GABA for Back-To-School Anxiety
Parents are presented with particularly interesting stressors this year as we try to decide on the best way to keep our kids safe and happy. If you or your child are prone to anxiety and panic attacks you might be particularly concerned.
“Anxiety tends to involve fears about the future, while depression tends to relate more to regrets about the past”, I recently heard one psychologist explain.
Well, concerns about the future are certainly at a climax so we can expect anxiety in parents and kids to be at an all time high this back-to-school season. Are you feeling it?
I’ve written elsewhere about how parents can ease back-to-school stress in their kids by focusing on connection, simplicity, and nourishment (read about strategies here).
I still think those strategies are extremely effective, but with this year's added stress they might not be enough.
In this post I want to talk about a particular nutritional supplement that can help ease anxiety, stress and panic in some kids (and their parents!): that’s GABA.
Low levels of GABA have been associated in research and clinical studies with anxiety, agitation, stress, panic attacks, poor sleep, epilepsy, depression, mania, and chronic pain.
When given to kids as a supplement I have seen GABA increase feelings of calm and relaxation, quickly resolve panic attacks, help kids sleep better, improve confidence in new situations, ease tummy pain caused by tension and worry. (As an aside, I have also seen GABA help with cramping associated with premenstrual syndrome, by the way).
My own personal experience taking GABA was profound. I'm not particularly prone to anxiety but coming off stage after a particularly stressful public speaking event (described here) I was exhausted, short of breath, nauseous, my vision was blurry and I was literally shaking. I returned to calm within 60 seconds of taking GABA offered to me by my friend Trudy.
When it’s a good fit GABA works incredibly fast to calm the nervous system.
What Is GABA?
GABA stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid. It is an amino acid most well known for its work as a calming neurotransmitter in the brain.
GABA is often described as working in a teeter-totter-like fashion with glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. GABA also reduces the production of the stress hormone adrenaline (which is probably why it helped calm my post-talk jitters so quickly).
GABA in the brain is synthesized from glutamic acid, found abundantly in foods like soy, meats, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, and wheat. An enzyme called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) is involved in converting glutamic acid into GABA. If there is a genetic variant (called a single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP) associated with the function of the GAD enzymes a child might be chronically low in GABA and thus particularly prone to symptoms associated with an aroused nervous system like anxiety, hyperactivity and insomnia. Another theory is that a disturbance in GABA receptors leads to chronically low GABA and a propensity towards anxiety.
The amino acid L-theanine, found abundantly in green tea, has been shown to boost GABA levels as has the bacteria Lactobacillus Rhamnosus found in some fermented foods.
Early research on GABA suggested that when taken orally as a supplement GABA cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain in amounts substantial enough to have a calming effect. The implication was that if supplemental GABA is having a calming effect on the nervous system it was likely there was a breach in the blood brain barrier - so called “leaky brain”.
That's still a possibility, but new evidence raises the idea that GABA’s effect on mood stability might be due to its influence on the peripheral nervous system or, as these researchers review, through its effect on the vagus nerve or the enteric nervous system of the gut.
There is now so much clinical evidence showing how GABA can ease anxiety symptoms that its mechanism of action warrants further research.
How To Use GABA Safely With Kids
I find GABA to be particularly helpful for kids who are prone to panic, social anxiety, separation anxiety, fear, worry and tension around new situations. As I say, it can work quickly.
I suggest you try it at home at first, just to make sure it's well tolerated and you can figure out a dose that works well for them. Then, if it's helpful, you can give it before they head off to school for the day to ease the transition.
GABA can be found in powder and chewable forms and it doesn’t taste particularly bad, which makes it easy to give to kids.
I suggest starting at a very low dose of about 75-100mg to see how it’s tolerated. You can move up from there until you find the amount that works. On very few occasions I have seen GABA cause increased agitation. Mostly this happens when the starting dose has been too high. If you do see a negative effect, don't worry... it will wear off. GABA is not addictive so you can just stop the supplement.
You’ll often find GABA mixed with other amino acids. Source Naturals makes a sublingual lozenge that is mixed with tyrosine, glycine, taurine and magnesium. Nutritional Fundamentals For Health (NFH) makes a capsule (which can be opened) that blends GABA with L-theanine. These other ingredients are generally well tolerated and work synergistically with GABA to calm the nervous system.
As it is with all amino acid supplements, GABA is best absorbed when it's allowed to dissolve in the mouth. So have your child suck on the lozenge or, if giving a powder have them let it dissolve in their mouth for best results.
We still have a lot to learn about how and why GABA can help reduce anxiety and panic but it is well worth considering. In some cases it works as well as Benzodiazepine medication (but with little to no risk). Research as to its mechanism of action is its infancy, but I have had sufficient success with GABA to feel confident in recommending it to my clients at low doses, particularly to ease acute panic and anxiety.
Here's a Facebook Live session I did in our Raising Resilience Community as part of our COVID checkins in the spring. In it I talked about using GABA and other amino acids with kids and some of the pitfalls I see parents fall into.
Possible mechanism of action & GABA-related causes of anxiety
L.Rhamnosis and GABA
GABA and the gut