Last Updated on July 26, 2022 by Valarie Ward
Pleasure Chemicals Series
Are you feeling stressed, agitated, depressed, fatigued, or having changes in your attitude? Are these changes making it difficult for you to manage your everyday responsibilities? It could be the fault of one of the pleasure chemicals in your brain–chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, or–today’s focus–gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). The lack of one or more of these chemicals has been associated with depression, anxiety, and problems with executive function.
We’ve been looking at all of these chemicals in our Pleasure Chemicals series to see how they impact your brain and what you can do to get more of them. However, as with all other entries in this series, keep in mind that we still do not have a clear scientific understanding of things like hormones and neurotransmitters and how they impact the body. We can only base this article on the limited scientific information we have available.
GABA: The calming chemical
Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter. A neurotransmitter is a chemical in your body that typically travels a very short distance in order to get its message across. This differs from hormones, which typically travel a much longer distance to get their messages across.
However, as a neurotransmitter, GABA is a bit unique; rather than sending messages, GABA actually inhibits certain messages that might otherwise cause anxiety, stress, or fear. It is therefore called an inhibitory neurotransmitter–in fact, it’s the most common inhibitory transmitter in the body! Because GABA inhibits responses that come from stress or anxiety, it is known for its ability to induce calm.
As you might imagine, a lack of GABA (and therefore an increase in stress and anxiety responses) can cause a number of mental health conditions, most notably depression and anxiety. There may also be a relationship between GABA and the impulsivity and/or aggression sometimes present in conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD). Furthermore, people with bipolar disorder may have an imbalance of GABA. It’s also possible that GABA has a relationship with high blood pressure, insomnia, and/or diabetes, but more research is needed.
Getting More GABA
Let’s cover one more definition before we talk about how you can get more GABA in your system: the blood-brain barrier. Our cells have a lining which makes it so that chemicals and nutrients that might enter our bloodstream and organs cannot directly pass into our brain. You may have heard that most of the serotonin in our bodies is created in the gut; however, this does not mean that certain foods can increase our serotonin levels, as serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. We need more research to determine whether GABA can cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore be consumed through certain foods or supplements.
That said, here are some other ways you can get GABA into your system to induce a little more calm.
- Medication. Certain medications like benzodiazepines and sedatives can increase levels of GABA, leading to a state of calm. However, these are incredibly dangerous drugs and should only ever be taken under counsel from your doctor.
- Sleep. GABA and sleepiness have a fairly strong relationship. It turns out GABA is one of the chemicals that helps maintain your circadian rhythm–and treatment with GABA may help sleep disorders including insomnia. (This is also why benzodiazepines and sedatives both list drowsiness as a primary side effect!)
- Exercise. Exercise has been shown to increase the level of GABA present in your brain and blood. This may also be why getting enough exercise during the day is said to help you sleep better at night.
- Yoga. Your exercise doesn’t have to be all about cardio and calories! Even simple yoga exercises have been shown to increase GABA and give you the calm sensations we all need in 2022.
- Meditation. Yoga’s calming effects come in part because of its meditative properties–but if you’re not feeling like getting off the couch, you can still get an increase in GABA from meditation alone.
- Sunlight. Current research suggests a likely relationship between Vitamin D–most commonly found in sunlight–and GABA. While more tests are needed to confirm this link, there’s little harm in getting a little more sunshine in your day if you can (so long as you wear sunscreen)!
- Massage. Have you ever had a massage that made you feel like not only that massaged body part felt better, but your whole body felt a little calmer and lighter? That wasn’t just in your head–massages can stimulate the release of GABA!
We could all use a little more calm in our lives. Luckily GABA, the main neurotransmitter responsible for those feelings of calm, is relatively easy to find in your day-to-day life. Exercising or doing a meditative practice like meditation or yoga can increase the GABA you need to help you sleep better at night. These practices might be even more effective if you do them in the sunlight. And if you’re feeling a little sore after your exercise session, ask someone close to you to massage your sore muscles!
If lifestyle changes aren’t enough and your feelings of stress or anxiety are still out of control, talk to your doctor. They may recommend talk therapy and/or medication to help calm you down and gain better control over your life. There are many supplements that claim to help with GABA, but use them with caution and only under the supervision of your doctor; they may not even be able to pass the blood-brain barrier in order to give you the calm you need.