How to increase GABA, your brain’s calming chemical

Everyone is stressed out these days. But caregivers are dealing with pandemic stress on top of normal caregiving stress. And if you live in the West, you may be dealing with the stress of being evacuated because of wildfires, or smoke that is hampering your ability to breathe. Ask yourself this:

Are you feeling stressed and burned out?

Are you unable to relax or loosen up?

Do you feel stiff? Are your muscles tense?

Do you have a hard time falling asleep because your mind keeps racing?

If you answered yes, you could use of a boost of GABA.

What is GABA?

Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that is produced in the brain and acts as a neurotransmitter, communicating information throughout your brain and body. GABA inhibits nerve cells from firing, and helps us to feel balanced, calm and relaxed.

GABA also:

  • Reduces mental and physical stress
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Eases muscle tension
  • Creates a calm mood
  • Supports balanced blood pressure
  • Promotes restful sleep
  • Regulates muscle tone
  • Uplifts mood

What are neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout your brain and body. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, weight, and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance. Neurotransmitter levels can be depleted many ways. It is estimated that 86% of Americans have suboptimal neurotransmitter levels. Stress, poor diet–protein deficiency, poor digestion, poor blood sugar control, drug (prescription and recreational), alcohol and caffeine can deplete them. (Emmons, The Chemistry of Joy, 2006).

What depletes GABA?

Too many carbs and refined foods, and certain drugs and medications deplete GABA. If you rely on tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, Valium, sweets or starch, you probably have a GABA imbalance

A GABA deficiency often results in:

  • High anxiety, panic, worry
  • “Monkey mind” or a racing mind.
  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep

5 Ways to Boost GABA

  1. Eat these foods

The best foods for helping your body produce GABA, according to a May 2018 review published in Nutrients, include:

  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts)
  • Soy beans
  • Adzuki beans
  • Mushrooms
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Buckwheat
  • Peas
  • Chestnuts
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Sprouted grains
  • Rice (specifically brown rice)
  • White tea

Fermented foods including kefir, yogurt, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles help increase GABA levels. These foods may also boost GABA: whole grains, fava beans, soy, lentils, and other beans; nuts including walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds; fish including shrimp and halibut; citrus, tomatoes, berries, potatoes, and cocoa.

2. Meditation and yoga have a positive effect on GABA levels.

3. Passion flower, lemon balm and valerian help support GABA, and help you fall asleep if your mind is on overdrive. Infuse them in hot water for a soothing herbal tea.

4. Nutritional supplements support GABA. Make sure you let your physician know which supplements you take, since some may interfere with medications.

L-theanine is a relaxing amino acid found in green tea. It’s available as a nutritional supplement, or get it by drinking green tea.

Magnesium is the most important mineral for the heart, It supports healthy blood pressure, decreases food cravings, balanced blood sugar, nourishes and calms the nervous system, and protects the body from damage of stress. Besides food, Epsom salt baths are another way of getting magnesium–absorbed through the skin. Magnesium is found in dark, leafy greens, dark chocolate, avocados, nuts, legumes, tofu, seeds, whole grains, bananas, and some fatty fish.

Taurine is an amino acid that activates GABA receptors and encourages the release of GABA. It is found in dairy food, shellfish, and the dark meat of turkey and chicken. It is also taken as a dietary supplement.

GABA is available in amino acid from as a dietary supplement. It is questionable, however, if it is able to cross the brain barrier.

5. Exercise, and being outdoors, paying attention to your personal needs are important.

How to boost all your neurotransmitters

  • Eat a serving of high-quality protein with every meal and snack. Focus on complex carbohydrates, and eliminate junk foods (refined carbs).
  • Enjoy unlimited amounts of fresh veggies.
  • Eat a good breakfast!
  • Eat 3 balanced meals and 1-2 healthy snacks per day.

Complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, brown rice or oatmeal, allow your brain to gradually process more serotonin, the neurotransmitter that keeps us happy. Eating protein and healthy omega-3 fats, found in fish, walnuts and flax, will also improve mood. B vitamins, which are abundant in fresh leafy greens and in chemical-free, pasture-raised meat, are another important factor because they’re needed for serotonin production.

For more information about how to prevent caregiver burnout and ways to boost your neurotransmitters, visit: https://barbracohn.com/2019/07/03/preventing-caregiver-burnout-with-good-nutrition-and-foods-that-support-neurotransmitters/

Recommended Reading

  1. The Mood Cure, Julia Ross, MA
  2. The Edge Effect: Achieve Total Health and Longevity with the Balanced Brain, Eric Braverman, MD
  3. The Chemistry of Joy, Henry Emmons, MD
Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Is it okay to leave a person with Alzheimer’s home alone?

Confused woman at home alone

This is a tricky question. The short answer is it depends. It depends on a lot of things. But if you are asking the question, the answer is probably no.

Use this assessment questionnaire. These issues are difficult to think about, let alone deal with. But if you have a sense of unease when thinking about your care partner’s abilities, it’s time to put safety precautions in place.

  • How far along in the disease is the person? If the person is in the moderate phase of dementia, the phase when they need help with basic daily activities such as bathing and brushing their teeth, it’s not safe to leave him or her home alone.
  • Do they get easily confused?
  • Do they get lost walking around the neighborhood or in the house?
  • Do they follow you throughout the house?
  • Could they make a phone call if they need help or become anxious?
  • Do they still cook, make coffee or use the microwave? Do they forget to turn off the stove or oven? If so, they should not be allowed to cook any longer.
  • Are they able to make themselves something to eat? If not, could they find food that has been prepared for them, or are they able to find a snack?
  • Do they wander?
  • Do they recognize dangerous situations such as fire?
  • Are they susceptible to scam phone calls? Are they apt to provide private information?
  • Can the person engage in enjoyable hobbies or activities such as gardening, knitting, wood work?
  • Can they distinguish between a family, friend, neighbor and stranger if someone comes to the door?
  • Is it easy for them to toilet without assistance?
  • If there were an emergency in the house, could they leave and seek shelter?
  • Is there a possibility the person could damage or destroy your personal property if they got highly agitated?

Keep your care partner safe from wandering

There’s nothing more frightening than discovering that your care partner has wandered out of the house and is nowhere to be found. If the weather is very hot or very cold this could turn into an emergency situation. Or if the person needs a medication at a specific time, it could become a matter of life or death.

Here are some ways to reduce this risk.

Never leave your care partner alone in the car, even for a quick stop.

Hide the car keys. I had a neighbor whose husband took the car keys and drove off into an isolated area. Although the car was found, he was never seen again. It was an unspeakable tragedy.

Camouflage the exterior doors with curtains, a poster, or sign that says, “Stop,” or “Do not enter.

Don’t leave shoes, hats, coats, or keys near the exit doors. All are reminders of leaving home.

Inform your neighbors so if they see your care partner wandering around the neighborhood, they can alert you or the police, or gently guide the person home.

Have your care partner carry a photo ID, and wear a medical bracelet. Put labels inside their coat, hat, etc.,

Project Lifesaver is a program offered by police departments. Some police departments offer wristbands at discounted rates or at no charge. To find out or enroll in Project Lifesaver, contact your local police department and ask if they participate. Call Project Lifesaver International Headquarters at (757) 546-5502 or visit the Project Lifesaver website.

Enroll in the MedicAlert https://www.medicalert.org/ and Alzheimer’s Association’s safe-return program. Read about it here: https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/safety/medicalert-with-24-7-wandering-support. For a fee, participants receive an identification bracelet, necklace or clothing tags and access to 24-hour support in case of emergency. You also might have your loved one wear a GPS or other tracking device.

Read Dr. Laura Struble’s excellent article “How to Minimize Wandering in a Senior with Dementia” in which she says it’s important to first observe the person and try to figure out why your care partner is wandering or trying to leave, what they are trying to achieve, and where they want to go. https://www.agingcare.com/articles/help-a-senior-with-dementia-who-wanders-167541.htm

Safety first is always a good motto. It might take a little work and effort to put these safety measures into place, but it will definitely be worth it for your own peace of mind and for the health and safety of your care partner.

Care for the caregiver

If you are the caregiver of someone at home, it’s vital that you take care of yourself and get out of the house, hopefully, for at least a walk every day. During the coronavirus pandemic, you aren’t doing as much as you normally would outside of the house, but try to take a daily walk.

If you’re depressed, learn about 20 natural remedies that can uplift your mood. https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/barbracohn.com/5720 Or, 20 energy and stress fixes to use now! https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/barbracohn.com/4998

If you aren’t able to leave your care partner even for a short walk, it’s time to get respite care. When the time came for my husband to need full-time care, I hired someone to be with him husband twice a week so I could get out of the house. Is there a neighbor who would be willing to come in for 30 to 60 minutes twice a week? This might be tougher during the pandemic. But while the weather is still warm, a care person could take your loved one for an outing, sit on the porch with them, or go for a drive.

Be safe. Be well. Take care.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.