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Chapter 1: GABA?
When all of your brain chemicals are balanced, they help you feel motivated, active, and energetic. Sometimes they help you feel calm and relaxed.
Your brain gets stuck in the “on” state when you don’t have enough GABA, though, making you anxious, stressed, and unable to relax. GABA can soak up extra adrenaline and other stress-related chemicals like a sponge.
GABA is so important for being calm and happy that it’s been called “nature’s Valium.”
Here are some of the most common effects of not having enough GABA:
- For no clear reason, you feel scared and have a knot in your stomach.
- You’re frequently late because you’re too disorganized to make appointments on time.
- You do a lot of things at once, but when the day is over, you don’t have much to show for it.
- You worry about new things all the time, even when things are going well.
- You can’t calm down, and your thoughts keep you up at night.
What is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)?
GABA is a neurotransmitter, which means it sends messages between nerve cells in your brain. It makes your brain work more slowly by blocking certain messages in your brain and spinal cord. GABA is known to have a calming effect. It is thought to be very important for keeping nerve cells from firing too quickly, which can happen in times of worry, stress, and fear. GABA is also known as a non-protein amino acid.
How Does It Work?
In your brain and spinal cord, GABA is the most common chemical that slows down nerve signals. Inhibitory neurotransmitters stop or block chemical messages and make nerve cells in your brain less stimulated.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help nerve cells in your brain talk to each other across the brain. A synapse is a very small space filled with fluid that exists between each nerve cell. This synapse is where neurotransmitters carry their message. They then have to land on and connect to specific receptors on the next nerve cell. This is like a key that can only fit and work in its partner lock.
Nerve cells have two kinds of GABA receptors: GABA-A and GABA-B. Sometimes these receptors work together in different ways, but when GABA binds to them, they make nerve cells less sensitive. So, as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA makes it harder for a nerve cell to get chemical messages from other nerve cells, make chemical messages, or send chemical messages.
What good things does GABA do for your health?
Because it slows down some brain processes, GABA may be able to:
- Reduce stress
- Relieve anxiety
- Improve sleep
What does GABA have to do with glutamate?
Glutamate is like an “on” switch and GABA is like an “off” switch. In your brain, GABA is the main neurotransmitter that stops chemical signals from going from one nerve cell to another. On the other hand, glutamate is the brain’s main excitatory receptor. It lets chemical messages get from nerve cell to nerve cell. A careful balance must be kept between the effects of GABA, which slows down brain activity, and glutamate, which speeds up brain activity. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that works with and through GABA. In fact, many neurotransmitters work with and against each other, and they need to stay in a certain relationship for the brain and body to work right.
GABA is actually made from glutamate. With the help of an enzyme called glutamic acid decarboxylase, glutamate is changed into GABA.
What health problems are linked to changes in the amount of GABA in the body?
When GABA messaging activity (“signaling”) isn’t balanced and acting as it should, it may be linked to some neurological and mental health conditions. Lessened GABA action may contribute to:
- Anxiety and mood disorders
- Seizures and epilepsy
Some other health problems linked to GABA dysfunction are:
lack of pyridoxine. In this rare sickness, the body can’t make the vitamin that it needs to make GABA. It normally leads to a lot of seizures when the child is young. There is no effective treatment for the seizures with epilepsy drugs, but taking extra vitamins does help
- Hepatic encephalopathy
- Hunting’s Disease
- Dystonia and spasticity
- Hypersomnia (being too sleepy during the day or sleeping for too long)
Does raising the amount of GABA in the body have any health benefits?
Researchers are still looking into what happens when GABA levels rise. It’s not clear yet, but GABA is being studied to see if it can help treat or avoid health problems like:
- High blood pressure
What medicines work on GABA?
The GABA receptors have been used to make a lot of different medicines. Some of these are:
- Benzodiazepines. Some drugs in this group, like diazepam (Valium®) and alprazolam (Xanax®), work on a receptor called GABA-A. Benzodiazepines are used to put people to sleep during surgery, and treat epilepsy, REM sleep problems, alcohol withdrawal, anxiety, essential tremor, and muscle spasticity
- Barbiturates, which are sedatives
- Vigabatrin. This medicine is used to help babies who are having seizures or twitches.
- Flumazenil. This medicine is used to treat benzodiazepine overdose. It is also used to help people with liver encephalopathy feel better mentally
- Valproic Acid. This is a mood-stabilizer and anti-seizure medication.
- Zoolpidem, which is for insomnia.
- Gabapentin, which is for nerve pain and seizures and is prescribed off-label for anxiety, insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and others
- Propfol, which is also a sedative
- Baclofen, which is a muscle relaxer and, like several others on this list, is prescribed off-label for anxiety, insomnia, and more.
Is there a GABA supplement?
GABA can be bought as a food supplement. A lot of it might not be able to get into your brain, though. In the world of science, this is known as “crossing the blood-brain barrier.” The barrier is a special membrane that lets only certain chemicals go into and out of your brain. So, no one knows what, if any, effects taking GABA supplements might have on your brain. As of now, there isn’t a lot of strong scientific proof that a GABA supplement can help treat health problems. There needs to be more research with more people.
Is there GABA in food?
Some fermented foods, like kimchi, miso, and tempeh, have GABA in them. Green, black, and oolong tea all have it too. Brown rice, soy and adzuki beans, almonds, mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, sprouted grains, and sweet potatoes are some other foods that contain GABA or help your body make more of it.
Like with supplements, it’s not clear if eating things that contain GABA lets GABA get to your brain. There needs to be more research done with more people.
Chapter 2: GABA Supplements and GABA in Food
As for the studies done on GABA supplements, they do provide some encouragement. It seems that GABA tablets may help people who have trouble sleeping. A July 2018 randomized, double-blind clinical trial in the Journal of Clinical Neurology found that GABA supplements (300 milligrams of GABA) made people fall asleep faster and sleep better than a placebo. But this study was very small—only 40 people took part—and bigger studies are needed before any claims can be made.
A February 2018 study published in Brain and Cognition suggests that GABA tablets may help you think and remember things better, in addition to helping you sleep better. This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that taking 800 milligrams of GABA as a supplement people smarter and better at paying attention. Before you buy a lot of GABA supplements to help you do better at work or school, though, you should know that this study only had four male subjects.
A study from 2011 in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology found that giving a group of 30 healthy people 50 milligrams of GABA as a supplement made them feel less mentally and physically tired. Nine of the people in the group had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Again, this is a small study, and more needs to be done to fully understand how taking GABA supplements can improve health and performance.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is often linked to depression. However, people who are depressed also have low levels of GABA in their cerebrospinal fluid. It looks like taking GABA supplements might help improve your mood, but it looks like no research has been done on using GABA foods or supplements to treat depression.
If you want a more natural way to treat insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, or depression, you should talk to your doctor before adding different supplements to your routine. Even though supplements might not seem dangerous, the FDA says that companies don’t have to prove that their goods are safe before they go on sale.
As for food, though it isn’t proven that GABA in food can reach the brain, these foods, which some of the highest GABA-containing foods, are also healthy foods that offer a number of other benefits:
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts)
- Soy beans
- Adzuki beans
- Sweet potatoes
- Sprouted grains
- Rice (specifically brown rice)
- White tea
It turns out that certain bacterial strains found in your gut, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, produce GABA and may increase the neurotransmitter in your enteric nervous system, which may increase concentration of the neurotransmitter in the cerebrospinal fluid. This means that probiotics may increase GABA. If so, then foods with probiotics in them would be good options for increasing GABA, such as:
- Yogurt. Made from milk fermented by lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria, all friendly types of bacteria, yogurt is one of the best sources of probiotics. It’s also high in calcium, which is great for your bones.
- Greek yogurt. Also packed with probiotics, Greek yogurt, made by straining regular yogurt, has more protein and few carbs and sugars than other types of yogurt.
- Skyr. This Icelandic dairy product is made by fermenting skim milk and features probiotic cultures similar to yogurt. It’s also low in calories and fat and high in protein and other nutrients.
- Sauerkraut. The sour, salty fermented cabbage is probiotic-rich. It’s also high in fiber, vitamins and antioxidants but high in sodium.
- Kimchi. A traditional Korean food staple, kimchi is made by fermenting vegetables, including cabbage, with probiotic lactic acid bacteria, and also helps reduce cholesterol, promotes brain health and boosts immunity.
- Tempeh. Because it’s high in protein, tempeh is a popular meat substitute. The fermented soybean product is a probiotic food and a good source of vitamin B12.
- Miso. Made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, a type of fungus, miso is a Japanese food staple. The paste comes in many varieties and is often used in miso soup. It’s also rich in vitamins B, E, K and folic acid.
- Kombucha. A drink made by fermenting black or green tea, sugar, yeast and bacteria, is touted for its health benefits, including better digestion.
- Kefir. This fermented milk beverage contains multiple strains of friendly bacteria and yeast. It’s been shown to improve digestion and has antimicrobial and anti-cancer properties.
- Lassi. A popular drink in India and Pakistan, a lassi is made with fermented yogurt and fruits, like mango, and contains plenty of probiotics.
- Smoothies. Blend your favorite fruits and vegetables with probiotic-rich yogurt for a healthy breakfast or snack that’s also protein- and nutrient-dense.
- Turshi. This blend of pickled vegetables, including carrots, celery, peppers, and more, popular in Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisine, contains a wealth of probiotics.
- Pickled onions. Not all pickled onions contain probiotics. To pack more probiotics into your diet, look for ones made using the lacto-fermentation method, where lactic acid bacteria are used in the pickling.
- Pickled beets. When beets are pickled and also fermented, they contain probiotics, along with fiber, vitamins, iron and more.
- Pickled cucumbers. Cucumbers left to ferment in salted water using their natural lactic acid bacteria are rich in probiotics, as well as vitamin K.
- Umeboshi. These Japanese fermented plums are made from unripe ume fruit. Umeboshi may be served whole, in paste form or stored in vinegar.
- Traditional buttermilk. Not to be confused with cultured buttermilk, which is common in the U.S. and is not a probiotic food, traditional buttermilk, made from the liquid leftover after making butter, contains probiotics.
- Sourdough bread. Sourdough depends on wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria, which occur naturally in flour, as a leavening agent. And, researchers suggest it may have probiotic-like properties.
- Cottage cheese. Some types of cottage cheese are rich in probiotics, just look for ones that have been fermented with live active cultures.
- Cheddar cheese. Researchers believe the probiotics lactic acid bacteria used as a starter for cheddar cheese could survive the cheese-making and aging processes of cheddar cheese.
- Gouda. Healthy bacteria can survive the cheese-making process for gouda, making it a probiotic-rich cheese.
- Mozzarella. This typical gooey pizza topping is lower in calories and sodium than other cheese, and mozzarella also retains healthy probiotics.
- Feta. This salty sheep’s milk cheese is often packed in brine, and researchers think some types of feta have strains of probiotics.
- Provolone. Most cheeses are produced via fermentation, and provolone contains probiotics.
- Parmesan. The hard, aged Italian cheese contains both prebiotic properties and probiotic bacteria, and it’s packed with calcium.
- Raw cheeses. The natural bacteria in raw, or unpasteurized, milk can stay alive during cheese-making, as the cheese ferments.
- Sour cream. You probably don’t think of sour cream as having many health benefits, but some types contain probiotics.
- Fermented fish. Scientists have found the presence of certain probiotics in a fermented fish, called utonga-kupsu.
- Bananas. Slightly under-ripe bananas are a solid source of prebiotics, which help healthy probiotics grow.
- Garlic. An aromatic and versatile vegetable, garlic is also a prebiotic food that helps the healthy probiotic bifidobacteria grow in the gut, which could keep diseases away.
- Onions. Rich in fiber and prebiotics, onions can help promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.
- Apple cider vinegar.ACV is touted for its wealth of health benefits. It does contain bacteria, but research is uncertain about its true probiotic effects.
- Balsamic vinegar. Acetic acid is the main compound of balsamic vinegar, and research shows it contains strains of probiotic bacteria, which can improve gut health and the immune system.
- Kvass. Popular in Eastern Europe, kvass is a fermented cereal drink made from malt, rye, flour, stale rye bread and sugar—and, it’s a probiotic food.
- Soy sauce. Though it’s a fermented food, soy sauce may not always be a probiotic, unless specifically labeled as such. But research suggests it and other fermented foods could also offer gastrointestinal health benefits.
- Olives. Green, kalamata and other kinds of olives, traditionally made via fermentation, often contain lactic acid bacteria.
- Dark chocolate.Research suggests that cocoa can have a similar effect on gut bacteria as probiotics.
- Natto. A popular Japanese breakfast food, natto is a fermented soybean product containing probiotics. Natto is also a good source of protein and vitamin K2, which promotes bone health.
- Cereal. Some cereal brands, including Kellogg’s Special K, offer products with probiotics added.
- Apples.Research shows apples contain about 100 million bacteria, which can interact with our gut microbiomes in a healthy way that’s more effective than single probiotic supplements.
- Green peas. A Japanese study found that green peas may contain the probiotic leuconostoc mesenteroides.
- Soy milk. Fermented soy milk may contain probiotics, and other soy milk products may be fortified with probiotics for extra health benefits.
- Dairy alternatives. Many dairy alternatives, such as nut-based milk and yogurt, may contain live cultures. Just check the labels for lactobacillus or other probiotic strains.
- Herbal teas. Already packed with antioxidants, some herbal teas are enriched with probiotics for an extra health boost.
- Celery juice. Research shows celery juice could offer health benefits as a probiotic drink, when enriched with healthy bacteria.
- Bottled probiotic drinks. An easy way to get a probiotic boost is to pick up one of the several probiotic drinks out there, like juices, teas, kombucha and smoothies.
- Beer.Belgian-style beers, such as Hoegaarden and Westmalle Tripel, which are fermented twice, may contain a specific kind of probiotic yeast that can kill harmful bacteria in the gut.
- Microalgae. It often comes in powder form, and microalgae has a number of health benefits and is a good source of probiotics.
- Spirulina. A type of blue-green algae, spirulina is a popular supplement that’s full of nutrients, including probiotics.
- Supplements. Most nutrition experts say the best probiotic sources come directly from foods, but there are plenty of probiotic supplements, too. The Cleveland Clinic recommends probiotic products with “1 billion colony forming units” at least and the probiotics lactobacillus or bifidobacterium.
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