What is the Connection Between GABA and Sleep?

Marlene Garcia

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 insufficient GABA combined with sleep disorders can lead to depression and anxiety that mirrors insomnia.
Studies show that insufficient GABA combined with sleep disorders can lead to depression and anxiety that mirrors insomnia.

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.

Medications may prevent restful sleep if they interrupt the release of GABA within the brain.
Medications may prevent restful sleep if they interrupt the release of GABA within the brain.

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.

Exercise spurs the pituitary gland to release endorphins, natural chemicals that alleviate pain and enhance mood.
Exercise spurs the pituitary gland to release endorphins, natural chemicals that alleviate pain and enhance mood.

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.

Brown rice and other whole grains can help boost the body's production of GABA.
Brown rice and other whole grains can help boost the body's production of GABA.

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.

GABA is released during the early stages of sleep, allowing the brain to shut down.
GABA is released during the early stages of sleep, allowing the brain to shut down.

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Discussion Comments

irontoenail

It's always interesting how we sort of edge towards progress in medicine. Right now we know this chemical is involved in sleep (although I doubt we know the real GABA dosage or how to calculate that) but I don't think we really know how to use it.

Because, frankly, if there was a real sleeping pill that would work in a natural way, most people would already be using it. At the moment, most of the sleeping pills on the market are effective, but have bad side effects, like suppressing REM sleep, or simply don't work that well.

One day we'll be masters of this kind of chemical stuff and you'll be able to buy GABA supplements that actually work. Until then, I'd be wary.

croydon

@umbra21 - That's being a little bit harsh on the doctors, I think. I mean, we do actually have studies that show children will respond to prescription medication for ADHD, while I don't think there are many major studies showing GABA supplements for sleep to be effective at anything.

Even if something is a natural part of a physical process, adding it into the diet won't necessarily help at all.

Personally, I think that most sleep disorders are brought on by stress and that's what should be focused.

I also think that my doctor is a highly trained professional and most likely knows much better than I do what kind of medication I or my children should be taking.

umbra21

You know one of the articles I found most interesting in the last few months was the one that showed the links between children diagnosed with ADHD and sleep disorders. Apparently a lot of kids who have trouble paying attention in school also have trouble sleeping and when the sleep issue is addressed, the other problems go away by themselves.

Of course, making sure kids don't play on their computers all night isn't very profitable for the drug companies so this hasn't exactly been encouraged by doctors.

I wonder if they were able to sell GABA supplements instead of ADHD drugs, if that would help the situation.

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