What is GABA?
All mammals are multicellular organisms which means they are made up of many individual tiny cells. In the human body many of these individual cells come together to form different organs of the body, from the simple red blood cell to liver and ultimately to the brain. Each individual cell is made up of proteins that form the structures that form each single cell. These proteins are themselves made up of many different amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of our cells and hence us. You should think of amino acids as LEGO pieces that can be built to lead multiple different proteins which themselves can be attached together to produce much bigger structures called cells, and they attach to form organs and eventually a human being or other animals.
There are some amino acids that are used by cells only for the purposes of communication between each other and not to build structures. One of those amino acids that is gaining recognition is gamma amino butyric acid or better known as GABA.
GABA is a naturally occurring non-protein amino acid made from glutamate, itself another amino acid derived from foods such as bone broth, soy, or meat. The process converts glutamate irreversibly to GABA by decarboxylation lead by an enzyme called conveniently decarboxylase.
What Does GABA Do for Your Health?
So far, we have learned that GABA is an amino acid, and it is used for communication in the body between cells. However, we still do not know why we should take it and how does it help our bodies? Scientists summarize that GABA’s role in the body is to reduce overall neuronal excitation in the brain and central nervous system, so your body and mind get some needed R&R.
What are the benefits of taking GABA?
GABA is believed to have the following effects on your body when taken:
- Possibly increase relaxation. *
- Possibly reduce *
- Possibly improve mood. *
- Possibly boost sleep. *
- Possibly stabilizes blood pressure. *
How can an amino acid so small cause all that, or is this a gimmick? Well, we must first understand a little about where GABA is used?
What Is GABA Used For?
In mammals which humans are one of them the entire functions of their bodies are controlled by a biological clock, or better known as circadian rhythm. The term was coined by a German Scientist in 1959 based on the Latin word “circa diem”, circa meaning ‘about’ and ‘diem’ meaning day. This biological clock is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) inside the hypothalamus part of the brain and placed right above the eyes behind your forehead. The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus is remarkable. Despite numbering only about 10,000 neurons, small in the scale of the brain, the “SCN is our principal circadian clock, directing the daily cycles of behavior and physiology that set the tempo of our lives.” Many amino acids are used in SCN for signal conduction or communication, but the majority appear to be either GABA or an offshoot of GABA.
We now believe that the circadian rhythm can provide the balance the body needs to go about its tasks. It also controls many hormones secretions that control different functions in your body. Hence SCN is a major control center that provides the timing of every aspect of our body’s cellular functions. The day and light cycle appear to be the major contributor to the function of the circadian rhythm along with another well-known hormone melatonin. Many believe that melatonin is the major contributor to the actual cycle of the circadian clock. So, what does GABA do that melatonin does not?
GABA Is the Great Fine Tuner!
Some call GABA the “brakes of the brain”. Some believe that it is the body’s most important inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it lowers the activity of neural cells in the brain and central nervous system, having the effect of moving the brain and the body into lower gear. By inhibiting neural activity, GABA facilitates sleep, reduces mental and physical stress, lowers anxiety, and creates a calmness of mood. It may even lower blood pressure by decreasing heart rate and muscle tone in the vasculature. All that is great but how does GABA do all that?
The benefits of GABA observed by the nutrition industry and the public have been overall given the term of ‘lowered excitation’ as a general term to explain GABA’s apparent health benefits. However, this fails to make any scientific explanation of GABA’s presumed benefits.
As discussed before, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) functions as the master circadian clock to organize multiple circadian biological rhythms in the body. Although almost all SCN neurons contain gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) as the major neurotransmitter for communication, the physiological roles of GABA in the SCN network are poorly understood even by the scientific community.
As an inhibitory neurotransmitter a recent study in mice may possibly have provided a breakthrough and possibly given a glimpse of GABA’s action at the cellular level. The study in mice shows that the SCN of fetal mice lacking the ability to produce GABA show burst firings associated with large activity spikes throughout 24 hours. “These findings indicate that GABA in the fetal SCN is necessary for refinement of the circadian firing rhythm and, possibly, for stabilizing the output signals, but not for circadian integration of multiple cellular oscillations.”
In layman terms it means that GABA does not change the timing of the circadian signals but lowers their intensity allowing the body and the brain to shut down, like the ‘lowered excitation’ that has been observed. The mice lacking GABA were more active and slept a lot less in comparison to their normal counterparts. This study is a strong step in understanding GABA’s suppressive activity in the brain and ultimately the body, hence allowing for rest and peace to set in.
How To Naturally Boost GABA in Your Body?
As we already discussed above one way to improve GABA levels is to intake more GABA in your diet. Foods’s rich in GABA were already discussed. However, what other options do you have to improve your GABA levels. Here is a few suggestions and the reasons why:
- L-Theanine – working mainly by way of increasing release of GABA from the receptors on nerve cells.
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) – a member of the mint family that has been used as a medicinal herb for over 2000 years, lemon balm appears to increase release of GABA from the neuronal cells.
- Magnesium– sometimes called the relaxation mineral, magnesium plays important roles in mind and body relaxation, it appears to do so by increasing the release of GABA from neuronal cells.
- Vitamin B6 – also known as Pyridoxine is a cofactor for both glutamic acid decarboxylase and GABA transaminase, both enzymes required for the synthesisand metabolism of GABA in the brain.
However, if you are still feeling that you need more GABA and you are unable to get it from your diet or other means then the best way is to use supplements to boost your levels and possibly feel better. So, what is there to know about how GABA is produced in the nutrition industry.
How is GABA Produced?
Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is as stated earlier is a non-protein amino acid widely distributed in nature. It is produced through irreversible α-decarboxylation of glutamate by enzyme glutamate decarboxylase (GAD). GABA can be found in plants, animals, and microorganisms. Foods that are rich in GABA are the following cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts other foods containing large amounts of GABA are soy beans, adzuki beans, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, buckwheat, peas, chestnuts, sweet potatoes, sprouted grains and rice-specifically brown rice.
Although researchers had produced GABA by chemical method earlier it became less acceptable as it pollutes the environment due to production of by-products and other toxic chemicals. Researchers now use a more promising microbial method to produce GABA. In the drug and food industry, demand for GABA is immense as the population is becoming more aware of the benefits of GABA. So, large scale conversion of GABA by microbial method as a more natural organic and biological method has gotten more attention. Microbial method is used today to produce a variety of vitamins and supplements for the nutrition industries’ more responsible companies. These companies are leading the way in pushing the industry in safe and responsible use of natural bacteria in production of vitamins and supplements. Using bacteria that are naturally found in nature (also see below) to help them in large scale production of GABA along with other products.
GABA And BBB!
The brain is protected against infections and other foreign attacks by a barrier that does not allow most chemicals, bacteria, or viruses to pass through, this barrier is known by the medical community as the blood-brain barrier(BBB). There is a debate in the medical community regarding GABA’s ability to penetrate across the blood-brain barrier. You can understand that the underpinning of GABA intake is that it can help the brain lower its excitation and this can only be done if it can get to the brain in the first place. A large study investigated the effects of 100 milligrams of GABA among a individuals who’d been given a stressful mental task. Scientists observed a slowing down of the brain wave activity in the group who had been given GABA vs the controls, pointing to an alleviation of mental stress. Such studies hint at GABA’s ability to overcome the blood-brain barrier and have central nervous system calming effects. Other interesting factors that point to GABA’s ability to absorb through the BBB is the unusual fact that many gut bacteria can produce GABA for the gut to absorb into the blood stream. These bacteria appear to have the specific genetic material to produce GABA from other byproducts that they absorb. However, these bacteria do not appear to use the GABA and hence the reason for their production of GABA must be a symbiotic relationship between the human host and the gut bacteria. This would indicate the bacteria have adopted this ability only to produce the GABA for the human host’s consumption, which again goes along with GABA’s ability to somehow be beneficial to the host.
What are the side effects of GABA supplements?
Some commonly reported side effects include:
- upset stomach
- muscle weakness
Overall GABA appears to be safe for consumption and may also be beneficial in many ways for your overall well being. Still research is needed to completely understand the actions and benefits of this amazing amino acid.This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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Adaptations of marine organisms as follows: Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao. (2014). Adaptations of marine organisms. Retrieved from www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/142-adaptations-of-marine-organisms
“Amino Acids.” Nutrients Review.com, 2016, https://www.nutrientsreview.com/proteins/amino-acids. Accessed 2 July 2021
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“What Does Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Do?” Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/health/gamma-aminobutyric-acid#_noHeaderPrefixedContent. Accessed 2 July 2021
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Corleone, Jill. “A List of Foods with the Highest GABA.” Live Strong, 5 August 2019, https://www.livestrong.com/article/478780-a-list-of-foods-with-the-highest-gaba/. Accessed 2 July 2021.
Sarasa, Sabna B et al. “A Brief Review on the Non-protein Amino Acid, Gamma-amino Butyric Acid (GABA): Its Production and Role in Microbes.” Current microbiology vol. 77,4 (2020): 534-544. doi:10.1007/s00284-019-01839-w
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