1 in 6 Australian adults suffer from an anxiety disorder every year. Many more experience periods of severe stress that affect their daily functioning.
In this article, we will cover a range of natural supplements for anxiety.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brain that help transmit information across neurons. Some neurotransmitters are classified as inhibitory neurotransmitters, others are excitatory, while others are both.
Excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate and noradrenaline stimulate the brain, while inhibitory neurotransmitters calm the brain. Inhibitory neurotransmitters include serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Each of these neurotransmitters have different influences on mood, behaviour and motivation. The neurotransmitter GABA is the focus of this article as it can have profound effects on mood and sleep.
GABA is the main neurotransmitter linked to anxiety. In fact, GABA levels are targeted by pharmaceutical anti-anxiety medications called benzodiazepines. By increasing GABA, these medications have the effect of calming the brain, reducing excessive overthinking, and calming the body. Unfortunately, the problem with benzodiazepines is they can be quite addictive and people can build up a tolerance to them very quickly. This means that greater dosages are often needed overtime, and with this comes greater side effects.
Currently there is no reliable physical test to determine whether someone has a deficiency in GABA. It is simply impossible to get inside someone’s brain to measure GABA levels, so the best way to guess whether someone is low in GABA is to consider their symptoms. If you suffer from two or more of the above symptoms, low GABA levels could be a problem for you.
GABA is likely influenced by a range of biological, psychological and lifestyle factors. Genetics probably plays a part as anxiety-related disorders and insomnia runs in families. Our coping skills are also important. If you try to cope with things by analysing everything, you are more likely to stimulate excitatory neurotransmitters, rather than the inhibitory ones like GABA.
Too much or too little exercise likely influences GABA levels as does eating an unhealthy diet. Consuming artificial foods colours and ingredients and drinking too much caffeine will affect GABA levels.
Interestingly, alcohol actually increases GABA levels in the brain. This is why at moderate levels, alcohol can have a relaxing effect. While this may sound like good news for many people, chronic, excessive alcohol consumption likely negatively affects GABA function over time. So, no more than 1 to 2 standard drinks a day is recommended.
Sleep also affects GABA levels. The problem is that while low GABA adversely affects sleep (due to a racing mind), poor sleep also negatively affects GABA concentrations in the brain. An self-perpetuating cycle then develops, where one adversely affects the other.
As discussed earlier, GABA can be increased with medications and alcohol. However, these certainly are not ideal long-term solutions as they are associated with several adverse effects. Learning relaxation and meditation will likely help and engaging in pleasant activities that calm the body will also increase GABA concentrations.
Engaging in regular exercise, and eating a healthy diet, comprising natural, ‘real’ foods are also important. There are also several natural compounds that can increase GABA concentrations.
In most countries except Australia, GABA can be purchased as a supplement. While some people claim that this helps, there are no good-quality studies confirming the anti-anxiety benefits of GABA supplementation. In fact studies have confirmed that the GABA molecule is actually too large to get into the brain; it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier.
Fortunately, there are several supplements that can increase GABA concentrations in the brain. These include magnesium, taurine, theanine and glycine. The muscle relaxing effects of magnesium are well-known as research confirms that magnesium can have several physical effects in our body. While magnesium does not increase GABA directly, it seems to increase the sensitivity of GABA receptors in the brain. This means that the GABA that is already in our brain becomes more effective in inhibiting and calming brain function.
Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea and also seems to influence GABA levels. Interestingly, taking theanine with caffeine reduces the stimulating effect of caffeine, probably due to theanine’s effect on GABA. Theanine also positively influences the neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, which are both associated with mood.
Taurine and glycine are amino acids that can also influence GABA concentrations in the brain. Ironically, because taurine is found in energy drinks, many people wrongly believe that it has a stimulating effect. However, the stimulating effects of these energy drinks are primarily due to the caffeine and sugar concentrations. Taurine is actually very calming and assists relaxation and sleep through its effect in boosting GABA nerve transmission.
Glycine, which is an amino acid, is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is naturally found in our brain. Glycine can make receptors in the brain more sensitive to GABA, leading to increased relaxation. Glycine has actually been shown in several studies to have anti-anxiety effects and there are numerous studies confirming that it is effective in reducing insomnia and increasing sleep efficiency.
Glycine, magnesium and taurine are all found together in some nutritional supplements on the market as is the amino acid, theanine.
Even though it is possible to obtain theanine from drinking green tea, you need to drink a lot of it to have an immediate effect on GABA levels. Some theanine supplements actually contain the equivalent theanine content of 8 cups of green tea in 2 capsules!