While it may be hard to believe the holiday season is upon us. In addition, we have less than two months left of 2015. When you stop and think about all the things that need to be done to make your holidays perfect, for yourself and those around you, it can become a little overwhelming. If we begin to dwell on these things too long, we may find ourselves in the middle of a panic attack. True, not everyone has to deal with panic attacks, but we all find ourselves with at least some amount of stress during this time of year. Stress can cause us to become anxious, restless, and tense. However, the solution to this oh-too-familiar problem can be found in an amino acid that is created within the body; GABA.

GABA, also known as Gama-aminobutyric acid, is an amino acid that acts as the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain and helps regulate brain activity. This particular amino acid is different from the others in the sense that it slows down neuron firing. Others such as adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin stimulate neuron firing. This means that GABA works as a natural calming agent, relaxing us and helping the body to create the “feel good hormones”, better known as endorphins.

When we are stressed, GABA is the component that helps “turn off” of the stress response and begin to calm down. The stress response begins with the brain releasing a hormone which signals the pituitary gland to alert the adrenal glands to begin producing the stress hormones. These hormones lead to an increase in heart rate, reflexes, and put the body in a “fight or flight” mode. When we have enough GABA we can begin to relax and the body can go back to its normal rhythm.

In addition to counteracting anxiety, GABA is also believed to help combat chronic pain. The reason for chronic pain in certain diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, is that the GABA produced within the body is deemed powerless. According to an article published in ScienceDaily in 20081, GABA can actually inhibit the transmission of pain impulses.

While the amino acid is created in the body, it is possible to suffer from a GABA deficiency. If you have low levels of GABA, you begin to experience anxiety, panic attacks, irritability (especially when stressed), a sense of being overwhelmed, and insomnia. There is also speculation that low GABA levels may play a role in ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)2 and epilepsy. These low levels can result from various factors including too much stress (a very common problem we all face around the holidays), lack of protein, consuming too much sugar/starch, and low progesterone levels.

So if you find yourself experiencing any of the above stated symptoms, you may want to consider GABA deficiency as a possible diagnosis (don’t be afraid to bring it up to your doctor at your next visit).

In the meantime you should find out ways to lessen the stress that surrounds you and raise your GABA levels when experiencing panic attacks and other stress-related symptoms.

One important thing to do is increase your protein. In order for the body to make GABA it needs the amino acid known as glutamine. Glutamine is found in protein-rich foods. The foods that tend to have the highest glutamine content include,

  • Fish
  • Meat (beef, chicken, turkey, and pork)
  • Beans
  • Milk
  • Spinach
  • Cabbage

In addition to glutamine, there are other vitamins and minerals that are vital in the production of GABA. Vitamin B6 is necessary for GABA synthesis and for this reason you should consider taking a vitamin B supplement or incorporating more vitamin B-rich foods in your diet. This would include foods such as meat/fish, various vegetables, nuts/seeds, and beans.

Magnesium also plays a vital role in GABA activity. Magnesium enhances GABA sensitivity on nerve receptors. Again, you may be able to get the recommended daily amount of this mineral from the foods you eat like dark-leafy greens, meat, nuts, bananas, and dark chocolate (yum!).

Stress has become a part of our everyday lives and even more so around the holidays. While it may be easier said than done, it is important to try to avoid stressful situations. However, if you find that you just can’t do that, consider your GABA levels. It may be time to just sit back and chill.

1. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. “A Step Forward In Targeted Pain Therapy.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 January 2008. http://sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080121120828.htm

2. http://www.progressivehealth.com/adhd-gaba.htm

3. http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/gaba-uses-and-risks