Today we’re unpacking the very important neurotransmitter…GABA, otherwise known as gamma-aminobutyric acid.
Often referred to as our ‘calming hormone’ GABA is the body’s ultimate stress reliever. When stress hormones like cortisol run rampant, GABA steps in to shut it down – preventing us from feeling too anxious.
Unfortunately, many lifestyle factors can throw GABA off, and when GABA is not there to save the day, anxiety can take over, leading to those unpleasant feelings of stress, worry, unease, and even depression.
Thankfully there are many ways to naturally boost GABA, all of which we’re about to dive into!
But before we start, it’s important to know that when we focus on consuming a high-quality diet, rich in whole-foods, we help to set our bodies up for success, so they are able to naturally produce essential hormones and neurotransmitters in adequate quantities that we need to feel optimal, such as GABA.
So, what exactly is GABA?
As we briefly mentioned, GABA is another neurotransmitter within the body. But not just any neurotransmitter… it’s arguably one of the most important in easing our levels of anxiety.
We classify it as an inhibitory neurotransmitter as it works by blocking messages sent to our central nervous system (CNS). Those signals are often excitatory, meaning they increase the activity of our nerve cells which can quickly become overstimulated during moments of anxiety. Fortunately, the body can sense this and tell GABA to step in, blocking the signal from reaching the brain cell, and preventing those feelings of anxiousness.
Interestingly, GABA is produced by Glutamate which functions oppositely to GABA by exciting our nerve cells (6). Although they’re completely different, we can think of them as yin and yang. They work in tandem with one another to maintain an overall balance of the mind and body – one that’s not too stimulated, but also not lethargic.
When conditions are right, excess Glutamate gets converted to GABA with the help of vitamin B6. But when we’re faced with stressors like lack of sleep, poor gut health, a lacking diet, environmental toxins, medications, and SO much more, this conversion might not happen.
What Does GABA Do? (3)
- Improves sleep
- Eases anxiety
- Reduces depressive symptoms
- Improves PMS
- Reduces inflammation
- Modulates gut health
GABA and the Gut-Brain Axis:
Believe it or not, GABA doesn’t just live in the brain – it can be found in the gut too! This makes sense considering how interconnected the two are.
Increasing research has shown that the tiny, yet powerful microbes within our digestive tract are capable of producing GABA. So as you can probably imagine, this neurotransmitter plays a pretty big role in maintaining the health of our GI tract which directly affects our mental health!
Researchers at Holobiome discovered that a class of bacteria within the digestive tract, known as Bacteroides, was regularly producing GABA. When scanning a group of individuals diagnosed with depression, they found that people with lower levels of this bacteria experienced increased activity of the prefrontal cortex – which scientists believe to be associated with higher levels of depression (8).
Additionally, GABA has also been shown to modulate gut motility, the flow of intestinal fluid, and assist with electrolyte transportation within the GI tract.
It’s really no wonder that the state of our gut has such a heavy influence on the state of our mind. And quite honestly, this is only the beginning of emerging research regarding GABA and the microbiome!
Reasons for Low GABA
There are numerous reasons as to why someone’s GABA levels might be low (11) – here are a few of the most common ones:
- Poor gut health: gut bacteria help to convert glutamine and glutamic acid into GABA (9). And certain gut bacteria found in healthy individuals have been found to produce GABA. (10) Without a healthy gut – these do not happen effectively!
- Chronic stress/ adrenal fatiuge
- Imbalanced blood sugars
- Diet lacking in essential nutrients
- Not enough protein in the diet
I want to Increase GABA, what should I do?
As always, I recommend balancing anxiety levels, and the nutrients associated with it, through food first. So this of course applies to GABA! Fortunately, many of the nutrients can be found in the same, nourishing, whole-foods we’re always advocating for. 🙂
GABA-rich food sources: Since research on GABA is still fairly new, scientists are not entirely sure if these food sources work directly on our brain given it has to cross the blood-brain-barrier.
Instead, it’s believed that the positive effects are actually a result of the GABA-producing bacteria in our gut (1)!
Consume plenty of:
- Fermented foods like miso, tempeh, kimchi, organic yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut
- Veggies such as: cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, brussels
- Brown rice and sprouted grains
- Soy, adzuki beans
- Sweet potatoes
- Green and black tea
Check out my Ultimate Anxiety Easing Nourish Bowl that’s packed with many of these GABA- loving foods! For an extra bonus, sub the kale for spinach and quinoa for a sprouted variety 🙂
Additional Support: you can actually supplement with GABA! I advise doing so with the support of a practitioner (like myself). Read below for more details.
Supplementing with GABA: Typically taken in pill form, this can have a direct effect on increasing GABA levels. Dr. Jolene Brighten recommends pairing GABA with L-theanine as extra support when anxiety is present (4). It can be a potent way to increase GABA levels and promote relaxation. As mentioned, I recommend doing so under the guidance of a health care practitioner.
Include Chamomile Tea: Plant flavonoids in chamomile tea bind to GABA receptors, and by there increase the effects of GABA and help to promote relaxation. I recommend drinking a cup of chamomile tea in the afternoons if you’re feeling anxious or every night after dinner (5)
Increase levels of vitamin B6: You may have caught it earlier – vitamin B6 assists in the production of calming neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA. Consume plenty of B6-rich foods like avocado, wild salmon, chickpeas, potatoes, bananas, and pasture-raised chicken. You can also try supplementation; however, quality is crucial! I recommend supplementing in the P-5-P form of vitamin B6 for optimal absorption.
Be sure to get enough magnesium: Many of us are commonly deficient in magnesium especially if you’re active, regularly anxious, sweat often, or not sleeping well. It’s an essential mineral that has a calming effect on the body as it supports the production of GABA and serotonin.
Practice meditation: Focusing on practices that help us breathe deeply like meditation / slow movements such as yoga, help the body relax and naturally increase levels of GABA.
There are truly SO many tools to increase GABA and ease anxiety levels as a whole. Our bodies are incredibly complex – so this blog post truly is just the beginning as to some of the many ways we can go about supporting the mind/ body connection through holistic practices!
For a deeper dive, my Eat to Ease Anxiety Course not only covers GABA support but the other important neurotransmitters that must all work together to help us feel calm and grounded everyday.
Lastly, If you’re looking for a 1:1 approach, feel free to enquire about my “Anxiety Reduction Nutrition Program”. If you’re ready to use the food you eat to help you thrive in body and mind – I’d love to support you – ultimately helping to keep those anxiety levels at bay for good.
Contact me through this page.