Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is a chemical that is made in the brain. It is a neurotransmitter, and it works by blocking impulses between nerve cells—also called neurons— and the brain. GABA is considered a “depressive” because it slows the rate at which neurons operate and suppresses activities having to do with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
While a “depressive” chemical may sound bad, research shows that it actually does the exact opposite of what it may sound like. GABA keeps neuron activity under control. Low levels of GABA can result in hyperexcitability of the neurons in the brain, causing anxiety disorders, seizure disorders, headaches, depression, insomnia, and attention disorders.
How to Increase GABA Levels
Since we now know that low levels of GABA are associated with anxiety, depression, insomnia, seizure disorders, psychiatric disorders, and headaches, the most natural question to follow should be, “How can I increase my GABA levels?”
GABA is not a nutrient we can simply acquire through our food; it is produced in the brain. However, there are foods we can eat that contain glutamate, which will help to stimulate the production of GABA. Those foods include:
- Grass-fed meat
- Pasture-raised eggs
- Raw, organic dairy
- Fermented foods (e.g., kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut)
Magnesium and GABA
Another interesting way to stimulate the production of GABA is to increase your intake of magnesium. This essential mineral is known to decrease stress hormone levels, treat headache disorders, assist in heavy metal detoxification, reduce anxiety levels, improve sleep quality, and lower inflammation. Magnesium has an important relationship with GABA. It is a GABA agonist—meaning it stimulates the brain’s GABA receptors and supports the function of GABA.
Unfortunately, many people in the Western world don’t get enough of this important mineral due to diets high in processed foods, which have been stripped of nutrients, including magnesium. To increase your magnesium intake, eat the following foods:
- Whole grains
- Black beans
- Sesame seeds
In addition, many people take medication for migraines or sleep disorders that contain magnesium because of its stimulatory effects on GABA.
It seems the best way to increase GABA activity in the brain is not necessarily supplementing with GABA formulations but supplementing with natural essential nutrients that stimulate GABA production in the brain. Those include magnesium, vitamin B6, vitamin E, probiotics, and amino acids taurine and L-theanine.
GABA’s Influence on The Body
As research emerges, it seems that there is no limit to the functions and health conditions GABA effects. All studies point to the fact that low levels of GABA are bad news. Let’s dive into the ways in which GABA influences various functions in the body.
GABA and Sleep Conditions
Chronic sleep deprivation and low GABA levels go hand in hand. Sometimes it isn’t clear which comes first in the vicious cycle, but we do know that low GABA activity in the brain causes insomnia and that sleep deprivation can lead to low GABA levels. (1)(2)(3)
To get your sleep back on track, implement a two-pronged solution. A strict sleep schedule—one in which your going to sleep and waking up at the same time each night and morning—can help to regulate your body. In addition, turn off all screens at least 45 minutes before you get into bed.
At the same time, increase your intake of foods that stimulate GABA production, like the ones mentioned above.
GABA and Diabetes
Research shows that GABA may play a significant role for people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
In some studies, GABA was able to induce the regeneration of insulin-producing cells—a significant discovery for those with type 1 diabetes. In a 2014 study, GABA was even shown to reverse type 1 diabetes in human cells. (4)
In addition, GABA may help in controlling type 2 diabetes, according to recent studies that showed that GABA can help to regulate insulin secretion. (5)(6)
GABA and Anxiety
Research consistently shows strong links between low GABA levels and anxiety and depression. When the brain lacks GABA, neurons become hyperexcitable or overactive, causing a person to feel stressed or anxious.
Therefore, naturally increasing GABA activity can help with stress relief. In fact, experts believe that GABA can be a target for antidepressants. (7)
RELATED: Stress Relief With GABA
GABA and Cognition
High levels of GABA are associated with higher levels of intelligence, improved cognition, and memory. (8)
GABA and ADHD
A 2012 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry compared concentrations of GABA in children with and without ADHD. They found that children with ADHD had lower GABA levels. (9)
Raising GABA levels in children with ADHD may help them to focus and reduce impulsivity and inhibition.
GABA and PMS
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a group of physical and emotional symptoms that a woman may experience before menstruation. It is often marked by fatigue, mood swings, cravings, bloating, breast tenderness, acne, cramps, and more.
GABA can help provide relief from both physical and emotional symptoms experienced with PMS. It even acts as a painkiller, which can ease cramping associated with PMS. (10)
These only scratch the surface when it comes to GABA’s influence on the body. Other conditions that may be improved by increasing GABA concentration in the brain include:
- Seizure disorders
- Huntington’s disease
- Cushing’s disease
- High blood pressure
- Chronic pain
There is also evidence that GABA helps with digestion, fat burning, energy levels, and building lean muscle.
GABA is an important neurotransmitter that is needed for every function in the body. Low GABA levels are associated with many health conditions, so be sure to increase your GABA levels naturally by eating foods that contain magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin E, probiotics, and amino acids taurine and L-theanine.