GABA & Stress: What You Need to KnowHyla Cass, MD
What you’ll learn
- How GABA operates in the brain and body
- The role GABA plays in stress
- How supplemental GABA can reduce perceived stress
When it comes to relieving worry and stress, GABA is the neurotransmitter you want to look at.
Think of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) as your cellular brakes. This chemical messenger’s job is to calm cells and decrease their activity. As such, it regulates brain and nerve cell function, produces a focusing effect, and protects the nervous system against overload that can lead to over-excitement or impulsive lapses in judgment. It also has a role in gut motility, immune function, blood pressure, appetite, and sleep.
What does this have to do with stress?
Think of the stress response as over-excitation. Your brain has perceived a threat, whether real or imagined, and activated your body’s “fight or flight response.” This tells your body to focus all of its resources to immediate survival. Your brain is on high alert, combing the environment for potential danger, and pulsating with rapid thoughts. Your muscles tense, ready to react quickly to anything that might cross your path, your palms sweat, your stomach gets queasy. You know the feeling.
The stress reaction is driven by a class of excitatory neurotransmitters called catecholamines, which includes the familiar stress hormone adrenaline. When these neurotransmitters interact with cells, they increase cellular activity. This is great for when you want your body to be highly responsive, like when running away from a tiger in the jungle like our cave-person ancestors, pumping up before a big event, or pushing through a hard workday.
But, just as a car left on overnight will eventually drain its battery, you cannot “stay on” all the time. As you may know, your body’s ability to repair itself is inhibited when it is in fight or flight mode. Stress for prolonged periods of time, known as chronic stress, has a plethora of negative health effects, and can lead to conditions ranging from anxiety and mood disorders to dementia and even cancer.
That’s where GABA comes in. When unleashed on to a stressed cell, it’s inhibitory effects help lull the cell out of an excited state and into a relaxed, restful one, switching your body from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” In fact, some researchers believe GABA developed for this purpose, to counteract catecholamines, glutamate, and other excitatory neurotransmitters, and turn off your fight or flight response once the threat has passed.
Not surprisingly, reduced levels of GABA in the brain and nervous system are linked to irritability, tension, substance abuse disorders, and insomnia. This connection underlies the actions of prescription tranquilizers like the benzodiazepines,which increase your system’s response to GABA. Drugs like diazepam (Valium), clonazepam (Klonopin) and alprazolam (Xanax) all fall under this category.
Fortunately, taking benzos with all of their troubling side effects is not the only way to get more GABA. You can find GABA enhancers in fermented foods like yogurt and tempeh, legumes like beans and lentils, varieties of green and black tea, nuts, fish, cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, and chlorella, a type of algae.
For many, though, food won’t be enough. That’s where GABA in supplemental form comes into play.
As scientists begin to investigate the effects of supplemental GABA, preliminary research shows it can help improve sleep, reduce stress, boost immune systems in people who experience high amounts of stress, and even balance blood pressure. Although, there is debate about whether or not supplemental GABA can pass the blood brain barrier to impact the brain directly, some theorize its calming effects come from its interaction with the large population of neurons in the gut called the enteric nervous system.
As we are learning more about the role of the neurotransmitter and amino acid GABA in calming the body and mind, my hope is that there will be a reduction in benzodiazepine prescriptions which can lead to serious and difficult to treat addiction, increase in accidents, shortened life span, and more. Nature has provided us with a great solution if we know how to use it.