brain off temporarily. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are referred to as excitatory neurotransmitters because they turn functions of the brain on in situations of stress.

GABA and the Neuroaffective System

Learning about GABA and that it helps regulate the stress response helps illuminate its role in keeping the body balanced.The neuroaffective system in the body is regulated by the gut, the autonomic nervous system, and the central nervous system. The gut, commonly known as the second brain, produces many neurotransmitters and plays a major role in influencing your mood. That feeling of butterflies in your stomach whenever something exciting happens is just an example of how your stomach can influence your mood. The central nervous system, comprising the brain and the spinal cord, plays an obvious role in your cognition and emotion. The autonomic nervous system, as explained above, helps to regulate your mood during times of duress. When the body is in harmony, these three systems work together to keep your mood stable. However, when under chronic stress or fatigue, the response system is thrown out of balance and the neurotransmitters can become dysregulated. When these neurotransmitters are dysregulated, epinephrine and norepinephrine are usually put on overdrive and thus over-effective, while GABA is under-effective. When the balance of these neurotransmitters is off, you might feel anxious in situations most people would not, or get panic attacks in seemingly mild situations. The ultimate goal in instances like this is to make the neurotransmitter levels balanced. One approach is to increase the levels of GABA available in the body or to enhance and mimic the effects of GABA. Your body creates GABA naturally, but occasionally the stress response overpowers the amount of GABA you can produce. GABA supplements and herbal supplements that enhance the effects of GABA can be incredibly helpful in these situations and often provide relief from anxiety, restlessness, and racing thoughts in many people.

About GABA and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS)

The functions of GABA affect the brain and turns off certain functions after a stress reaction. What about GABA relates to Adrenal Fatigue? Your adrenal glands also respond to stress, but their way of communicating is mostly through a hormone cascade by way of the hypotahlamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

About GABA and adrenal fatigue/GABA does not affect the adrenal glands directly, but it does alleviate some of the anxiety and related symptoms associated with Adrenal Fatigue in advanced stages when the flight or fight response is activated. The mind and body connection make GABA very important while recovering from Adrenal Fatigue. GABA helps the body stay at rest and prevents your body from having a strong reaction to external stress. Below we will go into detail about how this works and how GABA is beneficial during Adrenal Fatigue recovery.

The adrenal glands produce a hormone, cortisol, which helps your body manage stress through inflammatory regulation, normalization of blood sugar, and physiological stress management. The adrenal glands are triggered to produce cortisol through a cascade known as the HPA axis, or the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. When stress is present, corticotropin-releasing hormone, CRH, is released from the hypothalamus in our brain, which acts on the pituitary to release the hormone ACTH. ACTH then binds to the receptors on the adrenal glands, and triggers the release of cortisol. This cascade is a negative feedback loop; it can self-regulate under normal situations. The negative feedback loop means that when cortisol has completed its job in the body, any excess cortisol will travel back to the hypothalamus and shut off its own production. This cascade does not function normally in advanced stages of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome.

As Adrenal Fatigue progresses into the later stages, cortisol levels eventually fall because the body can’t produce enough cortisol to meet the demand and stress levels remain high in the body. The autonomic nervous system continues to release epinephrine and norepinephrine under the stress response. Your body tries to produce enough GABA to compensate, but levels become erratic. These erratic levels make balancing the hormones involved in the flight or fight response difficult, leading to the array of anxiety, restlessness, and feeling wired. Such experience during Adrenal Fatigue is the result of the neuroaffective response system as it becomes dysregulated.

Making GABA more accessible in the body, either through GABA supplements or other herbs that stimulate the GABA receptor helps relieve some AFS symptoms, and relaxes the body and mind. With the relaxation, the stress levels in the body decrease and you can begin the path to return to balance and feel more steady, calm, and grounded. Panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, and adrenaline rushes may be reduced.

Therefore, GABA supplements are helpful while recovering from Adrenal Fatigue as it gives the body an opportunity to calm down. In Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome, the body has been actively responding to a constant stress input for, in many cases, years. It is difficult to turn this response off and stop the cycle from perpetuating itself to worse fatigue. GABA, as a neurotransmitter, gives your brain the opportunity to relax. Because of the connection between your mind and body, if your mind is able to be balanced, the experience gives your body the opportunity to relax as well. The goal in Adrenal Fatigue recovery is to bring balance back to the body so that the HPA axis can function normally, and the hormones can balance again. GABA is a way to tell the mind that stress is not present and that you can just sit with your thoughts, rather than experience the never-ending lists and anxious thoughts.

GABA and Sleep

What about GABA and sleep? Well, on top of helping reduce anxiousness in the body, GABA is also great for sleep. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that allows you to relax. Benzodiazepines, a common category of sleep medication, activate GABA receptors to allow for better sleep. GABA levels have even been found to be lower in insomniacs as well. So how does GABA work for sleep? It increases slow-wave sleep by reducing the firing rate of neurons found in the posterior hypothalamus. By doing so, it enables deep sleep. This effect also helps GABA rebalance the biological rhythm and sleep-wake cycle.

GABA as a Supplement

Knowing about GABA and how it is helping the body as a whole to calm down and relaxSo, what else should you know about GABA supplementation? GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter produced naturally in the body. In situations of high or chronic stress, your levels of inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters are out of balance, and your body needs help to compensate for this imbalance. A GABA supplement can provide relief for trouble falling asleep, anxiety, restlessness, and inability to concentrate. The uses for GABA extend far beyond this list, but in a situation of AFS, where anxiety is a common symptom, a GABA supplement might be helpful to provide relief. It is important to remember that GABA does not work directly on the adrenal glands, so it is not providing a solution to AFS, but it does provide extra support and alleviate some symptoms in Adrenal Fatigue recovery. If you and your healthcare provider decide that a GABA supplement is right for you to help your body return to a normal level of functioning and aid in Adrenal Fatigue recovery, it is important to work with them to develop the correct dosing.

While there is some evidence that GABA does not work because it cannot cross the blood brain barrier, clinical experience has shown that it can have been some benefit. Small sample studies and trials have also proven that GABA can indeed increase alpha wave activity in the brain and by doing so, reduce anxiety and induce relaxation. It has also been shown to reduce stress. So how does it work? One theory is that it may simply be a placebo effect. Another maybe that we simply haven’t discovered the connection it plays yet. While neurotransmitters primarily act on the brain, they may also act peripherally outside the central nervous system. There is much we do not understand about neurotransmitters yet and continues to be an exciting area of research.

hould you know about GABA to get the most out of its use? GABA works best when used synergistically with other supplements. B-6 helps with the creation of GABA naturally in the body, so it helps to enhance the effect of the supplement and increase the body’s natural levels. Magnesium enhances the effect of GABA on the receptor and makes the GABA more effective. Magnesium also has a calming effect on the body and helps calm the body down along with GABA.

There are some herbals available that mimic GABA. These include kava and valerian root. These herbal supplements do not directly increase levels of GABA, but rather have a response on the GABA receptor to either enhance the effects that GABA has or mimic the response of GABA on the receptor.

While GABA and serotonin are both inhibitory neurotransmitters, GABA is more beneficial when taken in the daytime, and 5-Hydroxytryptophan (a serotonin precursor) has shown better results when taken at night.

GABA Side Effects

When supplementing GABA, knowing about GABA benefits vs side effects is important. Consult your healthcare professional for proper dosing.Here are some things to know about GABA, if you are thinking of utilizing supplements. Some people who take the GABA supplement experience a slight tingling or a flushing, red, hot, feeling. A small set of people have been known to experience paradoxical reactions while on GABA as well. GABA is a neurotransmitter that has many functions in the brain. While it is a supplement and generally safe to take, it is important to discuss with your health care provider any existing medications you are on and any medical conditions other than AFS. This is to ensure that a GABA supplement can effectively treat your symptoms and help along the path to Adrenal Fatigue recovery.

As with most supplements, seek advice from your healthcare provider before starting any type of treatment to see what dosage might be right for your condition and to explore the effectiveness of the supplement in managing anxiety, restlessness, the inability to sleep, racing thoughts, and the inability to concentrate during the Adrenal Fatigue recovery.  If you are curious or wondering if GABA supplements are right for you, talk to your doctor about GABA and learn more about GABA and what specific reaction you are likely to have considering your health concerns and risks.

© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

About GABA

© Copyright 2001-2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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