Let’s start by looking at the definition of GABA. As mentioned, it’s the abbreviated form of the molecule gamma-aminobutyric acid. While its name may suggest otherwise, GABA is actually a natural molecule. It is naturally present in many species of the animal kingdom. In humans, it is found abundantly in the brain. It acts as a neurotransmitter or neuromodulator.
To understand how natural GABA acts in the brain, we need to look at the mechanism of action and effects of a neurotransmitter. By definition, this is a molecule that transmits messages between neurons, though the kind of message transmitted varies depending on the neurotransmitter. There are two types: excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. GABA falls into the second category. In other words, it has an inhibitory action potential which it exerts by binding to specific receptors called GABA or GABAergic receptors.
As mentioned, GABAergic receptors have specific sites to which GABA binds, and in doing so, it transmits its ‘inhibitory message’. To understand this mechanism, a GABAergic receptor should be seen as a channel for various exchanges. Once GABA has completed its binding action, these channels change conformation, moving from a closed to an open state. Atom exchanges start to take place, resulting in the transmission of an inhibitory signal. Scientists call this process ‘transduction of the signal between a pre- and post-synaptic neuron’. They also refer to the GABAergic system.
Though this mechanism of action now seems to be well-established, it was only very recently that it was fully understood. To briefly put it in historical context, GABA was discovered in the 1950s by two scientists called Roberts and Frankel, but it was only several decades later that its role in the human brain was clearly identified. Nowadays, the GABAergic system is known to influence various situations of everyday life. In particular, it has positive effects on behaviour and emotional states such as hostility, anger and aggression.
Now we’ve looked at how GABA confers its calming, anti-stress effect, it’s interesting to explore recent findings on the subject. As mentioned, the benefits of GABA are conferred when it binds to GABAergic receptors, but the latest research shows there are actually two types: GABAA and GABAB receptors. Both are able to induce an inhibitory action potential but GABAB receptors have another specificity. Once GABA binds to these receptors, it is able to inhibit the release of excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and glutamate an excitatory one. While they seem to be polar opposites, there is a direct link between them. In fact, glutamate is actually the precursor of GABA. GABA is produced as a result of the conversion of glutamate by an enzyme called glutamate-decarboxylase, and its co-factor, a GABA derivative, vitamin B6. The link goes further since these two neurotransmitters also act together in the nervous system. One counterbalances the effects of the other, enabling the body to adapt to each new situation of daily life. Action or restraint, anger or joy, anxiety or relief … the balance between GABA and glutamate has a significant influence!
By now, you will have realised that maintaining adequate levels of GABA in the body helps promote calm and relaxation. This calming effect is all the more important given that nowadays, stress and anxiety seem to be inescapable. Everyday worries, work pressures, personal problems … stress is ever-present and should not be taken lightly. Over the long term, it can have serious consequences. It can also have negative effects in the short and medium term such as behavioural and sleep problems. It is precisely to prevent all these effects of stress that a course of GABA supplements might be of interest. In addition, it’s worth knowing that the body’s natural levels of GABA decline over the years. Suffice to say then, that supplementation is well worth considering!
Insomnia encompasses a number of sleep problems. Scientists sometimes categorise them as follows: initial insomnia - trouble falling asleep, middle insomnia – the inability to stay asleep, and terminal insomnia - waking up too early. In all cases, insomnia is often the result of stress or anxiety. As a natural anxiolytic and stress-buster, GABA can be particularly effective at calming the body before bed, preventing insomnia and restoring good quality sleep.
In addition to its positive effects on stress and anxiety, GABA is also recognised as offering benefits for cardiovascular health. Studies show that this inhibitory neurotransmitter can reduce blood pressure by inhibiting the release of certain excitatory neurotransmitters. It may therefore constitute a valuable aid to fighting cardiovascular problems such as hypertension which is a major risk factor for stroke.
Firstly, GABA can help combat the rise in blood pressure which is often seen with weight gain. Secondly, it has been shown to play a role in controlling appetite. Its action influences food intake and can thus help prevent weight gain, particularly when taken as part of a slimming programme.
GABA supplementation is by no means just for those who are stressed, anxious, insomniac, hypertensive, overweight or obese. Other benefits have been reported, primarily in sportspeople participating in weight-training or a high-intensity activity. Firstly, as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA may act as a natural muscle-relaxant, offering significant benefits for post-exercise recovery. Secondly, studies have identified a link between GABA’s action and the production of growth hormone (GH) or human growth hormone (HGH). This hormone is well-known in the sports world, particularly among weight-trainers, with studies identifying its ability to help increase muscle mass. Finally, other research has shown that it may promote pancreatic secretion of additional insulin, thus increasing glucose absorption by muscle cells. This suggests it may produce an increase in sports performance.
As mentioned, there is a definite link between the action of GABA and pancreatic secretion of additional insulin. GABA may therefore offer benefits for the management of type 1 diabetes. Referred to as ‘insulin-dependent diabetes’, this is characterised by destruction of beta cells in islets of Langerhans, the pancreatic cells that produce insulin. At the moment, type 1 diabetics have to strictly manage their blood glucose levels and inject themselves with insulin. According to a study published in the prestigious journal Cell, GABA offers promise for the development of an alternative treatment to insulin therapy. In animal models, researchers have shown that GABA may be able to regenerate insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Human studies are underway which will hopefully confirm these encouraging findings!
Natural GABA is today available in dietary supplement form such as in the product PharmaGABA®. Obtained naturally via fermentation of the beneficial bacteria Lactobacillus hilgardii, this formulation has received widespread support from the scientific community. In particular, it has been approved by an expert panel of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US agency responsible for, amongst others, the regulation of ingredients, dietary supplements and drugs. Supplementation with natural GABA has also been described in publications as a safe alternative to psychotropic drugs, with no side-effects or risk of dependency. We would qualify this slightly since, as with all health products, GABA supplements should be used with caution. It is especially important to follow the recommended dose of the chosen supplement in order to avoid taking too much which could produce undesirable effects. Professional advice should also by sought before starting supplementation by those on medication. As a precautionary measure, GABA supplements are not recommended for children or for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
The correct daily dose of GABA will vary depending on the particular dietary supplement chosen. Not all products contain the same level of active principles which is why it’s important to take care when choosing a GABA supplement. If in doubt, consult your therapist who will be able to advise you about the best supplement to take, as well as potential beneficial synergies.
This article covers many aspects of the neurotransmitter GABA so it’s perhaps useful to provide a quick recap of its main health benefits. Scientists have attributed GABA with :
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