“Tens of millions of symptom-specific prescriptions are written, but only a few address the GABA deficiency causing them.” – Dr. Eric Braverman
I believe that Dr. Braverman is correct in that GABA deficiencies are often overlooked in psychiatry and that millions of people may be missing out on more GABA targeted therapies.
What is GABA?
GABA (Gamma-aminobutyic acid) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the brain and body. Why is it that medicine often fails at addressing this problem?
I can remember, in my early twenties, when I sought out counseling for anxiety and was put on a serotonin based antidepressant (SSRI). Neither counseling nor the SSRI treatments helped. I can remember asking my psychologist if there were any drugs out there that more specifically treat anxiety. It turns out that drugs that directly increase GABA are more effective in treating anxiety symptoms, but most doctors are hesitant to prescribe GABA based drugs due to their known side effects. As a result, SSRIs are often perscribed as the side effects are generally less severe than the GABA based drugs.
The doctors I have talked to over the years often prescribe SSRIs to help put the brakes on the brain for those who are overly amped up. Essentially, serotonin and GABA are the brakes and Acetylcholine and Dopamine are the gas. When it comes to anxiety issues, I think SSRIs are analogous to using the emergency brake on your car to slow down the vehicle as opposed to applying the real brakes.
There are bodies of research showing that SSRIs have positive effects on GABA levels that are noteworthy (1,2). I would guess that some psychiatrists may prescribe SSRIs for those who are non-responsive to GABA drug based treatments. I’ve also read that SSRIs can be helpful for those withdrawing from GABA based drugs. I’m not a psychiatrist nor do I pretend to be. I’ve just seen so many people with anxiety based issues taking SSRIs that are not getting better.
If you have anxiety and are not responding do SSRIs, you may want to consider increasing your GABA levels. Of course, you’ll want to consult your doctor before making any changes.
How do you increase GABA levels safely and effectively without medical drugs? There are several things you can do:-
1. Eat foods containing higher levels of glutamic acid
The world’s leading brain expert Dr.Eric Braverman has identified a list of foods higher in glutamic acid which can help form GABA in the brain (3).
Glutamic Acid/Glutamate (Forms Glutamine) MGS. Per 6-8 OZ. Serving
Almonds, tree nuts (10.3 g.)
Banana (220 mg.)
Beef liver (6.5 g.)
Broccoli (740 mg.)
Brown Rice (940 mg.)
Halibut (7.9 g.)
Lentils (2.8 g.)
Oats, whole grain (7.4 g)
Oranges, citrus fruits (210 mg.)
Potato (830 mg.)
Rice Bran (3.7 g)
Spinach (680 mg.)
Walnuts, tree nuts (5.4 g.)
Whole Wheat, whole grain (8.6 g.)
2. Exercise a minimum of 4 times per week
Exercise helps restore levels of all neurotransmitters. On a relevant side note, the euphoric feeling some people get when exercising (more so with aerobic conditioning) has been attributed to endorphins, but there is no research to prove endorphins are responsible for this. More than likely, the rush of serotonin is responsible for the uplifting mood during exercise (3).
There has been a couple of small studies indicating that yoga helps increase GABA (4), but I would bet you could get a similar effect anytime you increase exercise levels of any kind.
3. Boost your Vitamin B-6 intake (or take a B-Complex)
Vitamin B6, if deficient, may impair the production of GABA as it is a cofactor nutrient. For a better understanding of cofactor nutrients read this article. Since overt vitamin deficiencies are rare, we use urine organic acids testing (UOA) to determine if there are any functional deficiencies. So far in the UOA testing at our clinic, we have yet to find anyone who is not deficient in the B-complex vitamins.
4. Get a comprehensive urine organic acids test
I cannot speak highly enough on how much this test has helped our patients and clients. If you can determine functional deficiencies via (UOA) and reverse them, you will likely help all of your neurotransmitters and help optimize brain function.
5. Use calming nutrients to help improve sleep quality
Getting quality sleep can help ensure all neurotransmitters and hormones are balanced and sufficient (6). My top 2 supplements for increasing sleep quality are:
Magnesium-l- Threonate (As Neuromag): This is the only form of magnesium that has the ability to raise magnesium levels within the brain. To read more on the details of magnesium threonate, read this.
Insomnitol is great for those who need more of a target approach to sleep. It contains valerian root, lemon balm, passion flower, chamomile, l-theanine, 5HTP and melatonin.
6. Possible GABA benefit from short term Magnolia Bark use (Magnolia officinalis)
Magnolia bark is an herb that has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries and has been shown to increase GABA levels in mice (7). Relora (a proprietary blend of patented extracts from magnolia and phellodendron) has been shown in some small studies to help with relaxation and emotional well-being (8). I remain hopeful that the relaxation response results from these studies could be a reflection of increases in GABA, but for right now claims cannot be made. Magnolia bark may be worth a try as a part of an overall anxiety reduction program, but probably should not be used as a first line of defense.
7. Possible GABA benefit from inositol
Inositol has been used in psychiatry to help treat of anxiety and depression. Inositol is part of a messenger system that can help improve GABA and serotonin levels (9).
Fear and anxiety is good for us; it protects us from danger, keeps us sharp and makes us learn how to avoid unpleasant situations. However, when anxiety levels start to impair our function, it is important to know how to reduce them. If you think you may be having minor situational anxiety troubles, I suggest trying the strategies 1,2,3,4,6 and 8 listed above. For strategies 5 and 7 (UOA testing and for herbal formulas) you should contact your doctor.
- Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2011 Jun;14(5):573-84. doi: 10.1017/S1461145710001471. Epub 2010 Dec 16. SSRI augmentation of antipsychotic alters expression of GABA(A) receptor and related genes in PMC of schizophrenia patients.
- Zubin Bhagwagar, M.D., M.R.C.Psych.; Marzena Wylezinska, Ph.D.; Matthew Taylor, M.A.; Peter Jezzard, Ph.D.; Paul M. Matthews, D.Phil., F.R.C.P.; Philip J. Cowen, M.D., F.R.C.Psych. Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:368-370. 10.1176/appi.ajp.161.2.368 Increased Brain GABA Concentrations Following Acute Administration of a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor.
- The Edge Effect: Achieve Total Health and Longevity with the Balanced Brain Advantage, Dr. Eric Braverman, M.D.
- WebMD: Runner High: Is It for Real?
- Medscape: The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism
- Neuropharmacology. 2012 Nov;63(6):1191-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2012.06.031. Epub 2012 Jul 4. Magnolol, a major bioactive constituent of the bark of Magnolia officinalis, induces sleep via the benzodiazepine site of GABA(A) receptor in mice.
- Nutr J. 2008 Apr 21;7:11. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-7-11. Effect of a proprietary Magnolia and Phellodendron extract on stress levels in healthy women: a pilot, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.
- Biological Psychiatry Volume 57, Issue 12, 15 June 2005, Pages 1526–1534