After the festive period, many will be feeling the negative impact of alcohol and food indulgence. In an effort to allow the body to recalibrate and shake-off the resulting low energy, brain fog and low mood, taking up Dry January is often a key strategy to start the year off on a good foot.
However, those susceptible to alcohol cravings may find that a month off the booze is harder than expected. Symptoms such as poor sleep, sugar cravings and a long-winded hangover, are just some of the experiences that people have reported. One of the most common symptoms is an increase in anxiety, perhaps due to the reduction of a very important neurotransmitter called GABA, which is stimulated by alcohol.
GABA is the body’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it helps the body and brain to relax and promotes feelings/sensations of calm and tiredness. It does this by preventing excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine and noradrenaline from over-stimulating the brain and helps to slow down the heart rate and breathing, as well as relaxing muscles.
In those who are deficient in GABA, feelings of anxiety, stress and worry can be common symptoms, leading to alcohol cravings. Alcohol targets GABA receptors and mimics the effect of this neurotransmitter, helping to relax the mind and body.
Have you ever craved alcohol after a stressful day and used a glass of wine to help calm the nerves and decompress the mind? This is your body’s way of telling you that GABA needs to be switched on! Whilst alcohol facilitates this, unfortunately the negative side effects of chronic alcohol use far outweigh the temporary feelings of calm and relax.
Alcohol can cross the blood brain barrier incredibly quickly – the brain’s very own protective mechanism that prevents things like toxins, bacteria and unwanted hormones from entering the brain and causing damage. This is why after drinking alcohol, its effects can be felt almost instantly.
The brain has a very intelligent way of preventing overstimulation of neurotransmitters, so that balance is maintained. For example, when alcohol intake is high, in an effort to avoid an excessive accumulation of GABA (as well as other neurotransmitters), receptor response is dampened. Meaning that over time, you’ll need more of the substance to provide the same effect, which may lead to potential addiction and alcohol dependency . This can make Dry January almost impossible to achieve, if other ways of increasing GABA aren’t employed.
Below is a list of safe and natural ways you can help activate GABA, which will also enhance overall health and mental wellbeing.
Magnesium has been shown to modulate GABA activity in the brain. It does this by acting on GABA receptors to help facilitate GABA neurotransmission and its consequent effects of relaxation.
Magnesium also helps to relax the central nervous system, as well as the body’s muscles. It does this by helping to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – the branch of our autonomic nervous system that is responsible for helping us to relax, down-regulating cortisol output and for regenerating cells and tissues.
We can find magnesium in foods such as avocado, nuts and seeds, legumes and some wholegrains. However, some studies have shown that supplementing with magnesium (around 300mg a day), can be very effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety.
GABA is produced via the activity of an enzyme called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) and GABA transaminase, which require vitamin B6 as a cofactor. Studies show that the B6 status of an individual has significant effects on the central production of both GABA and serotonin, neurotransmitters that control pain perception, and for preventing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Whilst B6 is found abundantly in the diet, studies show that common deficiencies of B12 and B9 (Folate), can also indicate B6 deficiency, so it’s important to take into consideration if you have a history of anemia. In addition, those who have chronic alcohol intake are also at risk of B6 deficiency.
B6 can be found in all animal products, as well as grains, pulses, eggs and dairy. However, you may want to consider a supplement that contains all the B vitamins to help boost B6 levels temporarily.
Researchers have found that vigorous bouts of exercise can increase GABA. In addition, exercise helps to switch on a regenerative substance in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) – helping create new and healthy brain cells and increases neuroplasticity, which prevents anxiety and depression. Engaging in just a small amount of exercise on a daily basis, as well as remembering to take ‘walking’ breaks away from the desk or the sofa is enough to switch on this ‘brain-protective’ mechanism.
There is a significant body of evidence that demonstrates how practices such as yoga, can help increase levels of GABA in the brain. For example, in a study comparing the effects of walking and yoga in two separate groups, MRIs that were taken following these activities demonstrated significant differences. Participants in the two control groups did these activities for one hour, three times a week, over a period of 12 weeks. The MRIs revealed a larger increase in GABA levels in a part of the brain called the thalamus amongst yoga practitioners. The yoga practitioners also reported improved mood and anxiety compared to the waking control group.
These findings give us clues as to what our bodies need in order to maintain health and mental wellbeing. These simple, practical steps are easy to implement and can help reduce alcohol cravings and increase GABA in the brain. In addition, eating a balanced diet that helps to stabilise blood sugar levels, is also essential for preventing cravings.
To help provide a sustainable source of energy, eating three meals a day which contain protein-rich foods such as poultry, fish, eggs and pulses, as well as complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, other root vegetables and brown rice, and a wide variety of vegetables, is essential. This helps to prevent anxiety caused by blood sugar lows and highs, which can also leave you vulnerable to craving alcohol and other substances.
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