If you suffer from anxiety, depression or certain another mental disorders, then you must have seen the word GABA pop up frequently while researching about your condition.
GABA, short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. It slows down neuron activity, reduces excitability and anxiety, and promotes relaxation and calmness.
A GABAergic substance is one that interacts with GABA receptors; by either stimulating GABA activity (agonist) or inhibiting GABA activity (antagonist).
Many anxiolytic, sedative and antidepressant drugs are GABA receptor agonists or modulators that work by increasing the activity or concentration of GABA in the brain.
GABA-boosting drugs, such as the infamous benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, etc.), are quite effective against anxiety and other disorders, however, they come with many disadvantages; most notably their side effects, high addiction and abuse potential, and high cost.
5 GABA-Boosting Herbs
As an alternative to the harsh GABA-based drugs, many natural substances and herbs have been found to positively affect GABA levels and activity in the brain.
While natural alternatives aren’t as potent and fast-acting as prescription drugs, they are a much safer and cheaper option, and a better long-term approach to dealing with anxiety, insomnia, and other related problems.
The following are five science-backed herbal remedies that have been found to increase GABA activity in the brain in a mild and safe manner.
1. Magnolia Bark
The bark of the magnolia officinalis plant has several uses in traditional Chinese medicine. It is commonly used to combat anxiety, stress and depression.
Magnolia bark contains two bioactive compounds called magnolol and honokiol, which studies have found to act as positive allosteric modulators of GABA(A) receptors.
The extracts of magnolia bark (magnolol and honokiol) increase GABA activity in the brain resulting in a sedative and anxiolytic effect.
2. Lemon Balm
Lemon balm (melissa officinalis) is a small herb that belongs to the mint family. It has different uses in traditional medicine, most commonly, it is used to treat insomnia, anxiety and stress.
Early research suggests that some compounds found in lemon balm leaves (rosmarinic acid, oleanolic acid and ursolic acid) act as modulators of GABA receptors and increase GABA levels in the brain.
Lemon balm is also used as a cognitive enhancer to improve memory and other cognitive skills, however, there isn’t enough evidence to support these claims.
3. Green Tea (L-Theanine)
Green tea is often praised for its calming properties, brain protecting and enhancing effects, and many other health benefits.
Although it contains the stimulant compound caffeine, green tea does not cause agitation, restlessness and anxiety like coffee and other caffeinated drinks do; on the contrary, it promotes tranquility and relaxation.
The main ingredient in green tea that seems to give it its potent anti-anxiety effect is the amino acid L-theanine.
There is some evidence that L-theanine boosts the levels of GABA and other neurotransmitters (serotonin and dopamine) in the brain.
One study found that a combination of L-theanine and GABA worked synergistically to improve sleep quality.
L-theanine is available as a dietary supplement on its own, but a cup or more of freshly brewed green tea everyday provides additional health benefits.
4. Valerian Root
The root of the valerian plant (valeriana officinalis) is a popular over-the-counter sleep aid and anxiety reliever as it possesses natural sedative and calming effects.
Extracts of valerian root contain several bioactive compounds, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), but this GABA does not cross the blood-brain barrier and thus has a limited (if any) effect on GABA activity in the brain.
However, another component of the plant, namely valerenic acid, has been found to modulate GABA(A) receptors in the brain contributing to the anxiolytic activity of this herb.
Ashwagandha (withania somnifera) is one of the most highly regarded medicinal herbs in traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda). Also known as Indian ginseng, this herb is believed to have manifold health benefits, some of which are backed by promising studies.
Herbalists classify ashwagandha as an adaptogen: a substance that assists the body to adapt to stress and enhances physical and mental functions under stressful situations.
In clinical trials, ashwagandha demonstrated potential anxiolytic and antidepressant effects. Some researchers suggested that GABAergic modulation is involved in the sedative action of ashwagandha.