Gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA for short, is a neurotransmitter, like serotonin or dopamine. Neurotransmitters act like messengers in the central nervous system to transmit messages and brain function that turn into thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
GABA controls feelings of calm and relaxation. It is inhibitory in the brain, meaning it slows nerve firing in the central nervous system. This can take someone from feeling “fired up” to feeling calm. GABA deficiency, on the other hand, can leave a person feeling chronic stress and tension, without a chance to feel relaxed or calm.
GABA supplementation has been shown to effectively reduce anxiety, panic attacks, depression, social anxiety, physical tension, and even counteract the sleeplessness caused by too much caffeine (Mabunga et. al., 2015). Several medications like benzodiazepines (Ativan, Valium, etc), muscle relaxants, and pain medications use the GABA system to create sedation or pain reduction (Jewett and Sharma, 2019).
Over the years, there has been some controversy about the best use of GABA in mental health (Boonstra et. al., 2015). In general, in order for a compound to work on the brain, it needs to be digested, absorbed into the blood, then cross the blood-brain-barrier (BBB), which is a boundary between the blood and the brain. This boundary helps protect the brain from things in the blood by filtering it. GABA is a large molecule, which means that for most people with a functioning BBB, it would not normally cross the boundary very easily.
GABA supplementation was controversial for a long time, with clinicians suggesting that GABA could not cross the BBB unless it was “leaky”, in other words, letting large things through that shouldn’t be going through. This has been likened to “leaky gut” wherein the digestive system begins to break down and things are absorbed improperly. A leaky BBB would mean that a person is more susceptible to brain toxicity, heavy metals, mold toxins, and other harmful chemicals. Thankfully, other mechanisms have been discovered to explain how GABA functions without indicating a compromised BBB.
Research on GABA shows there are 3 other ways that GABA can enter the brain and exert a calming effect:
- Did you know that a few years ago researchers discovered a new organ system in the human body? In 2017, researchers at NIH published a paper describing a lymphatic vessel system that offers a form of communication between the brain and the body’s blood system. Although completely new to research and clinical understanding, it is possible that the GABA signalling system works through a lymphatic communication connection that bypasses the BBB altogether.
Peripheral GABA receptors
- Neurotransmitters work by binding to receptors, which then has an effect on the cell (whether it is located in the brain, or your shoulder or jaw muscles). GABA has receptors all over the body, which likely account for its ability to reduce physical tension and stress all over. A decrease in physical tension, “holding” and clenching may then send a signal of safety and relaxation to the brain, which finally feels like it can relax too.
Gut-Brain Cross Talk
- This is my favourite and most powerful action of GABA on the central nervous system. GABA may actually exert its action on the brain from right inside the digestive system! Once GABA is absorbed in the intestine, it inhibits nerve activity in the enteric nervous system, a whole entire nervous system based in the gut that communicates directly with the central nervous system via the vagus nerve. GABA acting in the gut actually sends real-time nerve signals up the vagus nerve, effectively telling the brain to calm down. It’s the only place in the body that has this kind of strong two-way communication with the brain. It’s also a relatively new discovery, and it has huge implications for digestive and mental health. It’s the basis of what’s now called the gut-brain axis.
GABA is a safe and powerful tool for supporting mental health and new research is helping us understand how and why it’s so helpful. If you’re curious about using GABA to help control stress, physical tension, anxiety and stress, talk with an ND today who is familiar with using GABA properly.
- Mabunga, D. F. N., Gonzales, E. L. T., Kim, H. J., & Choung, S. Y. (2015). Treatment of GABA from fermented rice germ ameliorates caffeine-induced sleep disturbance in mice. Biomolecules & therapeutics, 23(3), 268
- Jewett, B. E., & Sharma, S. (2019). Physiology, GABA.
- Boonstra, E., de Kleijn, R., Colzato, L. S., Alkemade, A., Forstmann, B. U., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2015). Neurotransmitters as food supplements: the effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1520
- Krantis, A. (2000). GABA in the mammalian enteric nervous system. Physiology, 15(6), 284-290