More than 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, and now researchers may have found a reason why.
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A new study examined GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) levels in a group of people who had a long history of sleep problems and found that their GABA levels were 30% below normal. This low level also contributes to anxiety and a poor mood.
GABA is the most important inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, and is essential to healthy relaxation and sleep. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals which relay, amplify and modulate signals between a neuron and another cell. Some neurotransmitters are described as "excitatory" or "inhibitory.")
Researchers at Brigham & Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School evaluated eight men and eight women between the ages of 25-55, who were not on any sleep medications. They use proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) to determine GABA levels and the results were compared to a control group. The researchers concluded that as a whole, the groups’ sleep problems were clearly linked to low GABA levels. This preliminary study is very significant because it is the first one of its kind to show reduced levels of GABA in individuals with insomnia.1
A second recent double-blind, placebo controlled study at the UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles (released May 4, 09), followed 18 patients with sleep disorders who were given either a placebo or supplement containing GABA. Before they started the supplement, it took the treated group about 32 minutes to fall asleep. After taking the supplement, it only took about 19 minutes, on average. Before supplementation, the duration of their sleep was about 5 hours, and after supplementation it increased to about 6.83 hours. There was virtually no change in the placebo group.
The treated group experienced less morning grogginess, and a much easier time falling asleep, wakening and staying asleep for a longer period.2
Although these studies are preliminary, they point to low levels of GABA as being a contributor to sleep disorders. Based on these findings, along with personal accounts, raising GABA levels seems to have a significant impact on quality of sleep.
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Winkelman JW, Buxton OM, Jensen JE, Benson KL, O'Connor SP, Wang W, Renshaw PF. Reduced brain GABA in primary insomnia: preliminary data from 4T proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS). Sleep. 2008 Nov 1;31(11):1499-506.
Shell W, Bullias D, Charuvastra E, May LA, Silver DS. A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of an Amino Acid Preparation on Timing and Quality of Sleep. Am J Ther. 2009 May 4. [Epub ahead of print].