Depression is a profoundly personal, incredibly complicated medical disorder that doctors and those that suffer from it struggle to understand. Most likely caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors, there are no shortage of potential culprits. What we do know, however, is that depression is a brain disorder. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has confirmed that the brains of those that suffer from depression look different than those that do not. In particular, the parts of the brain that regulate and control mood, appetite, sleep, thinking, and overall behavior appear different.
What is GABA?
Although the total number of neurotransmitters is not known, well over 100 have been documented. The role of these chemical messengers is to help the billions of neurons in the human brain communicate with one another, which occurs when they are released. One of the most powerful and industrious brain chemicals, Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Its primary responsibility is to inhibit nerve transmissions in the brain, which helps calm neuronal activity.
What would happen if someone suffered from a GABA deficiency; if, for whatever reason, their minds did not produce enough of the crucial neurotransmitter? GABA is present in 30-40 percent of all the synapses of a healthy brain – only glutamate is more prevalent. Neurons in every part of the mind use it to modulate neurotransmission. Without GABA, nerve cells fire too easily and too often. It is not surprising then that GABA deficiencies have been linked to disorders that cause increased neuronal activity, such as anxiety, panic attacks, even seizures. But can a dearth of GABA cause depression?
What We Know
Why do some people get jittery when they drink coffee? One reason is that caffeine is known to inhibit GABA release, which results in a spike in neuronal activity.While pleasant for some, the sensation can cause serious psychological, even physical disturbances if the switch is never turned off because of a GABA deficit. For those with anxiety, it makes sense that their neurons would be firing too often, but isn’t depression the exact opposite? Don’t folks with depression look like they need a cup of coffee, not like they’ve had a whole pot?
Because GABA is involved in most of our brain activity, any variation can have a profound effect on behavior and mood. For people who suffer from depression, low GABA levels may not make them appear antsy or jittery, but that does not mean they are calm and satisfied. It simply means that they do not respond to the increases in neuronal activity the same way that people who suffer from anxiety might. For most depressives, the deficiency may result in a downcast mood or mindset that they cannot account for or explain. Medical professionals are just beginning to understand the source of their suffering.
Although it is terra incognita to doctors and researchers, several landmark studies have linked depression and diminished GABA levels in the brain. One Canadian study found a clear and irrefutable association between low GABA levels and major depressive episodes. There is also a proven tendency for bipolar and depressed individuals to have below average levels of GABA in their blood plasma.
Is GABA Deficiency Treatable?
Now that we know there is a clear connection between low GABA and depression, the solution seems simple enough: Raise those levels with GABA supplements! Since it is merely an amino acid in the body that the brain synthesizes and uses as a neurotransmitter, simply taking it in pill form could correct the shortfall… right? According to many, GABA supplements are the answer.
How They Work
Widely available for sale on the internet, GABA supplements are sold without a prescription because they are often nothing more than the amino acid L-glutamate. According to most sellers, the dietary supplement works as a kind of natural tranquilizer that produces feeling of calm and well-being in people who suffer from depression. But as encouraging as that sounds, there is little scientific evidence to support those claims. Why is this?
The current medical consensus is that GABA supplements either don’t reach the brain and/or have no effect on it when they get there. The first opinion is supported by the fact that no study has ever confirmed that oral GABA can reach the brain. However, if it were to get there, the supplement should act as a tranquilizer that slows neuronal transmission. So, in theory at least, GABA supplements do have anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties.
But even if we believed that GABA supplements would work if they reached the brain, current medical thinking says that may be impossible. According to all available evidence, GABA supplements cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. As its name implies, this bodily firewall prevents chemicals, drugs, etc., that circulate in body’s blood to mix with the blood that supplies the brain. If this is correct, GABA supplements would have no effect because they would never even reach the brain to work their magic. They would, in effect, be nothing more than a placebo.
What is Phenibut?
This is the part where, after dashing your hopes, we tell you to take heart – all is not lost! No, there is no new evidence concerning oral GABA supplements. As far as we know, the medical community still considers them ineffective in the treatment of depression. That consensus will not change unless it can be proven that GABA can cross the blood-brain barrier and have an inhibitory effect on neuronal activity. Until that can be sufficiently established, there is no reason to sing the praises of a hypothetical treatment option. What we can say, however, is that there is a GABA-like supplement that can do what the others only purport to.
A derivative of the naturally-occurring GABA, phenibut can cross the blood-brain barrier because of the addition of a phenyl ring. Once in the brain, the GABA mimetic helps regulate neuronal activity and has a calming effect on the central nervous system. Sold as a prescription psychotropic drug in Russia, phenibut is available as a dietary supplement everywhere else. Now, you might be wondering why you’ve never heard of this drug/dietary supplement before? If, after all, it does what many say it can, why isn’t phenibut a household name?
Phenibut in the West
The simplest explanation for why the GABA derivative is not more widely known in the States is that wasn’t discovered here. In Russia, phenibut is considered by many to be a wonder drug that is used to treat everything from stress to insomnia and alcoholism. Discovered in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s, the drug was so effective at treating stress and anxiety without adversely affecting performance that it was used in the Soviet space program.
Another reason why phenibut is not a more popular anxiolytic outside of Russia is that it is often sold as a nootropic. Defined as any drug that can enhance memory or other cognitive functions, phenibut fits the bill because it improves mental focus and clarity by reducing anxiety. Though this is merely a byproduct of the drug’s primary action, which is anxiety relief, it appears to be more appealing to Western users. As a result, most phenibut users are not taking the drug to treat anxiety or depression. It is no wonder the dietary supplement has failed to gain a loyal following with those that really need it, since most believe it is nothing more than a smart drug!
Phenibut For Depression
In addition a dearth of GABA, people with depression often have low levels of dopamine. Another neurotransmitter in the brain, dopamine plays an key role in reward-motivated behavior. As a result, those with a deficiency often experience bouts of low energy, hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety, and depression. Because it helps stimulate dopamine receptors in the brain, there is evidence that phenibut can help restore a healthy chemical balance when levels of the vital neurotransmitter inexplicably fall.
As for its role in restoring healthy GABA levels, phenibut acts exactly like the neurotransmitter from which it was derived. In other words, it works as an inhibitor that blocks brain signals (neurotransmission) and prevents overactivity, which can and often does result in anxiety and other mood disturbances.
With nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population suffering from some form of depression, an effective treatment option is desperately needed. As popular as they may be, GABA supplements do not appear efficacious because they cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. A far more promising options is phenibut, a drug that is widely used in Russia to treat anxiety and depression. Although sold as a nootropic in the States, phenibut is far more effective as an anxiolytic – the purpose for which it was originally intended.