What is GABA?

Gamma Aminobutyric Acid, or GABA, is the neurotransmitter responsible for calming the neurons in your brain and central nervous system. 

To understand GABA, you can think about Serotonin. Serotonin has become more well known and understood in the last decade with most people knowing that serotonin has something to do with being happy. Serotonin is in fact also a neurotransmitter, like GABA. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that carries a signal from one neuron (brain cell) or nerve cell to other cells in the body. However unlike GABA which is responsible for calming your central nervous system, serotonin helps to increase mood and improve your sense of wellbeing. 

So, what is GABA and how do I know if I have too much GABA or too low GABA?

There are three main areas of health that may be affected if your levels of GABA are low:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Sleep
  3. Depression

Below I have detailed these areas and how GABA can play a role…

1. Anxiety:

Anxiety is the most common symptom of low GABA. By understanding that GABA is the calming neurotransmitter, you can see that when GABA is low, anxiety can be heightened. Anxiety is associated with an overactive brain, repetitive thoughts, restlessness, nervousness and even muscle spasms. All of these suggest hyperactivity of the nerves and potentially a low level of GABA in the body. 

Herbs such as passionflower, lavender and lemon balm are all excellent to reduce anxiety as they interact with GABA receptors. These herbs can be consumed as teas, or as a herbal tincture prescribed by your naturopath. 

2. Sleep:

Do you have trouble falling asleep? Do you wake in the middle of the night with an over-active brain? There is a good chance your GABA could be low. GABA allows your mind and body to relax. If your levels are low, your brain has trouble switching off at night and so does your body.

Herbs that are associated with GABA and sleep are: passionflower, kava, valerian and zizyphus. Qualified naturopaths can prescribe safe and therapeutic herbal tinctures that can help with insomnia or sleep issues. 

3. Depression:

Most mental health issues involve an imbalance in neurotransmitters. Depression is no different. Studies show that there is an imbalance in GABA as well as serotonin in people suffering major depressive disorders.

Increasing GABA through your diet by increasing protein or glutamine (as seen below) can help to decrease depressive emotions, whilst introducing a herb such as St Johns wort can assist in regulating GABA. Remember to always check with your Naturopath before taking medicinal herbs, as those such as St John’s wort can interact with anti-depressive medication.

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Now that we’ve looked at the main areas that low GABA (Gamma Aminobutyric Acid) can effect, let’s look at the nutrients that can be introduced or increased in your diet to increase your GABA production. These are:

  1. Glutamine
  2. Vitamin B6
  3. Magnesium
  4. L-theanine

1. Glutamine:

Glutamine (glutamic acid) is an amino acid that is essential for GABA production. The following plant-based foods are high in glutamic acid. They are foods that can help to increase GABA:

  • Onion
  • Broccoli
  • Lentils
  • Legumes
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Cashews
  • Walnuts
  • Oats

2. Vitamin B6:

Vitamin B6 is one of the building blocks for GABA. Low levels of Vitamin B6 can decrease GABA production. Foods that are high in Vitamin B6 include:

  • Chickpeas
  • Bananas
  • Lentils
  • Eggplant
  • Garlic
  • Pistachio
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Silverbeet
  • Bok choy
  • Turmeric
  • Rosemary
  • Vegemite

3. Magnesium:

Magnesium helps to increase the availability of GABA. A good quality supplement will help to decrease anxiety, reduce insomnia and help increase mood. Generally, the mass produced (and often cheap) magnesium from the supermarket just won’t cut it. If you have any of the above issues I recommend booking in for a consult. 

4. L-theanine:

L-theanine is the nutrient naturally found in tea. L-theanine can increase levels of GABA in the brain. Drinking tea is a simple and accessible way to increase GABA and help with a GABA diet. Green tea, especially matcha, appears to have the highest concentrations of L-theanine. Remember: green tea does contain levels of caffeine, so avoid drinking it too late in the day or having too much of it – especially if sleep and anxiousness are issues for you.

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When it comes to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or insomnia, there are normally a few different factors contributing to your symptoms. Increasing GABA through your diet is a great place to start, however working with a naturopath to bring a more holistic approach to managing your mental health is highly recommended. As a naturopath, I look at and treat the cause of the issues rather than just your symptoms.