Seasonal variations in serotonin have long been documented with much research on the winter blues and SAD lamps. There is less awareness about GABA seasonality and I only recently started to look into the research when I wrote about the need to increase tryptophan or 5-HTP temporarily when a winter dip in serotonin causes more severe anxiety, OCD and/or the winter blues.
Following on from my blog post on the seasonality of serotonin, it’s important to be aware of the seasonality of GABA and that GABA levels may also be lower in the winter months. This is also due to shorter days and less light because of more overcast and cloudy/rainy/snowy days.
You may find you need to increase your GABA supplement dosing during this time, in order to get the same benefits for your low GABA physical anxiety, stiff and tense muscles, insomnia (the low GABA lying-awake-tense type), feelings of overwhelm, intrusive thoughts (the low-GABA type), and stress-eating or self-medicating with alcohol.
Read on to learn more about seasonal fluctuations in GABA, an example of how adjusting GABA could look and some of the possible mechanisms.
Intuitively increased GABA without knowing about the seasonality of GABA
A few weeks ago I shared on Facebook that GABA has a seasonal aspect and an increase may be needed in winter when it’s darker earlier and colder. Elicia offered this input:.
I use GABA Calm and usually take 1 or 2 a day. The past two days I’ve taken 4 because I suspected that I needed an increase.
I take it for physical anxiety, insomnia and intrusive thoughts. My symptoms had been worsening recently. The increased GABA seems to be helping.
She also asked what an increase in GABA would look like.
My feedback for her is (you guessed it!) that it depends on each person. If 4 x instead of 1 or 2 x GABA Calm a day helps to ease her symptoms then that’s the right amount for her unique needs at this time. It may be less or more for someone else. And it’s going to change again after the winter season.
I’m so glad to hear she intuitively increased her dose without knowing about the seasonality of GABA and that she saw her worsening symptoms improve.
Other approaches to boost GABA levels may help too: Yoga, meditation, tai chi and essential oils.
Seasonal fluctuations are also found in anxiety disorders and bulimia nervosa
As I mentioned above, SAD or seasonal affective disorder, appears to be relatively common and is well-recognized.
This review paper, An overview of epidemiological studies on seasonal affective disorder mentions anxiety and other conditions too:
- Seasonal variations in mood, depressive symptoms usually peaking in winter
- SAD was more prevalent at higher northern latitudes, but the prevalence varied across ethnic groups.
- SAD has also been identified in children and adolescents.
- Seasonal exacerbations and remissions are not limited to mood disorders, it has also been found in bulimia nervosa, anxiety disorders and other psychiatric illnesses.
Some of this may be related to low serotonin and as you’ll see below, melatonin and low GABA (and low dopamine too), and the liver, all may play a role too.
GABA is higher in summer/lower in winter and tied to liver function
In this animal study, Effect of the pineal gland on 5-hydroxytryptamine and γ-aminobutyric acid secretion in the hippocampus of male rats during the summer and winter, they report that
GABA secretion in the hippocampus of rats had a seasonal rhythm consisting of increased secretion in summer and decreased secretion in the winter.
Additionally, the liver can regulate the content of active substances, including GABA, and its function is controlled by brain centers, especially in the marginal lobe.
This paper reports similar seasonal changes with respect to serotonin, stating that both fluctuations may be related to the seasonal changes of “regulation by the liver”. The authors remind us that in Chinese Medicine the liver is closely related to emotions, and that the liver functions well in hot weather and is weak in winter.
GABA exhibits seasonal rhythms related to the pineal gland and melatonin
The introduction of this animal study (by the same authors), Molecular mechanisms of seasonal photoperiod effects of the pineal gland on the hippocampus in rats highlights a number of points related to seasonal variations in mood:
Based on the theory of “five Zang-organs corresponding to the seasons” in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), physiological functions including emotions vary with the seasons.
The production of mood-related neurotransmitters such as 5-hydroxytryptamine [serotonin], γ-aminobutyric acid [GABA], dopamine, and norepinephrine exhibits seasonal rhythms, which are related to the regulation of the hippocampus by the pineal gland-MT [melatonin] system.
In other words, GABA (and these other neurotransmitters) exhibit seasonal rhythms related to melatonin secreted by the pineal gland, thereby impacting the hippocampus.
Be sure to read the paper for additional information on depression, seasonal affective disorder and bright light therapy; the seasonal effects of the pineal gland on the hippocampus; the role of melatonin and photoperiod/length of night; the hippocampus and melatonin receptors and more.
The authors were looking for direct evidence of the signalling mechanisms that cause this to happen:
Our findings suggest that the MTR-Gs/Gi-cAMP-PKA-CREB signaling pathway is involved in the seasonal photoperiod [length of night] effects of the pineal gland on the hippocampus and may underpin seasonal changes in emotions.
Feel free to read more about all this in the paper too as it’s beyond the topic of this blog.
Other factors to consider: sugar/alcohol, stress/pyroluria and low serotonin
I’d also consider the following:
- The increased consumption of sugar at this time can lead to reduced zinc, magnesium and B vitamins (like vitamin B6 and thiamine) and this can further reduce GABA levels, which relies on these nutrients as cofactors for production. By boosting GABA levels with the amino acid GABA (and higher amounts if needed) you can actually reduce some of the cravings and stress-eating.
- Overindulging in alcoholic holiday beverages can also deplete zinc and B vitamins, further affecting GABA production. Using higher amounts of the amino acid GABA (if needed) can also prevent self-medicating with alcohol. This often happens when trying to fit in and socialize.
- If you have the social anxiety condition called pyroluria, the added stress of family and holiday gatherings can also contribute to zinc and vitamin B6 being dumped, and further impacting serotonin production.
- The need to also increase tryptophan or 5-HTP temporarily when a winter dip in serotonin causes more severe anxiety (the low serotonin worry-type), OCD and/or the winter blues.
Resources if you are new to using GABA as a supplement
If you are new to using the the amino acid GABA as a supplements, here is the Amino Acids Mood Questionnaire from The Antianxiety Food Solution (you can see the low GABA and other low neurotransmitter symptoms) and a brief overview here: Anxiety and targeted individual amino acid supplements: a summary.
If you suspect low levels of GABA and do not yet have my book, The Antianxiety Food Solution – How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood, and End Cravings, I highly recommend getting it and reading it before jumping in and using amino acids so you are knowledgeable. And be sure to share it with the team you or your loved one is working with.
The book doesn’t include product names (per the publisher’s request) so this blog, The Antianxiety Food Solution Amino Acid and Pyroluria Supplements, lists the GABA products that I use with my individual clients and those in my group programs.
Have you noticed worsening anxiety, insomnia, intrusive thoughts or even bulimia in the winter months?
Have you noticed you need more GABA in the winter? And then you ease off at the end of winter again?
What changes in your dosing have made a difference with your symptoms?
Did you adjust intuitively or were you aware of the GABA seasonality aspect?
And do you notice something similar with serotonin support and needing additional melatonin in winter too (if you already use it)?
If you’re a practitioner, do you have your clients/patients make adjustments too?
Feel free to ask your questions here too.