GABA, which is gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a chemical in the brain that counteracts another chemical that keeps the brain alert. GABA and sleep are connected because when neurotransmitters in the brain do not release the chemical, the body cannot relax and stays in a state of excitation. GABA controls the level of glutamate secreted in the brain, which is the chemical that generates brain activity.
Studies show that an insufficient release of GABA together with sleep disorders might lead to depression, anxiety and mood disorders that mirror the symptoms of those who suffer from chronic insomnia. GABA and sleep deficiencies may affect concentration, cause fatigue and result in a decline in work performance. This condition affects the quality and duration of natural sleep cycles that recharge the human body.
During normal sleep, the brain goes through five or six cycles that last about 100 minutes each. The early stages of sleep begin when GABA is released, allowing the brain to shut down, and preparing the muscles for relaxation. When GABA and sleep problems crop up, subsequent stages of sleep are not restful. In the delta, or deep sleep stage, muscles are paralyzed while the heart slows down, making this the most beneficial part of the cycle. This is the stage of sleep wherein dreaming takes place.
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that affects millions of people. Those with chronic insomnia typically suffer from the condition for more than a month. They may be unable to turn off the brain to allow the body to relax and enter deep sleep. Healthy sleep includes about five sessions of delta sleep each night. GABA and sleep deficits disrupt the brain’s ability to enter into this phase one or more times each night.
Supplements that induce the release of GABA and subsequently sleep are often called natural sedatives or tranquilizers. They may produce endorphins in the brain and prevent the mind from becoming overly stimulated. Endorphins are chemicals that give people a sense of well-being and are stimulated during pleasurable activities and from exercise.
Some foods can also boost the levels of GABA in the body. Oats, whole grains and brown rice contain the amino acid that regulates relaxation. Other foods that may help produce GABA and sleep include lentils, broccoli, beef liver and citrus fruits. Some people find that changing their diet is sufficient to attain relaxation, while others find supplements helpful.