How GABA Naturally Aids Sleep
When doctors talk about the brain, they talk about all sorts of things that often baffle most of us. They talk about neurons and neurotransmitters and dendrites. They talk about receptors, axons, synapses, hemispheres and lobes. They tell us that neurotransmitters are really communicating chemicals that zoom signals from a ‘target cell’ across a synapse—the ultimate wireless connection!
In the world of the brain, these brainy doctors tell us that we have neurotransmitters in our brains. Now, our brain weighs in at about three pounds, and is estimated to have about 100 billion cells. This miracle of nature contains chemicals released by neurons that stimulate other neurons, and make communication possible in our brains that connect with our nervous systems. You many have heard of some of these chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin. These amazing neurotransmitters can become excited or they can become inhibited. Excitation in the brain must be balanced with inhibition. Too much excitation can lead to restlessness, irritability, insomnia, and even seizures.
But when you can’t get to sleep, the last thing you want to think about is the excitations or the inhibitions of your brain! You don’t even want to think about whether your synapses are connecting with your dendrites—you just want to shut off your noggin so you can get some sleep! Well, that’s where GABA comes in. GABA is an acronym for gamma-aminobutyric acid; a non-essential amino acid found mainly in the human brain and eyes. GABA was discovered in 1950, and is classified as a neurotransmitter. GABA is the most important and widespread inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. It is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it regulates brain and nerve cell activity by inhibiting the number of neurons firing in the brain. GABA is referred to as the "brain's natural calming agent". By inhibiting over-stimulation of the brain, GABA may help promote relaxation and ease nervous tension.
All the excitement of your brain must be balanced with calmness of sorts—or to a brain doctor—inhibition. This is not the kind of inhibition that makes you feel shy and introverted, but rather the opposite of excited or all stirred up. So the brain is filled with this neurotransmitter called GABA, which serves as the great balancer between excitation and inhibition. How does this take place, you may ask? Well, somehow GABA works in your brain to help you relax, and we all know that in order to get to sleep, we must relax. Unlike some relaxants that make us feel drowsy and woozy, GABA doesn’t do that. GABA simply eases anxiety. GABA is a natural stress-reducer, and some people find that GABA supplements also help with pain reduction. GABA also appears to inhibit nerve cells in the brain from firing haphazardly, which helps contribute to overall brain health.
In addition to GABA, some other natural sleep-aids include: California poppy; catnip; celery seed; chamomile; dong quai; hawthorn; heather; hops; kava-kava; lady slipper; lemon balm; melatonin; passionflower; skullcap; St. John’s wort; valerian root; wild lettuce; ashwagandha; 5-HTP; and tryptophan.
If you find that you struggle to get to sleep at night, there are some common sense approaches to increase your chances of getting some shut-eye. Here’s a few to ponder:
DEVELOP A ROUTINE We are creatures of habit, and we find comfort in repetition. Just like children need a nightly routine, so do we. Set your body clock by going to bed and getting up at the same time.
SHHH! ADULT SLEEPING! Create a “quiet time” in your household. Designate an hour or so each night before going to bed as quiet time, even if you live alone, but particularly if you live with children. This will allow the energy of the house and everyone in it to settle down.
WALK OFF STRESS A short after-dinner walk in the night air can help you to fall asleep more easily. But make sure to allow at least three hours between a workout and going to bed.
STOP THE INTAKE Try not to go to sleep with a full stomach. By allowing a few hours to digest a meal, your system can relax and focus on going to sleep, rather than digesting a late dinner. If you must have a bedtime snack, make it something light and low fat, like a piece of fruit or yogurt, or a cup of warm soy milk. Lack of calcium has been shown to impair the ability to fall asleep, so if you take a calcium supplement, take it in the evening. Certain foods, like figs, dates, yogurt, grapefruit, bananas, tuna and turkey, help to promote sleep because of they are naturally high in the amino acid tryptophan. Other foods can inhibit sleep because they contain tyramine, which can stimulate the brain; they include potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, sugar, cheese and pork products.
SAY NO TO CAFFEINE Caffeine can take hours to get out of your system and it can keep you awake for hours into the night. Remember that many types of cola are loaded with caffeine, as well as tea, chocolate and many pain relievers. If you are a coffee drinker, limit yourself to one or two cups, in the morning only.
NO BOOSE! Avoid alcohol before bedtime, too. Even though alcohol can help you to relax initially, it is known to wake people up a few hours later with thirsty feelings of “dry mouth.” Alcohol, caffeine and “sleeping pills” are known to inhibit the stage of sleep where our dreams take place. Also, certain medications prescribed to treat depression can create insomnia, so check with your doctor.
COMFORT TEAS If you’re going to have a “hot toddy,” let it be herbal. A cup of herbal tea is very soothing before bed, and can help you fall asleep much more easily. But remember, herbs are nature’s medicine, so they must be taken with care.
As living creatures, we are sensitive. We are sensitive to everything we put into our systems; they all have some kind of effect. GABA is not the only natural product that helps to induce relaxation and sleep. There are others, sometimes called nervines or relaxants, and they work. But it’s up to you to inform yourself about how these natural medicines can affect you—so investigate them, learn about how they work, and make sure they don’t conflict with any other supplements you may be taking, or any over-the-counter or prescribed medications. Sweet dreams!