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The magic GABA supplement formula
Testing the GABA hypothesis with supplements that improve brain function and whole-body metabolic health
I first tested the GABA theory not long after the injury when someone with a similar disorder told me to “go drink a bottle of wine and then see how you feel: if you feel great but can’t see very well, you need more GABA!”
That, in a nutshell, is the GABA hypothesis. Its implications: some of my interneurons have been damaged or destroyed, which is why my nervous system can’t properly regulate GABA — the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Wine, as it turns out, provides an effect that mimics GABA. Sure enough, when I performed that crude experiment and drank enough wine, my symptoms largely disappeared, except for one terrifying thing: I could hardly see. The whole world looked like it was flickering. As distressing as it was, it seemed to confirm that I had a GABA receptor problem. Wine calmed my nervous system and brought my limbs back but it bunked up my visual cortex, an effect that I still don’t quite understand.
I went straight to the doctor and was un/fortunately prescribed benzos to solve my acute problem, because they produce a similar effect to wine and help regulate GABA. With their awful side effects, I didn’t really want to be on benzos forever, but at least I could then rest and try to figure out what to do from there.
As I described previously, the PoNS device that I recently picked up might have the capacity to rehabilitate my interneurons over time, but in the meantime, I urgently need to find a way to get me that GABA. And I don’t want to rely on wine or benzos. When I’ve got enough of it, miracles happen and I can function as “normal,” with only lingering discomfort in my eyes and ears.
So after years of experimentation, and working through heavy doses of my own skepticism, I have finally found a tremendously effective mix of supplements that upregulate GABA. I’ve tested the theory by missing a dose or two, and, sure enough, I slip right back into the horror show.
GABA improves so many aspects of my life: energy, focus, strength, mood, perception of space and time. It has improved my health enough to do some exercise, for instance, or to do basic tasks like housework, research, and writing. It even reduces neurological pain. Sometimes I can even rest without paresthesia (that’s the peripheral numbness in my extremities). I wouldn’t say that I’m comfortable, but it’s quite a leap forward after being mostly bedbound for years.
Supplements that detox, repair, and restore
I used to chafe at advertisements to “detox” or “restore” the function of cells or body systems. “What does that even mean?” I thought. I process refuse through my kidneys and intestines just fine, and I figured that I could get most of my vitamins and minerals from food, avoiding expensive scams that appeal to youth or beauty.
Since then, I’ve realized that one of the main reasons why the supplement industry is so popular is because our mystified, overburdened, disinterested medical system drives people to take matters into their own hands. Our modern industrial food system and culture make it hard enough to be properly nourished. When your body is sick or “out-of-balance,” it’s virtually impossible to get all the building blocks you need.
I appreciate that the medical system exists to serve basic needs, but, as the cliche goes, it does seem to be better at delivering “sickcare” rather than “healthcare” — addressing symptoms without restoring the most fundamental capacities of the human body (or spirit). The mainstream (“industrial”) medical system offers solutions that often make people sicker and more dependent.
Since my time in Switzerland, I have routinely attended online medical conferences to learn more about how the body “repairs,” and how various systems (immune, digestive, neurological, and endocrine) work together. Now that I’ve heard the same things uttered repeatedly in several different places, some key ideas are (finally!) starting to make a lot of sense to me.
But I started with a focus on GABA and the nervous system.
Re-testing the GABA hypothesis — this time, with supplements
What is GABA? Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that functions as the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter for the central nervous system (CNS).
It reduces neuronal excitability by inhibiting nerve transmission — reducing pain signals, enabling deep rest, and providing an overall sense of calm.It's partly where the feeling of “flow” comes from when we’re highly engaged in an activity. GABA is synthesized from glutamate (that’s our excitatory transmitter) through a reaction that requires B6 to complete. So a deficit of GABA invariably means an excess of glutamate.
And even if you’re not recovering from some profound injury, many folks in the modern world are likely to experience a GABA-glutamate imbalance because of our contemporary lifestyle. We’re hyperstimulated everywhere — from the LED lights we overuse to the many signals we get from smartphones and our consequent poor patterns of relating to one another.
Signs of GABA deficits include:
being filled with feelings of dread
needing to be busily occupied and do many things at once
finding new things to worry about (even when things are going well)
a racing heart without an obvious trigger
the need to soothe/recharge by consuming glucose, carbs, or alcohol
These all sound like contemporary epidemics of their own.
The sickcare system’s only real answer to my hypothesis was to give me a highly addictive, brain-altering benzo. This wasn’t a preferable long-term solution for me, and it probably should not be a long-term solution for many, but the alternatives are not well-known. So by getting off that drug (and trying many, many others) and then finally providing my body with some of the right building blocks, I achieved dramatic results within weeks.
The magic formula of nervous system essentials
You can buy supplements labelled “GABA,” but they don’t work for many, and they didn’t work for me.The good news is that there are other, perhaps better ways for the body to get GABA.
As I discovered in Switzerland through the advice of a doctor who synthesized a specially compounded mix, two of the best ingredients to boost GABA include magnesium and taurine — pretty simple ingredients (!) — along with a host of other essential cofactor vitamins and minerals (especially B6), which helps the body make the best use of it.
As add-ons, honokiol, the active ingredient in magnolia bark, also transforms glutamate into GABA, and so does California Poppy, which I use as necessary throughout the day.
Here’s a breakdown of the most important ingredients:
Magnesium binds to and stimulates GABA receptors in the brain. Its benefits?
essential for nerves and muscles to function
provides essential antioxidant support
helps create and repair DNA
helps metabolize food into energy
helps the body detox by binding to and removing heavy metals
helps with fear extinction in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, so it can also alleviate post-traumatic symptoms
It’s estimated that 50-75% of us have poor levels of it in our body. Our food is grown in magnesium-depleted soils, making it harder for us to get the nutrient from food; then stress, age, medications, and processed food and drink (especially drink, and especially alcohol) make it harder for magnesium to be absorbed by the body, contributing to widespread deficiency. As I mentioned, alcohol produces an effect that mimics GABA, which is particularly dangerous for folks who start out with a magnesium deficiency: drinking makes you feel like you’re getting GABA, you feel relief, leading to more drinking, which further depletes magnesium (and GABA).
Co-factors that help with the metabolism of magnesium include vitamins B6 and D3. Trace minerals, including zinc, manganese, selenium, chromium, and molybdenum, and the prebiotic inulin, which feeds good gut bacteria and helps with absorption.
Taurine, something I thought was only found in stimulant drinks, is actually a calming agent. It is:
A “strong activator of… GABA receptors,” particularly in the thalamus, which helps regulate sensory information and the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Given the strange sensory overload and weird sleep/wake rhythms following the injury, I have no doubt that this is helping.
A powerful antioxidant
Critical for nerve signals
Critical hearing and vision, with one study validating that can significantly improve tinnitus
It also expresses BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the hippocampus [the hippocampus is a critical brain structure for learning and memory, and BDNF is a protein that helps to stimulate the growth of new cells there]
Taurine already exists in high concentrations in the brain and CNS (and many other parts besides) and can be safely taken in high doses (~6000mg). Its levels drop with age, and diabetics in particular stand to benefit from the amino acid because it serves so many metabolic and digestive functions (I’ll speak to its metabolic benefits below).
Magnolia bark binds with the GABA(A) receptor and has:
It’s been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine for anxiety and insomnia. I wish I had known about magnolia bark (and especially its active ingredient, honokiol) before taking any other sleep aids. Honokiol extracts provide cognitive and neurological support, cellular regulation, relaxation, and mood benefits.
California poppy, used throughout the day as a separate tincture, also has GABA-binding effects that reduce nervous system stimulation.It has been used traditionally as a sleep aid and hypnotic at higher doses, and for pain relief at low doses. Some folks are afraid that the “poppy” contents make it addictive, but that’s not the case.
I wouldn’t recommend this whole cocktail for everyone, though some things, like magnesium and taurine, are probably safe bets for most people. For anyone with symptoms like mine, though, this regimen has proven itself. This relatively simple starting point has been nearly as game-changing for me as rTMS was.
Neuroendocrine support for more energy and strength
Addressing the GABA problem helped me deal with acute neurological pain and sensory overload, but I still needed help to get me feeling more energized and as able to take on the world as I once did.
So, where to go from here?
Without vitality in the body’s energy systems, the simplest tasks are impossible. Walking up stairs. Preparing a meal. I love to exercise and when I was well, I would hit the gym 2-3 times a week. My main method of commuting was cycling. But no amount of “thinking” or self-encouragement would restore the physical capacity to move, improve nutrition, or be social. Even after rTMS restored my will and attention, it was all still too much. Encouragement from others was often infuriating even though it was well-intended. Nobody hated being incapacitated more than I did.
I started digging further. None of the body’s systems, as we always hear, can be considered in isolation. The nervous system (neurological function, including our gut) influences (and is influenced by) our hormonal system (endocrine function); and together, our neuroendocrine system interacts with the immune system — leading to chronic immunological illnesses when these systems are out-of-balance. So to decode that: all of these systems need to be in balance for the brain to work properly. It quickly becomes overwhelming.
But I’ve taken a second step anyway, as part of this biohacking experiment. As I began to stabilize my brain and nervous system, I realized that I also need to stabilize my endocrine and digestive systems to improve energy and overall metabolic function — the way my body turns food into energy. I don’t mean an energetic “high,” like the effect of caffeine. I mean “life energy,” “vitality,” or “Qi” in Chinese medicine.
There are plenty of “energy hacks” that might work for folks with more functional nervous systems, but I have to be careful. Sometimes new supplements can backfire and leave me feeling jittery and worse off than I started.
So among the many recent recommendations, I’ve started toying with endocrine support. There is some new research to suggest that endocrine function has an effect on GABA, too.
Tongkat Ali prompts the body to produce testosterone in men, which:
helps to reduce the stress hormone cortisol
reduces stress, anger, and tension
I’ve found this to be true. It’s also built up my muscle mass, which is not something I was hoping for, and I’m not sure I need it, but it is what it is.
Two warnings about this one — (1) high doses (2000mg +) may “damage DNA,” and (2) TA needs to be sourced carefully. Low-quality TA has been found to carry high levels of mercury.
Wild Yam tincture was also recommended as hormonal support, and I’ve used this as well, but I can’t find any good research on its benefits just yet, so I’m not going to sing its praises here.
Brain injury as metabolic dysfunction?
When I started trying to address the GABA deficit, I didn’t expect to have to go down a rabbit hole researching so many systems to restore full brain health. I could conceptualize how the nervous system and brain were “one thing,” but what about the rest of it?
Bear with me for a big final thought.
I stumbled across a book that tries to tie it all together. In his book “Brain Energy,” Harvard professor and physician Dr. Christopher Palmer argues that a range of diseases affecting the brain and nervous system — from epilepsy to diabetes and thyroid problems to a range of mental health disorders — appear to have a single genetic and physiological lineage. They appear, he argues, to be variations of one disorder: a metabolic disorder. In other words, it’s a disorder where our cells fail to turn food into the right kind of energy for each of our many systems.
It seems trendy in wellness circles these days to focus on metabolic dysfunction and cellular health, but there’s probably something to it. Some believe Palmer’s theory is too general, but once again, it presents the basic idea of supporting the functions of your smallest body units: your cells and their powerhouses, mitochondria.
One part of the book really resonated with me. Palmer referenced how particular medications can knock the metabolic system into a different state. I recall having a very different metabolic rhythm when I was on the sleeping medication. I would be very groggy, but I also recall my body's metabolism speeding up in ways that felt pretty great! My digestion was excellent. I could eat anything and shed body fat. I was getting a lot of compliments on my body at that time. This was interesting to reflect upon in hindsight.
And as I started to add up the benefits of the supplements in my “magic formula,” I also recognized each of their metabolic effects. As I mentioned, magnesium helps create and repair DNA, metabolize food into energy, and remove heavy metals. Taurine, it turns out, is highly effective in the treatment of mitochondrial disease and, indeed, toxicity. Taurine itself is being researched as an agent for the treatment of metabolic and inflammatory diseases because, over and above energy metabolism, it regulates antioxidation, gene expression, and nerve signalling. For diabetes (perhaps the best-known metabolic disorder), taurine is effective in modulating insulin resistance, which reduces risk to the eyes, heart and arteries, and kidneys, among other things.
So, I won’t dispense with an overall focus on the brain, but I’m trying to consider the micro-macro intersections of brain health. At the macro-level, that means rebalancing all of my brain-modulating systems at the same time: neurological, endocrine, digestive, and immune systems. At the micro level, that means building up metabolic functioning at the cellular level.
I can only conjecture what happens to my vision when that happens, but the only time the flickering sensation ever repeated was when I was withdrawing from benzos, and benzos have a similar effect to wine.
There’s ongoing controversy about whether GABA or not supplements work at all because GABA molecules are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier. They do seem to work for a chosen few, with some conjecturing that they work if you have a leaky blood-brain barrier.