The Ketogenic Diet and GABA Connection
As we know, the ketogenic diet has been extensively studied for its therapeutic role in cases of epilepsy in children, but what we’re learning is that it doesn’t stop there. If you’ve been following the research rolling out in more recent years, the amount of information we now know about keto and overall brain function is nothing short of astounding. Many people report it makes a world of difference in mental clarity, cognitive function, mood, and energy. If this is no surprise to you, what you might not know is that a neurotransmitter called GABA plays a significant role in why this happens.
All About GABA
What is GABA? GABA is a neurotransmitter that is especially known for its calming effects. In fact, it is called an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it calms the nervous system and has been found to combat anxiety. In contrast, glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and both work together to maintain balance and homeostasis in the body.
GABA suppresses movements and relaxes muscles, and is especially important for restful sleep. Interestingly, magnesium is an agonist to GABA, meaning it stimulates GABA receptors and is yet another reason why magnesium is such a crucial mineral in your keto diet. Along with sleep, GABA also plays an integral role in gut health and brain function.
Have you heard the saying that your gut should be considered your “second brain?” This fascinating discovery has been foundational in learning more about the importance of the gut microbiome’s impact on all aspects of health, and we now know that our brain health is directly linked to gut health, and GABA function plays a critical role. The lining of your intestinal tract is full of GABA receptors that assist with proper digestion and anti-inflammation.
Problems with your gut microbiome can actually lead to low GABA production according to studies, and signs of this could manifest as trouble sleeping, excessive irritability and becoming easily agitated, racing thoughts, sensitivity to loud noises and bright lights, more anxiety than usual, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, an overall feeling of stiffness and tension in the body and fibromyalgia, among others. Of course, these signs and symptoms don’t automatically mean you are low in GABA as other conditions mimic the same symptoms, but it’s something to consider and discuss with your provider.
So, What Does Keto Have to Do With GABA?
In a moment we’ll talk more about the exciting ways that the keto diet can help promote GABA, but first, let’s do a quick refresher on the ketogenic diet.
The ketogenic diet is a low carbohydrate, moderate protein and high-fat diet that decreases insulin resistance and increases metabolic flexibility by causing your body to burn fat versus glucose as its primary fuel source. Most people can become fat or “keto” adapted within about 30 days. Ketones (also known as ketone bodies) are compounds that work as another form of fuel for the body instead of glucose. The body naturally either burns or stores fuel, and the ketogenic diet functions by forcing the body to use ketones as fuel in the absence of sufficient fuel from glucose (from carbohydrates) and an excess of protein.
Regardless of diet, the body naturally goes into a metabolic state of ketosis to a certain extent overnight with an absence of food, as this is how your blood sugar levels remain steady by converting body fat into fuel. On a ketogenic diet where your daily intake of carbohydrates is much lower than on a Standard American Diet, the body turns both dietary and body fat into its primary fuel source both day and night.
The truly amazing part is that once the body becomes “keto-adapted,” energy levels typically soar. The metabolism of glucose produces ATPs(units of energy) but also four reactive oxygen species. These are oxidized oxygen molecules that wear down your cell’s energy machinery with time. Fat molecules will produce double the amount of ATPs and just half the reactive oxygen species, meaning you will quickly feel more energized and be reducing oxidative damage on a cellular level.
Now, let’s tie this back to GABA.
The Keto-GABA Connection
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. The body makes GABA from glutamate using the GAD enzyme (glutamic acid decarboxylase), which interestingly requires vitamin B6 as a cofactor. Studies show that a ketogenic diet can increase GABA levels by helping to facilitate the conversion from glutamate to GABA.
Some incredible research has been done looking specifically at the ability of the keto diet to provide the body with necessary nutritional and metabolic tools to create a balance between glutamate and GABA, leading to more calm physiological milieu in an over-excited environment. Fascinatingly, this is why keto may be helpful not only for neurological conditions like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, seizure conditions and more but also for an overall reduction in brain fog and anxiety, improved memory and focus, stress support and a better mood.
By providing the brain with ketones versus glucose as an energy source, the conversion of glutamate to GABA becomes more efficient in the long run. Keep in mind that while your body is transitioning to a keto diet and making the metabolic shift from a sugar to a fat burner, it’s possible to first experience an increase in the symptoms mentioned (more brain fog, decreased memory, etc.) as you transition into a state of ketosis. These are the common “keto flu” symptoms you might be familiar with, but they will pass.
Eight Ways to Harness the Power of GABA in Your Keto Diet
These eight simple, yet highly effective, steps can ensure you are supporting GABA production on a keto diet, and therefore harnessing its powerful abilities to improve brain function.
1Get Moving. Movement of every type helps to feel relaxed and increase GABA. This includes HIIT, resistance training, walking, yoga, meditation, and deep breathing. Find what types of movement bring you joy and keep you active, and work toward making them a consistent part of your life.
2Keep it Clean. You might be familiar with the term “dirty keto” and this definitely is not the way to increase GABA and harness keto’s therapeutic powers. I am a firm believer and advocate for a largely plant-based keto diet, so check out the 5 Dirty Keto Mistakes You Have Never Heard of to avoid this common pitfall.
3Make Sure You Have Plenty of Magnesium. Getting plenty of magnesium-rich foods and considering supplementation if necessary is important for stimulation of GABA receptors. Zinc, taurine, and glutamine also work hand in hand with magnesium, so be sure to include high-quality animal foods along with plenty of dark, green leafy vegetables.
4Hone in on Foods Rich in B6. Remember that the GAD enzyme requires B6 as a cofactor, so including grass-fed muscle and organ meats can be extremely helpful for promoting GABA production. Other foods high in B6 are fish, leafy green vegetables, avocado, poultry, and sunflower seeds.
5Drink Green Tea. Along with its powerful fat-burning effects, the EGCG in green tea also stimulates GABA receptors and has been shown to have a sedative effect. Green tea also contains L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes relaxation. AutophaTea is a potent combination of autophagy-boosting EGCG and whole fruit bergamot.
6Perfect Your Supplement Plan. Certain herbs are known for their GABA-promoting benefits, particularly kava, valerian, skullcap, passionflower and lemon balm. These herbs and natural approaches to GABA production fit perfectly into a keto lifestyle but be sure to check in with your doctor if you are taking any medications or are concerned about medical conditions.
7Support Your Microbiome. Without a healthy gut microbiome GABA production is almost guaranteed to be compromised, so taking measures to support microbiome balance is key. The gut microbiome plays an important role in converting glutamine and glutamic acid into GABA. Shoot for a serving daily of fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, kimchi or unsweetened kefir or kombucha tea. If you suspect an infection or other underlying gut condition, it’s important to work with an integrative practitioner to get to the root of the problem.
8Take Collagen. Collagen contains glutamine, which creates the substrate for GABA, glutamate. Taking collagen as a supplement can be incredibly supportive in many ways for your keto diet and lifestyle.
As you familiarize yourself and become comfortable with a ketogenic way of eating, you will continue to unfold and discover more and more of these amazing intricacies! I’ve been thoroughly blown away by the many therapeutic effects of eating a keto diet, and have certainly felt the difference with my stress and anxiety levels. Knowing the Keto-GABA connection was a major “A-ha!” moment for me, and I hope it is for you, too. As always I’d love to hear about your experience and am honored to share in your health journey.