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#167: GABA: the Forgotten Neurotransmitter?

February 10, 2017
MP3

The Role of GABA

GABA is the main inhibitory transmitter in the brain — it has to do with managing rhythms and stability in the brain.

When your GABA levels get too low, you’re basically having a seizure.  Beverly Meyer, Clinical Nutritionist, has both personal and clinical experience with GABA deficiency.

The Perils of GABA Deficiency

What can you expect when your GABA levels get too low?  The list is pretty extensive: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PMS, tremors, diarrhea, constipation, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, muscle tension, epilepsy, muscle tension, and headaches, to name just a few.

Our perception of pain is also affected when our GABA levels aren’t high enough.  We become more sensitive to pain, and sense pain more acutely.

Causes of GABA Deficiency

You don’t have to have a serious medical problem to have a GABA deficiency.  Bacteria in our gut produce GABA, so any time you’re changing the bacteria composition of your gut, that can affect GABA production — for example, taking antibiotics.

There’s also a connection between GABA and GAD-65 enzymes.  Gluten antibodies can disturb the connection, so eating too many starchy carbs can cause a GABA deficiency.

Finally, a failure to manage every day stress can lead to GABA deficiency.  Our survival instinct causes us to be alert to noises and sounds around us.  But in modern life, that instinct can work against us.

Modern urban life is fast-paced, noisy, and stressful.  There’s a constant stream of pressure from the outside world that uses up our stores of GABA too quickly.

Food to Promote GABA

Meyer recommends following some form of a paleo diet.  The most important element?  Avoiding starchy carbs and gluten.  We aren’t genetically programmed to eat grass and grass seeds like wheat, oats, and corn.  These plants also tend to be highly genetically modified.

Avoiding gluten and processed sugars keeps your blood sugar stable and gluten antibodies low.  If you’re not sure if you’re consuming gluten, Cyrex Labs has probably the best gluten test in the world.  Even if you think you’re off gluten, you should take the test, as gluten can be hiding in the craziest place.  Meyer was being exposed to gluten in her horse’s feed!

Lifestyle Changes to Support GABA

The keys here are sleep, light, and stress.  We’re cyclical creatures, so we need to eat and sleep at the same time each day.

On a similar note, blue light blockers at night are critical.  Keep the majority of lights in your house off in the evening, and use yellow light bulbs or blue light blocking glasses.  We can’t produce enough melatonin necessary for proper sleep.

Finally, learning to train your brain to manage stress and anxiety will go a long way to maintaining proper levels of GABA.

Supplements to Promote GABA

Meyer recommends five herbs to promote healthy levels of GABA:  passion flower, valerian, California poppy, chamomile, and skull cap.  All help support GABA, and can be used in different situations.  For example, valerian is stronger than passion flower.  So while you might take valerian to help you fall asleep, you wouldn’t want to take it at 4 am to help you fall back asleep.

Meyer strongly recommends passion flower to support GABA levels.  She likens it to “a straight shot of GABA.”  It can even be used to help wean people off Xanax or Valium (both gluten receptor drugs).

Passion flower is generally sold in one of two forms:  capsule or tincture.  Meyer prefers the tincture form for ease of calibrating the perfect dose.

You can find both alcohol- and glycerin-based tinctures.  Although neither tastes great, the sweetness of glycerin makes it a bit more palatable.

The good news is that passion flower is incredibly safe, and there’s very little to worry about in terms of dosages or building a tolerance.

PS:  Curious about the Gizmodo article mentioned in the podcast about kissing robots?.  Here’s the link.  🙂

One comment

  1. Ela Harrison says:

    Thank you for another super-interesting podcast! “This week in neuroscience” and the main interview were especially well integrated on this one, but perhaps that’s just for my n=1 + anecdotes of people like me. I experience intense misophonia with all the sounds you mentioned and others. I also have a long history of anorexia nervosa, and I would say that a massively greater percentage of people with AN have misophonia than the average. It’s always made sense to me that this sensitivity is part of the demyelination that goes on with malnutrition. But it also seems to tie into a tendency for greater conversion of glutamine to glutamate instead of GABA, which seems to correlate with seizure-like activity (see what I mean)? What I have noticed is that misophonia, along with several other seizure-like tics, light hypersensitivity, etc., all abate significantly when I am in nutritional ketosis (I don’t get the same protection via starvation ketosis), and stimulants like caffeine used chronically make them worse.

    Dr Meyers’s thoughts on GABA were very fascinating for this as well (and I also have celiac, so the gluten-receptor aspect about some of the benzos was very fasacinating).
    But I was a little surprised and concerned that she doesn’t seem to be aware of the phenomenon whereby a small percentage of people respond paradoxically to the GABA-ergic herbs she mentioned (although she did mention a somewhat analogous response some experience with theanine). Ashwagandha is another one on that list, together with passionflower, skullcap, valerian, and California poppy (as she said, chamomile’s a bit different).. If a paradoxical responder (like me) takes these herbs, the response is anything from heightened anxiety to a surge of mania to a sudden drop in blood pressure (especially with valerian) combined with mania.
    This is obviously not what we want! And so many “calming” formulas contain one or more of these herbs!
    I’m guessing that once again there’s a problem with the GABA pathway such that we end up with glutamate instead (another reason ketosis helps so much, since it’s constantly reducing glutamate).
    Herbalists discuss this phenomenon somewhat, and evidently it’s a very small percentage of the population, but I still think it’s worth being aware of when experimenting.
    Certain mint family members like motherwort and catnip, and perhaps holy basil, seem to be better bets as nervines/calming herbs. But I still don’t fully understand how people in this boat get our GABA up. Lots more to study here…

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