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GABA: The Brain's Downer

By Ryan Munsey

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Gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA as it is widely known, is our body's inhibitory neurotransmitter.

That's a fancy way of saying it's the brakes for our constantly "on-the-go" minds.

It's role is to counter the excitatory compounds in our brain, helping us unwind, relax, and feel at ease.

Now more than ever, this is a molecule vital to the healthy function of our brains.

Wait, what are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring chemicals in our brain that transmit communications from one nerve cell to another across neural synapses.

That process looks like this:

Each neurotransmitter has it's own role and characteristics.

We'll focus on 4 major neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and acetylcholine.

  • Dopamine = motivation, confidence, mental drive
  • Serotonin = mood, fear, and anxiety
  • GABA = calm, relaxation, and sleep
  • Acetylcholine = mental processing speed, connecting ideas, creativity

For a more in depth look at dopamine and serotonin click the links.

GABA's Role In The Brain

As an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, GABA acts to slow down signals between neurons, making neurons less electrically excitable.

This is especially important at the end of the day when we want to quiet our minds, relax, unwind, and get restful sleep.

It's also one of the reasons so many people use alcohol to "relax and unwind" - alcohol is a GABA agonist, meaning it artificially mimics the role of this neurotransmitter.

Anyone who has experienced the social ease that follows 1-2 alcoholic beverages can attest to GABA's ability to lower social anxiety.

Studies also show that GABA plays a role in neuronal stem cell differentiation, possibly giving it an important role in adult brain plasticity. [1]

In contrast, glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and thus causes neurons to become more electrically excitable.

Proper glutamate levels are important for attention, coordination and normal brain function. Excess glutamate, and thus excess excitability can result in anxiety and agitation, and at extreme levels, excitotoxicity, a form of brain damage, and epilepsy. [2]

Ditch The Drink - Seek Sustainable Relaxation

While alcohol may have a an immediate impact on GABA receptors and therefore mood, it's not a healthy, long-term solution for balancing the brain.

Our suggestion is to look for lifestyle practices and habits that help promote relaxation. This can be accomplished with yoga, meditation, running, hiking, gardening, reading, breath work, floating, neurofeedback, just to name a few.

You can also supplement with GABA to support healthy neurotransmitter function.

See Abelard Lindsey's GABA White Paper here for a more in-depth look at the biosynthesis of this neurotransmitter.

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