Neurotransmitters are messenger substances that transmit information in the brain. Each of these messengers has a specific task and different effects on the organism. One of the most important calming neurotransmitters is GABA. It is produced in the brain and in the pancreas and ensures mental relaxation, among other things. In the case of a lack of GABA, various complaints occur which can considerably restrict the well-being and quality of life. It is possible to support the body's own production of GABA by consuming appropriate foods and/or resorting to dietary supplement products.
Table of Contents
- What is GABA?
- How does gamma-aminobutyric acid work?
- Other functions of gamma-aminobutyric acid
- What problems can a GABA deficiency cause?
- Interesting facts about GABA
- Is it possible to measure the GABA level?
- Increasing the GABA level
What is GABA?
GABA is the abbreviation of the English term "Gamma-Aminobutric Acid", in German: Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (short: γ-Aminobutyric Acid). The neurotransmitter belongs to the so-called non-proteinogenic amino acids and was already discovered in plants at the end of the 19th century. It took until 1950 for scientists to detect the substance in mammals as well. Up to 50% of the synapses of mammals (including humans) contain a GABA receptor to which the neurotransmitter can dock. However, how important γ-aminobutyric acid actually is for the body and psyche only became apparent in the years to come.
How does gamma-aminobutyric acid work?
This neurotransmitter has a whole range of functions. Above all, it is known for its inhibitory effect. This means that its function is to prevent overstimulation of the brain. This is why the neurotransmitter is sometimes called a natural relaxation or anti-stress agent. It exerts its inhibitory effect by docking onto a corresponding receptor. A receptor is a sensory cell that is constructed in such a way that only certain messenger substances can bind to it. It functions according to the so-called lock and key principle, whereby the receptor is the lock and the messenger substance is the key. This means that GABA cannot dock to just any receptor, but only to a GABA receptor. By binding to the receptor, the neurotransmitter exerts its effect - in the case of GABA, a calming effect. Incidentally, alcohol can also bind to the GABA receptor, which is why alcohol tends to have a sedative effect.
Other functions of gamma-aminobutyric acid
GABA also plays a part in other bodily functions such as the regulation of sleep and pain and the ability to concentrate and emotional stability. γ-Aminobutyric acid also appears to be involved in respiratory and digestive function, motor function and cognitive function.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid is formed from glutamate. These neurotransmitters have opposing effects: While GABA has a calming effect, glutamate increases the excitation of neurons. In a healthy, functioning system, both substances are in balance and react reciprocally to maintain this balance. This means that when glutamate activity increases - for example, because there is inflammation in the body - GABA activity is also increased. Then you feel balanced, in control, have neither sleep nor concentration problems and can cope well with the challenges of everyday life. However, when balance is not restored and GABA levels are too low, certain symptoms occur.
What problems can a GABA deficiency cause?
Too little γ-aminobutyric acid can mess up the electrical impulses in the brain. In the worst cases, seizures can occur. In the case of a deficiency, the effect of the neurotransmitter is weakened. Since it mainly has a calming effect, the brain is constantly in an excited state in the case of a deficiency. This can manifest itself in various symptoms, such as:
inner restlessness and nervousness
mood swings and irritability
increased (sometimes cold) sweating, especially on the hands
anxiety and panic attacks
Various studies also suggest that certain diseases may be related to a GABA deficiency. Huntington's disease and schizophrenia are the most discussed. However, there also seem to be connections to ADHD, anxiety disorders and stress.
Interesting facts about GABA
GABA and stress
Swiss scientists have demonstrated a link between GABA levels in the brain and acute stress. In their study, they measured the GABA concentration of their subjects in the prefrontal cortex - once in a neutral state and once in an acute stress situation. It was found that the neurotransmitter concentration was significantly lower under stress than in the neutral state, but the exact correlations and underlying mechanisms of this finding has not yet been definitively explored.
GABA and ADHD
Gamma-aminobutyric acid also appears to be associated with Attentionconcentration and impulsivity and impulsivity. For example, one study found lower levels of GABA in the brain of children with ADHD than children without ADHD. Another study observed something similar in adolescents: Here, particularly impulsive adolescents also had a lower GABA concentration in the brain than less impulsive peers.
GABA and anxiety disorders
Because of their calming effects, GABA-like compounds are considered anxiety relievers. Conversely, too low a level of GABA can lead to anxiety disorders. These can possibly be attenuated by increasing the level. At the very least, a study of patients with a fear of heights showed less tension in a fear-inducing situation after gamma-aminobutyric acid was administered.
Can the GABA level be measured?
GABA levels in the brain can be measured using magnetic resonance spectrography. This imaging method makes it possible to record metabolic processes in the brain. However, the method is very complex and expensive and is therefore rarely used.
Increasing the GABA level
As an active ingredient in drugs
There are drugs that contain active substances that are structured like gamma-aminobutyric acid. These so-called GABA derivatives or analogues can cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore have a similar effect there as GABA. Examples of such derivatives are
Drugs with these active ingredients are mainly used to treat epilepsy, narcolepsy, anxiety disorders, psychosomatic disorders and sleep disorders. Some of these drugs require a prescription.
Occurrence in food
In order for the body to produce GABA, which then docks with the appropriate receptor, it needs certain substances. If you want to increase neurotransmitter levels without medication, you should consume foods that contain these substances. These include whole grains and brown rice, citrus fruits and bananas, nuts, fish (halibut) and certain vegetables (broccoli, lentils, spinach).
Alternative: food supplements
As an alternative to medication, there are dietary supplements that can increase neurotransmitter levels. The individual products differ mainly in the form in which they are used, as they are available as tablets, (gel) capsules, sticks or in powder form - sometimes also as a tea for dietary supplementation.
Important: Food supplements do not replace medically prescribed drugs! As the name suggests, they serve as nutritional supplements and can help to alleviate symptoms. The form and dosage of food supplements depends on various factors. For example, the type, duration and extent of the complaints as well as personal preferences regarding the dosage form of the dietary supplement are important. If you suffer from chronic illnesses, it makes sense to talk to your doctor before taking nutritional supplements. This will tell you which supplement is best for you.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an important neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of many bodily functions by binding to a GABA receptor. A deficiency can cause a variety of symptoms. To increase GABA levels and strengthen receptor binding, various pharmacological agents are available, as well as certain foods and dietary supplement products.