GABA, or Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, is an amino acid that functions as a neurotransmitter. It has an inhibitory function in the central nervous system, in contrast to excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitters, such as glutamate, the signal substance’s counterpart. These two neurotransmitters keep each other in balance in a healthy body. When overactivity develops in the neurons, GABA inhibits them so that the balance is restored.
When we make too little of this neurotransmitter, our brains keep rumbling and become over-stimulated with activity. Our intestinal flora also plays a significant role in GABA production and helps convert glutamine and glutamic acid. A disturbed microbiome is one of the main causes of low GABA production.(1,2) You can imagine that a wrong diet has a significant influence on the GABA balance and how you feel as a result.
How does GABA work?
The GABA receptors are located throughout the brain. GABA is synthesized from the amino acid glutamate by the enzyme glutamate decarboxylase (GAD) with the cofactor pyridoxal phosphate, the active form of vitamin B6. In this process, glutamate, the primary stimulating neurotransmitter in the brain, is converted into the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid.
In most areas of the brain, the GABA molecule is too large to cross the blood-brain barrier.(3) However, certain areas of the brain where this barrier is permeable to Gamma-aminobutyric acid, such as the periventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus.
It is mainly this brain region that is influenced by the GABA effect. The neurotransmitter’s influence continues here, as it also regulates the amount of growth hormone that is released.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid also plays a vital role in the synthesis of the sleep hormone melatonin. It ensures that the neurotransmitter serotonin is converted into N-acetylserotonin, the precursor of melatonin. Since melatonin plays an important role in the functioning of the body’s immune system, it makes sense that a GABA deficiency may play a role in impaired immune function.
Causes low GABA
Factors that can play a role in low GABA levels can vary widely but mainly lie in a bad diet. Chronic stress is also an essential factor that contributes to an imbalance between GABA and its counterpart (antagonist) glutamate.
The main causes of a GABA deficiency are:
Chronic stress is, of course, the order of the day in the 21st century, and untold numbers of people crash each year to the high levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine in the brain and body. These elevated levels also cause the body to produce more stimulant glutamate, disrupting the relationship with GABA by decreasing it.(4)
Too much glutamate in the brain causes over-stimulation of the brain cells. The increase in stress hormones increases, causing excessive production of free radicals to damage brain cells and further decrease normal GABA production.(5)
Alcohol, drugs, and medication
Alcohol, drugs, and medication are major disruptors of the GABA household. As soon as the rewarding feeling disappears because the active substances are broken down or are less intense due to habituation, glutamate production immediately increases, causing GABA levels in the brain to drop.(6)
Dysbiosis of the gut microbiome
A poor diet contributes to lower GABA levels. Foods which contain gluten, highly processed foods and loads of sugar damage the gut lining and in the long run these cause an increased permeability of the intestinal wall. In case of a leaky gut particles enter the bloodstream that do not belong there. The result is often a laundry list of vague health issues like migraines, ADHD-like symptoms, fatigue and brain fog.
Research has shown that increased gut wall permeability is associated with lower levels of bacterial strains such as lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which are related to lower GABA levels. These reduced levels, in turn, cause more brain excitability and neurological inflammation.(7)
Insufficient or poor quality of sleep
Lack of good quality sleep is a chronic stressor to the body and increases stress hormones production. The chicken or the egg theory applies to this: is it stress and low gamma-aminobutyric acid and melatonin that cause poor sleep? Or is it the poor sleep that causes chronic stress and low GABA and melatonin?
In both cases, there is a vicious circle in which the complaints and causes constantly reinforce each other. In more severe cases, it is necessary to use a complementary recovery plan with lifestyle intervention and a nutrition and supplementation strategy to break through the patterns so that the brain restores GABA production and glutamate decreases again.
Nutritional deficiencies, such as zinc, vitamin B6, magnesium, taurine, and glutamine
The amino acid L-glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body, and it is the precursor (precursor) of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid. Glutamine is first converted into glutamic acid or glutamate, which is essential for good concentration, brain energy, learning, and memory.
So it is not correct to think that glutamate is bad by definition because we need an equal percentage of glutamate that can then be converted into Gamma-aminobutyric acid. The conversion of glutamate to GABA is dependent on the availability of the activated form of vitamin B6 (pyridoxal-5-phosphate P5P).
The amino acid taurine promotes the communication and productivity of P5P and thus also the production of Gamma-aminobutyric acid. A nutritional deficiency of this amino acid can therefore have consequences for the synthesis of Gamma-aminobutyric acid.
Magnesium is a very important mineral and is involved in a few hundred biochemical processes, including binding to GABA receptors. Without enough magnesium, the GABA receptors function less effectively. Magnesium deficiency is extremely common, but more in women than in men. A magnesium supplement can drastically improve the effectiveness of the signal substance for most people.
How do you recognize a deficiency?
The most common way to test for GABA deficiency is by means of a questionnaire. In most cases, a GABA deficiency can be determined based on symptom questionnaires and an organic acid test. If the person in question has several of the above complaints, then the organic acid test is a logical choice to determine with certainty a GABA deficiency.
The organic acid test is a urine test that tests for the biomarker of B6 called pyridoxine. An indication of little of this biomarker in the urine, may indicate that too little vitamin B6 can convert glutamate successfully.
Increased stress hormones that disrupt the ratio of glutamate to GABA are a high value of the pyridoxine biomarker.
Natural Ways to Increase GABA
A GABA deficiency is often the result of long or frequent use of medication or a poor diet, and an unhealthy lifestyle. In those cases, the strategies below can kick-start GABA production. For the body to produce sufficient GABA, it is of utmost importance that there is an abundant amount of the amino acid L-glutamine in the body. Glutamine is then converted in our body into another amino acid, glutamic acid, and then into GABA.
This synthesis process is completely dependent on essential nutrients such as zinc, vitamin B6 and taurine. If we are deficient in one of these nutrients, the body will be less able to make enough of the conscious neurotransmitter.
Dealing with stress: Since stress plays a very important role in the imbalance where glutamate takes over, stress reduction is number 1 to restore GABA production. A good balance between exercise and relaxation is essential to decrease stress hormones and restore receptor sensitivity.
Ways to deal with stress can are yoga, active relaxation, such as walking in the open air or preferably in the forest, meditation and brainwave technology. Hypnosis is also a great way to change behavior.
Improvement of sleep quality: The quality and duration of sleep are not only a consequence of a healthy GABA. Sleep quality is essential for healthy GABA levels. Little and poor sleep causes irritability due to increased glutamate.
So it is important to break this pattern and to pursue a healthy sleep regime regularly. For example, by not eating flavor enhancers such as E621 in the evening, the nervous system remains calm, which improves sleep quality. Meditation and/or yoga routine before going to sleep also calms the nervous system.
Anti-inflammatory diet: The body of someone on an average Western diet often suffers from chronic inflammation or low-grade inflammation. These inflammations lead to increased glutamate.
With an anti-inflammatory diet with real and organic food, you provide the body with the right nutrients for healthy neurotransmitter function.
Improve the microbiome: In the wake of a healthy diet comes the microbiome, which is largely influenced by what we eat. Sugar- and carbohydrate-rich food and heavily processed food leave a trail of destruction in our intestinal flora.
Preferably consume unprocessed, pure, and organic foods, fresh herbs, and fermented foods. Anti-microbial and air-repellent herbs such as garlic, onions, oregano, basil, thyme, peppermint, and ginger help improve and maintain our gut composition flora.
Take Epsom salt baths: With an Epsom salt bath, you provide the body with magnesium, and the body can relax. The saline solution is absorbed through the skin, and that way, the magnesium enters the bloodstream.
Sufficient exercise: Regular exercise is good for the overall neurotransmitter balance. An intensive exercise session promotes neurotransmitters’ production, but exercises with a low intensity do a lot of good for our mind and calm our nervous system. Provide daily exercise such as walking and try to breathe consciously and deeply.
Deep breathing: The way we breathe greatly affects our nervous system and supports GABA levels. Deep, slow breaths supply the blood with sufficient oxygen and calm the nervous system, resulting in increased resilience. Box-breathing is an excellent breathing technique for creating peace in the body.
Nutrition to Increase GABA
Fermented foods contain strains of lactobacillus bacteria and are a great way to increase GABA. The lactobacillus bacteria naturally produce GABA as a byproduct through the amino acids L-glutamine and glutamic acid metabolism.
Fermented foods rich in these lactobacillus microbes are rich in GABA. And this type of food is ultimately the only one we can address as a food source of GABA. To increase GABA, add food to your diet if:
- Miso, Natto or Tempeh
- Kefir or yogurt from cows or goats
- Coconut water kefir
- Beet kvass