Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the brain’s most abundant inhibitory, or “calming”, neurotransmitter. While GABA is known primarily for its ability to put you in a relaxed state, it actually plays a crucial role in regulating many aspects of mood, attention, cognition, and sleep. GABA deficiency symptoms may involve any of these functions and include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more. This article will explore the top 4 symptoms related to low GABA levels in the brain and will introduce natural ways to treat GABA deficiency symptoms by increasing your brain’s GABA levels.
What is GABA?
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers used by neurons to communicate with one another and with other types of cells. Every neurotransmitter behaves differently; inhibitory neurotransmitters tend to calm, while excitatory neurotransmitters tend stimulate the brain. GABA’s primary function as the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter is to prevent overstimulation. It does this by counteracting glutamate—the brain’s major excitatory neurotransmitter. When GABA binds to a receptor, it prevents stimulation by glutamate. When GABA levels are inadequate, overstimulation due to high levels of glutamate can occur and lead to symptoms of low GABA.
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Download this expert FREE guide, “Am I Depressed?” Treating depression symptoms, including bipolar and clinical depression, and seasonal affective disorder.
In this free guide, you’ll find depression tests to help you self-diagnose your condition before seeing a physician.
The top 4 GABA deficiency symptoms
- Depression. People with depression have lower brain GABA levels compared to people with normal moods. Depressed individuals in whom typical antidepressant medications fail to work appear to have the lowest GABA levels. A study in depressed teens found the lowest GABA levels were consistently in those who reported the inability to experience pleasure in acts which normally produce it (anhedonia).
- Anxiety, panic, and PTSD. Anxiety, panic disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are each associated with GABA imbalances. Anxiety is the most commonly recognized symptom of low GABA. Interestingly, there are fewer studies documenting low brain GABA concentrations in those with anxiety than there are in those with depression. Nevertheless, the commonly used drugs for anxiety, benzodiazapines, work by increasing the GABA’s availability. People who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after going through a severe trauma have significantly lower brain GABA levels than those who don’t develop PTSD after traumatic experiences. A number of studies have documented decreased brain GABA levels in people with panic disorder compared to individuals without panic tendencies.
- Insomnia. People with insomnia have lower brain levels of GABA. If you have chronic trouble either falling asleep or waking up and not being able to get back to sleep, you likely have a brain GABA deficiency and could benefit from therapies that help to naturally increase GABA function in the brain. Magnesium supplementation increases GABA and has been shown to help relieve insomnia.Herbal extracts of valerian, passionflower, and lemon balm have also each been found to help relieve insomnia in clinical studies via their action on enhancing GABA.
- Drug and alcohol dependence. GABA plays a role in alcohol’s actions and addictive nature. GABA is also involved in a person’s vulnerability to alcoholism. It also plays a role in other addictions such as smoking (nicotine) and drug dependence. Lower GABA levels have been found in the brains of adolescents who chronically use cocaine or marijuana, for instance. Drugs that enhance GABA are commonly used to help prevent relapse in addicts who are in remission; however, they are associated with significant side effects and can be addictive themselves.
How to naturally boost GABA levels yourself
GABA function can be supported with natural treatments including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbal extracts, yoga, and acupuncture. Supplementing with magnesium, the amino acid taurine, L-theanine, kava root, and herbs like valerian, passionflower, and lemon balm have all been shown to help treat GABA deficiency symptoms by increasing GABA or directly enhancing its function. Stay tuned for more information on how GABA affects mood and what you can do about it. For now, you can take a look at the following articles:
- Valerian: Natural Remedy for Anxiety and Depression Found in a Cup of Tea
- Kava: Natural Anxiety Remedies: This One Has the Most Research
- Why Signs of Anxiety in Women Differ from Men’s Anxiety Symptoms
- 6 Tips to Conquer Stress, Anxiety and Depression Symptoms
This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated.