GABA is our main inhibitory neurotransmitter, and a key regulator of both anxiety and addiction. It helps us stay in that calm, healing, para-sympathetic mode, and avoid the sympathetic flight or fight mode. It governs dozens of functions in the mind and body.
Along with Serotonin, GABA provides the brakes in our body (the “slow-slow”), much as Dopamine and Acetyl-Choline provide the “go-go”. Like yin and yang, we need both “go” and “slow” to be balanced.
In our natural state as hunters and gatherers we only went into alarm mode if a real or potential threat was encountered.
Our nervous systems in modern life however perceive much of our day as a potential threat. Deadlines, traffic, money, and acute and chronic worries of all types. We can feel endangered just by missing a phone call or freeway exit.
What does GABA do?
GABA balances the flow of electricity between the left and right brain hemispheres, creating steady, balanced electrical activity. It establishes rhythms all over the body including the heart, nervous system and more. We produce GABA primarily from the amino acid glutamine, along with healthy gut bacteria, phosphorylation, and the enzyme GAD65. More on the crucial roles of GAD65 and gluten below…
When brain rhythm is disturbed and electrical firings get more random, we might have a range of symptoms of GABA deficiency, including anxiety and addiction, increased sensitivity to pain, PMS, Irritable Bowel, reflux, allergies, insomnia and much more… Seizures and panic attacks are classic symptoms of severe GABA deficiency.
It may also be that autism is, in part, a GABA disorder. Read this for more.
Does anyone have enough GABA?
Many people are naturally plentiful in GABA. They are dependable, and can sustain a focused calm in the face of chaos. They can set goals and create plans to achieve those goals, and do it without much ADD. They hold the team together, and help others without getting exhausted in the process.
Sounds good, right? So what happened to my GABA?
When chronically stressed, short on sleep, pressured to perform or dealing with troubles, GABA gets depleted and our brainwaves get out of sync. These “rhythm disturbances” show up in more ways than any other neurotransmitter deficiency, and create a huge variety of concerns, both mental and physical. Short temper, pain flare-ups, carb cravings, and insomnia are common reminders that you are depleted.
In the longer term, PMS, chronic pain, adult ADD, and cravings for alcohol or sedatives such as Xanax and Valium can all appear. Hypersensitivities to foods and medications, tachycardia, poor memory, irritability, IBS, and more can get established…
As the body gets progressively more depleted of GABA, it looks for external ways to calm the brain and keep things in balance.
The body may be drawn to alcohol, marijuana, Valium, painkillers or heroin as a way to survive.
We turn to drugs as a way to self-soothe. The body knows what it needs (perhaps desperately) and alcohol, pot, sedatives and heroin do provide GABA support and calming. A suffering brain can become dependent on these “life-saving” supports.
Clearly, the underlying issues have to be dealt with. “Stress Management” takes on a new level of urgency when addiction is involved. For those of us dealing with anxiety and addiction, panic attacks, insomnia and short tempers, the need is great to do a “life review” and get our house in order quickly.
I have a reputation with clients for suggesting they quit their jobs, move to the beach, or do whatever it is they hope will bring happiness and peace. I am guilty of working myself to bits too, and it has cost me dearly in mental and physical comfort. I was diagnosed with extreme low GABA 10 years ago, and tiny doses of anti-epileptic drugs brought me tremendous relief from anxiety, pain and irritable bowel. I still need them when I push too hard for too long.
Salivary Testing for Hormones
Of course, all other stress management techniques are needed, as is good diagnostic work on the adrenals (is your cortisol high, low or fluctuating?). Low DHEA is a common finding in saliva tests of older folks and in people with anxiety. If the adrenals are too tired to make DHEA, the ability to handle stress gets worse and we deplete GABA even faster. I order saliva tests for my virtual Consults and in-house clients to assess cortisol, DHEA, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. I have several blog posts and podcasts that talk about saliva tests. For starters, check here and here.
I also offer Salivary Testing for Cortisol, male/female hormones, Insulin, Gliadin and more in my Clinic or by phone. It’s essential to find the underlying causes of feeling poorly and extensive Consults can make a huge difference.
Can herbs or supplements help?
What I have used over the years varies depending on how I feel. Here are some short term supports that can also be used long-term while learning to reduce your stress and worries.
None of these will hurt you (except overdoing the pharmaceuticals), so try your own combos, and see if different doses and different combos of things work at different times. Exam? Dental work? Anxiety? Panic? Insomnia? Have your arsenal ready for when you need it, or take daily as desired.
- Passion Flower is my top choice for GABA support for most people, including children (not babies). Here’s the one I sell in alcohol or glycerite tincture form. I prefer the glycerine extract as it tastes OK. It is sweet enough to take straight without water. (Good for the middle of the night or the freeway). As a liquid, you can dose the number of drops you need better than taking a whole pill which may be too strong for taking the edge off that trip to the vet.
- This Professional Grade Chamomile Tincture can be added to water and sipped on all day, or taken before bed and during the night. Safe and gentle but effective.
- I carry this chewable and correct form of GABA in the online store. Many types of GABA won’t work. It has to be fermented to cross the blood brain barrier.
- L- Theanine, away from food, can be stabilizing.
- Systemic Formulas N3 – Relaxa in my online store is great for tension and pain.
- Rescue Remedy, the original Bach Flowers formula. I don’t like the new versions much. Stick with the plain Rescue Remedy.
- Kava or Valerian work well for some.
Can I take straight GABA for anxiety and addiction support?
Plain GABA does not work for most people. The label will have a short term for GABA, or just say the word GABA. What is needed is GABA that has been phenylated (often called Pharma GABA). Take it away from food. It may work well for you or it might not.
Why phenylated? GABA is not supposed to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier. This barrier is extremely selective about what gets access into the brain. Phenylated GABA is modified by enzymes and other processes and is allowed into the brain.
TIP: If plain GABA works for you, you may have “leaky brain”. Like “leaky gut” and “leaky lung”, these barriers can be compromised but also repaired. Coverage of this issue is not in the scope of this article however….
Gluten, Glutamate and GAD65 antibodies
GAD 65 is an enzyme used to make GABA from Glutamate. Current research shows that antibodies to our own GAD65 enzymes is increasingly a problem, and that these antibodies may well be implicated in autoimmune diseases (such as Diabetes Type 1 and Celiac), as well as in autism, schizophrenia, epilepsy and hormonal disorders.
There also appears to be a strong link between gluten and GAD65 enzymes. When gluten (in all its forms) is removed from the person’s diet, skin care and lungs (breathing flour, etc.), not only do gluten antibodies reduce, but GAD65 antibodies reduce too. Cyrex Labs has tests for these and I highly recommend talking to this lab and investing some serious money in running just about every test they offer.
My test results from Cyrex Labs gave me clues I had needed for decades. Additionally, all of my clients who have run at least the gluten antibody profile have come back positive for at least some of the 25 gluten related items. One test confirmed I had antibodies to my GAD65 enzymes. These numbers declined when I found the source of my gluten contamination (the dust from my oats-containing horse feed).
Next to greatly reducing the stress of life’s commitments, getting off gluten 100% is the most powerful action I know to improve GABA levels and create a healthy new body in general. Gluten causes multiple neurological and hormonal issues, as well as contributing to leaky gut and an impaired immune system.
What else can I do to help rebuild my GABA?
- Learn to do EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) on yourself. I find this extremely helpful and can do a few rounds in the car, in the bathroom, or even in bed. Simple tapping on particular acupuncture points (while focusing on the issue concerning you) is an outright miracle…. Any time I notice I’m not calm or happy, I can tap and usually feel better right away. Learn it for free with their website’s downloads.
- Proper exercise can be calming – not too much, not at night, and non-competitive. Don’t over-exert or exhaust yourself.
- Keep blood sugar stable at all times! I eat protein, fats and veggies 4 times daily. If you’re hungry, your sympathetic nervous system can kick into “alarm mode”.
- Make a list of all the alarming people and projects in your life. Handle them as quickly as possible so your life is “cleaner”. Do what it takes to get happier!
- If you struggle with real anxiety and/or are moving towards addiction, get help with a good therapist, and have a low dose med such as Lorazepam or Xanax tucked away in a high cabinet. When you need it, it’s there when all else fails.
Take these to bed with you too
I keep Passion Flower, California Poppy and Rescue Remedy next to my pillow under a thick towel. I have a meditation tape nearby, and do EFT during the night if anxious or awake.
Want more info?
Here are some related blog posts from my website and from my podcast Primal Diet – Modern Health. This one, this one and this one. Search GABA, insomnia, anxiety or stress and find more. Good luck and best wishes to you!