The Glutamate-GABA Balance Is One Of Those Things That Affects How Well Our Brain Can Rest.
This is a tale of two chemicals — one excites, while the other relaxes our brain. These chemicals do determine how well we sleep.
Our brain has so many types of neurotransmitters floating about, all signaling our neurons to do something here or there. One of the more ubiquitous neurotransmitters is glutamate — it is an amino acid that we can obtain from proteins in our diet or the popular flavoring condiment known as monosodium glutamate (MSG). In fact, glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and as this article states,
Glutamate has excitatory effects on nerve cells, and that it can excite cells to their death in a process now referred to as “excitotoxicity”. This effect is due to glutamate receptors present on the surface of brain cells. Powerful uptake systems (glutamate transporters) prevent excessive activation of these receptors by continuously removing glutamate from the extracellular fluid in the brain. Further, the blood–brain barrier shields the brain from glutamate in the blood. The highest concentrations of glutamate are found in synaptic vesicles in nerve terminals from where it can be released by exocytosis. In fact, glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system.
Glutamate binds onto glutamate receptors on the surfaces of brain cells to excite them. In this way, our brain cells can operate better when we’re awake and in an “excited” state with the aid of glutamate.
However, we don’t want that much glutamate in our brain at night because an excited brain makes it difficult to go to sleep. It’s not as if we’re really excited. Stress can cause an overexcitation of the brain too.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve experienced sleepless nights where my brain was in overdrive thinking about something, and those niggling thoughts wouldn’t go away. The neurons were firing, and I was finding it difficult to sleep. Especially on those nights before major exams.
The balancing effect on glutamate
Interestingly, our brains have the capability to regulate a healthy balance between wakefulness and restfulness by fiddling around with the levels of glutamate in our brains.
They do that by synthesizing glutamate decarboxylase (GAD) enzymes, which are capable of converting glutamate to γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA). A necessary cofactor, pyridoxal-5-phosphate (also known as Vitamin B6), supports the conversion of glutamate to GABA.
GABA is a neural inhibitor — where glutamate excites the brain, GABA helps to calm down the brain. Hence, some people who do experience sleeping difficulties may turn to GABA supplements as an option to get better sleep.
But not many people know that they are supposed to exist in a balance.
That tension in the GABA-glutamate balance.
In the case of glutamate and GABA, we’re looking at balancing out their concentrations in the brain properly so that we can sleep and rest our brain when we ought to sleep and rest our brain, or that we can be awake and using our brain when we’re supposed to be awake and using our brain.
The balance, therefore, hinges on the ability of the brain’s GAD enzymes to do a proper conversion of glutamate to GABA. If we aren’t able to sleep properly, what’s going on with the glutamate to GABA conversion?
Perhaps we’re consuming too much MSG in our diet?
Perhaps we’re not consuming sufficient Vitamin B6?
Perhaps we have insufficient GAD activity?
And the list of perhaps this or perhaps that can be further populated.
But when one thing goes wrong, other things have the propensity to go wrong too.
When this circadian rhythm is not well regulated, as mentioned in this article:
Disruptions of circadian rhythms are associated with mood disorders and serotonin has been implicated in their pathophysiology.
We can see that serotonin production can be problematic. When serotonin is implicated, the subsequent synthesis of melatonin will be affected too.
And of course, melatonin is another neurotransmitter that helps to regulate how well we sleep.
Could a sleeping issue then be a problem with melatonin production? Yes, it could; hence melatonin supplements are also considered for people who are experiencing sleeping difficulties. Sleep isn’t something that’s just for the weak:
The crucial thing to note here is…
How well are we regulating the inflammation in our body?
Because that does govern how well we sleep too, unsurprisingly.
Our ability to sleep hinges on our cells’ capabilities to produce sufficient melatonin, convert sufficient glutamate to GABA, and our immune system’s capability in regulating the inflammation response in our body (which means that we do need to make good lifestyle choices with regards to sleeping, exercise, stress management, and diet.
It’s a delicate balancing act that we do have to achieve.
Perhaps, in one person’s case, they cannot convert sufficient glutamate to GABA before bedtime.
Another person might not be able to synthesize sufficient melatonin to aid sleeping.
These 2 probable reasons may result in the same visible symptom of sleep deprivation, but the treatment methods are completely different. We don’t want to treat that symptom; we want to find out why we cannot sleep properly. Hence, a GABA supplement may work for one person, while another might need melatonin, for instance.
Once we understand how we can balance out all these different cell activities, the endpoint should be a much easier target to achieve, isn’t it?
The importance of quality sleep, for so many reasons, cannot be overstated — and that’s just one facet of how we can support our brain cells to function optimally.
Do feel free to check out 10 Nutrients That Support A Good Sleeping Cycle to see what nutrients can support one’s sleep quality!
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