GABA – What is it? The brain connection.

gaba brain image

GABA may stand for gamma-aminobutyric acid but your brain recognizes it as calm. That’s because it’s the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for controlling fear or anxiety when neurons get overexcited. Brain cells (aka neurons) “talk” to each other via neurotransmitters that are released from one neuron to the next across a small gap called a synapse. When crossing a synapse, the neurotransmitter is like a messenger that must be accepted at a special site of recognition called a receptor. Each neurotransmitter has its own type of receptor and it is through the receptor that neurons can receive the message to increase or decrease activity. GABA receptors are likely the most common in the human nervous system, present in up to 40 percent of the synapses in the brain.

As a major inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA’s natural function is to reduce the activity of neurons that receive it, acting as something of a downer. In this sense, it maintains balance between the mind and body states of over-excitation. Biochemists have identified how inhibitory neurotransmitters “turn off” the brain reactions that cause production of excitatory neurotransmitters like epinephrine (adrenaline). That’s good news if you’re always feeling keyed up due to too much stress-induced adrenaline.

In addition to acting like natural anti  anxiety medication, GABA is a multi-tasker contributing to motor control, vision, and many other cortical functions. Without GABA, your muscles would be chronically tense, your mind would never stop racing and your ability to coordinate movement would be severely impaired.

GABA is a unique chemical messenger because it acts as both amino acid building block for protein and a potent mood enhancer. There’s some evidence that body builders can enhance their results by supplementing with GABA as an amino acid. In terms of mood, when you have high levels of GABA, you’re relaxed and stress-free but, if there’s a deficiency in GABA your mood will likely be anxious, stressed and wired. Too much stress can deplete your body’s GABA stores so it’s important to always replenish.

When taken as a supplement, GABA can help keep us calm in stressful situations by restoring normal brain chemistry. Supplementation should only be started under the guidance of an alternative health practitioner who specializes in therapeutic doses of natural compounds. Response to GABA supplementation is highly individualized with some people having a stronger reaction than others. It’s important to start with the lowest dose when starting GABA therapy. Certain foods like almonds and bananas can also increase production of GABA.

References: – accessed 20 September 2010
Mood Cure by  Julia Ross. Penguin Books, 2002. Chapter 5, pages 89-91

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