GABA or Gamma-aminobutyric acid is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. What does that mean? Well, GABA is a naturally occurring chemical that reduces nerve cell activity. GABA is found naturally throughout our brains and nervous system and is abundant in many foods. Fermented foods seem particularly full of this non-protein amino acid.
How Does GABA Work?
GABA binds to postsynaptic receptors to open chloride ion channels that reduce the ability of neurons to fire off signals through the nervous system. GABA stays bonded to these receptors for a relatively long time when compared to other chemicals.
An increase in GABA in the brain causes a calming effect due to the lower activity from the neurons.
GABA is critical to the normal work of the central nervous system. It is known that somewhere between 60% and 75% of our neurotransmitters are GABAergic (doi:10.1016/0006-2952(88)90684-3).
What Happens When There Isn’t Enough GABA?
Several health conditions have been linked to low GABA activity. These conditions include anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, major depression, Huntington’s disease, etc.
There are quite a few medications that can be prescribed to moderate GABA activity and production. Here are a few you might be familiar with: benzodiazepines, barbiturates, gabapentin, etc.
GABA may cross the blood-brain-barrier or it may act mostly on the peripheral nervous system. This is still being worked out in the scientific community. Most believe there is heavy involvement of the gut-brain axis and that the enteric effects of GABA are considerable.
You Can Supplement GABA!
GABA is available as a non-prescription supplement that can be taken to reduce stress, increase calmness, and promote relaxation. If you are unable to eat enough fermented foods or other dietary sources such as tea or tomato, then supplementation is a viable alternative.
GABA is even associated with modifying the perception of pain. There is a reason that medications that act on the GABAergic receptors, such as gabapentin, are often utilized (off-label) by physicians as a pain medication.
The pharmacologic (prescription drug) treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders usually involves a benzodiazepine. These medications affect GABAergic neurotransmission as well. They enhance the inhibitory signals produced by GABAergic receptors. This generally results in reduced stress, less anxiety, decreased sleep latency and better sleep continuity.
Natural GABA, either from foods or from supplements is quite helpful because the same receptors are triggered.
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