Exercises That Boost Your Brain's Calming Chemical

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Yoga and GABA

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the body’s most prevalent inhibitory neurotransmitter. It is responsible for reducing neuronal excitability. We might consider it to be our brain’s “calming chemical".

The body’s most prevalent excitatory neurotransmitter is glutamate. Both glutamate and GABA work together to control the brain's overall level of excitation.

GABA plays a role in many conditions, and low brain concentrations of GABA are associated with depression, anxiety, insomnia, and attentional disorders.1,2,3,4 High brain levels of glutamate are associated with anxiety and attentional disorders, as well as restlessness and aggression.5,6,7,8

Furthermore, chronic stress, poor quality or lack of sleep, fluctuating blood glucose levels from excess sugar intake, and disordered microbiome (poor gut health) can contribute to increased glutamate and/or low GABA levels.

The good news is that physical activity, which is known for its many brain-health and mental performance benefits, has been shown to boost GABA levels. The implication here is that exercise may help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with low GABA/high glutamate, as well as helping to "calm the mind".

In one study a 12-week yoga intervention with yoga-naïve individuals was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety, compared to a metabolically matched walking exercise. Participants experienced a 13% increase in thalamic GABA levels.9

Experienced yoga practitioners increased their GABA levels after one session

Other research compared yoga to reading. The researchers found that experienced yoga practitioners gained a 27% increase in GABA levels after one yoga session.10

In a high-intensity exercise study, 38 participants experienced increased GABA levels after being instructed to cycle (at increasing intensity) until they reached or exceeded 80% of their maximum heart rate. This took between 8-17 minutes.11

While we need both GABA and glutamate to work together to control our brain’s overall level of excitation, low levels of GABA and high levels of glutamate are associated with many undesirable health conditions. Adopting a regular yoga practice and/or high-intensity exercise regime may help mitigate such conditions, by increasing the brain's "calming chemical".

1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7258390/
2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23391588/
3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22318195/
4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26101852/
5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18206286/
6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24643164/
7. https://www.pediatricneurologybriefs.com/articles/10.15844/
8. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226755963
9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20722471/
10. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/acm.2007.6338
11. https://www.jneurosci.org/content/36/8/2449

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