GABA: A Treatment for Depression or Just More Hype?

Depression, autism, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, insomnia, epilepsy. Ongoing studies over many years give tantalizing hints that all of these conditions have a common denominator, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short. GABA’s main job in the brain is to regulate neural activity by sending out chemical signals to the neurons in the central nervous system. In essence, GABA inhibits the neurons in your brain, preventing them from becoming overstimulated, telling them to slow down, cool it, take a chill pill. If that sounds a little like having a couple glasses of wine after work, that’s because it is. Alcohol actually mimics GABA’s effects on the brain.

A quick medical science lesson: The brain and spinal cord are made up of nerve cells called neurons. If your body is the house, the neurons are the wiring. When your brain tells your hand to grab something, it sends an electrical impulse through the neurons to the hand. As the electric impulse passes through one neuron, it jumps to the next one by way of a chemical messenger called a neurotransmitter. These neurotransmitters hang out at the end of the neuron, where the electrical impulse triggers them to leap to the next neuron, where they trigger yet another impulse, and on and on until your hand gets the message to grab. A neurotransmitter called glutamate is the brain’s primary drill sergeant, firing off neurons at a rapid rate. GABA is another neurotransmitter, except that its job is not to get the next neuron to fire an electrical impulse. Its job is to tell it not to fire one. It keeps glutamate in line.

Without enough GABA to keep the neuron party in check, neurons fire too frequently. The result is overstimulation and excitability (to continue the metaphor, a drunken bacchanalia). Have you ever had too much coffee? Your hands shake, you feel anxious and panicky. What you are experiencing is a low-GABA condition. Caffeine is a GABA inhibitor, and without enough GABA slowing up the neuron activity, the nerves are firing on all cylinders.

Given this description of the effects of low-GABA, it is easy to see how GABA has been linked to conditions like insomnia, anxiety, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and other mental and emotional diseases. An overstimulated nervous system would seem the perfect explanation for the inability to sleep, or feelings of anxiety. An autistic child’s repetitive motions or need to shut out the outside world, an epileptic seizure, or a schizophrenic hallucination all can be attributed to an overstimulated brain. Even the irritability caused by PMS might be explained. And indeed, studies have shown that patients suffering from these conditions often do have low levels of GABA in their systems.

So, if we take GABA orally, will it help or even cure these conditions? So far, no. GABA supplements are readily found in your local health food store, and the labels claim the supplements will provide “positive mood support.” Don’t buy it. There is something called the blood-brain barrier. This barrier protects the brain by blocking the various drugs and chemicals we ingest from passing from the circulatory system into the brain. Think of it as a computer firewall. Many studies have shown that GABA, when taken as a pill or powder cannot penetrate the brain’s firewall. Although there is much anecdotal testimony that supports GABA supplements being effective, no scientific study has supported that testimony. More likely, any positive effects from orally taking GABA are the result of the placebo effect.

The effects of low-GABA are still not fully scientifically understood, and it is not a slam-dunk that low-GABA is the cause of the various conditions it is associated with. The mantra “correlation is not causation” would apply here. It is definitely possible that, for instance, depression causes low-GABA rather than low-GABA causing depression. Nevertheless, the correlation does offer clues that researchers can pursue in their search for treatments, and a large number of firms are targeting GABA as the way forward. “The centrality of the role of GABA has long been known, so it’s been an attractive target,” Sharon Rosenzweig-Lipson, vice president of research and development at Baltimore-based AgeneBio, one of these firms, told the medical journal Stat.

While taking GABA directly does not appear to be worthwhile, there are ways to help boost your body’s built-in ability to produce GABA. Many of our antidepressants and tranquillizers work by helping the body produce more GABA. On the “natural” side, magnesium seems to enhance GABA production. So do herbs like lemon balm valerian, and passionflower, as does the amino acid taurine, kava root, vitamin B6, and L-theanine. Or take up yoga. Clinical studies have shown that yoga will increase your GABA level. Regular yoga practitioners have shown a consistently higher level of GABA in their brains, by as much as 27%.

While many of these natural remedies come with relatively few if any side-effects (or in the case of yoga, many positive attributes), you should never attempt to treat serious conditions alone. Make sure you partner with your doctor and devise a program that has the best chance of success.


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