How to Increase GABA and Balance Glutamate

Help for dysregulation tied to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue symptoms

Increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and balancing glutamate, brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, may help alleviate symptoms of fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Glutamate stimulates the brain, while GABA calms it down, and both can be out of balance in people with these conditions.

When glutamate is too high and GABA levels are too low, as is the case with fibromyalgia and ME/CFS, symptoms like hyperalgesia, anxiety, restlessness, brain fog, insomnia, mental exhaustion, and low energy can occur or worsen.

There are both natural and pharmaceutical ways to go about getting glutamate and GABA back in balance. This article reviews your options.

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Diet & Supplements for GABA/Glutamate Function

Supplements for altering the function of GABA and glutamate in your brain have not been studied specifically for FMS and ME/CFS, but there is some general knowledge about them.

A synthetic form of GABA is available as a supplement. However, the current medical opinion is mixed on whether or not it crosses the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and if it can correct neurotransmitter imbalance.

Paradoxically, you may be able to increase the production of GABA by increasing glutamate, since your body uses glutamate to produce GABA. To increase glutamate production, it may help to add precursors of glutamate (the things your body uses to make it) to your diet or supplement regimen.

Some precursors include:

  • 5-HTP: Your body converts 5-HTP into serotonin, and serotonin can enhance GABA activity. 5-HTP is a synthetic form of tryptophan, which is found in turkey. However, tryptophan from food-based sources (like turkey, soy beans, and milk) is not thought to cross the BBB the way 5-HTP does.
  • Glutamine: Your body converts this amino acid into glutamate. Glutamine is available in supplement form and is present in meat, fish, eggs, dairy, wheat, and some vegetables.
  • Taurine: This amino acid has been shown in rodents to alter brain levels of both GABA and glutamate. You can take it in supplement form and get it naturally in meat and seafood. Taurine is frequently added to energy drinks.
  • Theanine: This precursor of glutamate appears to lower glutamate activity in the brain by blocking receptors while also boosting GABA levels. It's found naturally in tea and also is available as a supplement.

Before you start new supplements or make significant dietary changes, talk to your healthcare provider and pharmacist about potential risks and drug interactions.

Drugs That Alter GABA

Several drugs currently on the market alter brain activity of GABA. Many have been tested and/or used as FMS treatments, but less so for ME/CFS.

These drugs are called agonists. They don't cause neurotransmitter levels to rise but instead increase activity by stimulating receptors. GABA agonists include:

  • Benzodiazepines: These drugs depress the central nervous system. Common benzodiazepines include Ativan (lorazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam). Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed for FMS, especially when insomnia and anxiety are present.
  • Xyrem (sodium oxybate) & GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid): These closely related drugs also depress the central nervous system. GHB's street name is the "date rape drug." Xyrem is approved for some symptoms of narcolepsy, and studies have shown it's effective as an FMS treatment.
  • Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics: This drug class includes the popular sleep medications Ambien (zolpidem), Sonata (zaleplon), and Lunesta (eszopiclone). These drugs are chemically different from benzodiazepines but work similarly. Some studies have shown that this class of drugs may improve sleep and possibly pain in FMS. None of these drugs has gone before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval specifically for FMS.

Could Yoga Increase GABA?

Yoga is generally believed to be calming. Research suggests that it might increase GABA in the brain.

One study shows that those suffering from depression, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain—all medical conditions that involve low GABA activity—show symptom improvement in response to yoga-based interventions. However, more research is still needed.

How to Lower Glutamate

Research suggests that a low-glutamate diet can lower glutamate levels, which may help to alleviate fibromyalgia symptoms. The low-glutamate diet consists of healthy, whole foods that are low in glutamate and aspartate.

High glutamate foods to avoid include soy sauce, aged cheeses, seaweed, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and flavor-enhancing food additives such as MSG. Aspartame, hydrolyzed proteins, and gelatin contain aspartate and should also be avoided. 

Nutrients that help to lower glutamate levels include vitamin C, magnesium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. However, supplements that come in capsules typically contain gelatin, which should be avoided. Opt for real food sources or liquid supplements.

Neurotransmitter Dysregulation

You may want to talk with your healthcare provider about ways to try and impact your GABA/Ggutamate balance. Remember that even natural treatments can have serious side effects.

Other neurotransmitters that are implicated in these conditions include: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What happens if glutamate levels are too high?

    An excess of glutamate can overexcite nerve cells. Symptoms of high glutamate include muscle tension, pain amplification, anxiety, restlessness, and trouble concentrating and focusing. 

  • What causes excessive glutamate?

    The precise cause of high glutamate is unclear. It can occur because the body releases too much of it or glutamate receptors do not function properly. It is associated with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington's disease, and stroke. 

  • What foods should I avoid if I want to lower glutamate levels?

    You may want to stay away from or limit soy-based sauces, oyster and fish sauces, Parmesan and Cheddar cheese, mushrooms, meat, and seafood, all of which are high in glutamate.

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