Neurotransmitters are our body's chemical messengers. They transmit signals throughout our nervous system and help regulate several of our essential life-sustaining functions like heart rate, breathing, appetite, and sleep patterns.
There are more than 40 different neurotransmitters in our nervous system, all playing unique roles in every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Today, we’ll take a look specifically at one of our body’s key neurotransmitters—gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). Keep reading to learn more about GABA, what it does, and how to potentially increase its levels.
What Is Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid?
GABA is a naturally occurring non-proteinogenic amino acid and an inhibitory neurotransmitter. But for those of us without degrees in biochemistry, what’s that mean in layman's terms?
Let’s break it down piece by piece. Typically, amino acids are what our bodies use to build proteins. However, non-proteinogenic amino acids have a similar chemical composition as regular amino acids but don’t incorporate into proteins. So, since GABA is an amino acid that our bodies produce naturally and doesn’t incorporate into proteins, we call it a naturally occurring non-proteinogenic amino acid.
The word inhibitory in the above context is used to describe what effect the neurotransmitter will have. When inhibitory neurotransmitters, like GABA, interact with neurons, they reduce the chances of that neuron generating an electrical signal.
To summarize, GABA is an amino acid our bodies naturally produce that doesn’t incorporate into protein but does decrease the activity of certain neurons.
What Does GABA Do?
GABA attaches to proteins in our brains and essentially slows down neural activity. This can have a calming effect, reduce anxiety and depression, and help us fall asleep.
Certain medical conditions are associated with low levels of GABA, including:
- Seizure Disorders
- Attention Deficit Disorder
- Mood Disorders
Some patients who suffer from these conditions may take supplements for gamma-Aminobutyric acid or pharmaceuticals called gabapentinoids which mimic the effects of GABA to try and treat their symptoms.
Research into the efficacy of GABA supplements is still relatively new, and it’s unclear whether GABA even crosses the blood-brain barrier when taken as a dietary supplement. However, some preliminary research suggests that GABA supplements may have a positive effect on anxiety, blood pressure, and stress levels.
Does GABA Increase Naturally?
Supplementation and prescription drugs aren’t the only avenues people can take to try and increase their GABA levels. There are several different methods that can potentially increase your GABA levels naturally.
- Exercising: Have you noticed you feel calmer and more relaxed after exercising? It may have to do with your GABA levels. Research indicates that intense exercise can result in a generalized increase in your body’s GABA levels.
- Starting A Yoga Practice: While any kind of exercise may benefit GABA levels, research suggests that yoga, in particular, can help boost GABA.
- Meditation: Part of the reason yoga boosts GABA so effectively may have to do with the mindfulness aspect of the practice. Studies show meditation can increase GABA levels and decrease anxiety.
- Eating Glutamate-rich And Fermented Foods: Our bodies make GABA from another amino acid called glutamate, which can be found in several foods. Eating glutamate-rich foods like broccoli, bone broths, walnuts, fish, and soybeans could help stimulate GABA production. Additionally, GABA may also be synthesized by your gut biome, so eating fermented probiotic foods like kimchi or sauerkraut could also raise GABA levels.
- Avoiding Alcohol: Unfortunately for those who like to imbibe, alcohol can lower GABA levels and prevent GABA from binding to the necessary neurons in your brain.
Do Cannabinoids Increase The Concentration Of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid?
Alcohol isn’t the only substance that can affect GABA levels. Cannabinoids, the psychoactive compounds found in cannabis, can also have an impact on GABA.
THC binds to CB1 receptors, which gives us the sensation of being high. However, activating those CB1 receptors can also inhibit GABA activity. The non-intoxicating CBD, on the other hand, doesn’t make direct binding to CB1 receptors and may actually increase GABA levels, which could account for the compound's well-documented anti-seizure effects.
This means combining a CBD oil like Vitaldiol Essential Tincture with exercise, meditation, and diet could be a great way to boost GABA levels naturally.