The practice of meditation has been engaged in since antiquity, originating in the ancient Vedic times of India and is described in the texts associated with this period .
It has since become popular in many Western nations, especially the United States, and the term "meditation" is used to refer to a large number of diverse and distinct techniques. These include but are not limited to contemplation, concentration, the use of nature sounds like the ocean and rain, guided meditation, meditative movement exercises such as yoga and Tai chi, as well as breathing exercises . The practice has become a cornerstone in psychological and medical practices for stress management as well as in the treatment of a variety of physical and psychological disorders .
New research evidence suggests that meditation can modulate brain activity, specifically via the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) [3-6]. Though this may perhaps not be surprising to devotees of the practice, in this article we will investigate the relationship between meditation and this important neurotransmitter in the brain and nervous system.
Meditation and Health
The practice of meditation is complex, involving changes in cognition, sensory perception, affect, hormones, and autonomic activity . The health benefits of meditation have been noted by healthcare professionals, patients, caregivers, and the general public during times of crisis. This has been most recently demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic . Systematic reviews of available evidence suggest that measures of anxiety, depression, and pain all showed improvement in the presence of meditation and/or mindfulness practice . Other efficacious health impacts of meditation include benefits in those with substance abuse, attention disorders, traumatic stress, dysregulated eating, and mental illness . When engaged in over a prolonged period, traditional meditation has been associated with structural and functional brain changes that underlie these health effects.
What is GABA and Why is it Important?
As a chief inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA has a principal role in reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. It is a non-proteinogenic amino acid and is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human cortex [9,10]. It balances the excitatory role of another neurotransmitter called glutamate [11,12].
Neurotransmitters are essentially chemical messengers within the brain, with GABA serving to inhibit, or block, activity to a certain degree within the nervous system. When GABA attaches to a GABA receptor in the brain, it induces a relaxing effect that can mitigate feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear. Studies have shown that GABA activity is negatively correlated with anxiety, and in mouse models with dysfunctional GABA receptors a greater degree of fear-related behaviors is evident .
This evidence suggests that lower levels of GABA and/or GABA receptors is linked with higher levels of anxiety. Therefore, GABA has for some time been a target of drug therapies to help address anxiety yet may also be implicated as a mechanism in the positive effects brought about by meditation.
Meditation Can Modulate Brain Mechanisms, Behavior, and Anxiety
The process of meditating increases activation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) region of the brain. It also stimulates the reticular nucleus of the thalamus, affecting the production and delivery of GABA . GABAergic neurons have a central role in cortical inhibition, modulating cortical excitability and neural plasticity .
The PFC is a brain region associated with problem solving and decision making . In other words, executive functioning. When it is stimulated, the reticular nucleus of the thalamus is activated and produces GABA . People that meditate possess higher resting cerebral blood flow in the cerebral cortex, and it has also been proposed that Transcendental Meditation increases GABAergic tone . Therefore, by increasing GABA levels, meditation may help decrease anxiety.
Although conducted in yoga practitioners and not meditators per se, a study from 2007 found that a 60-minute yoga session brought about a 27% increase in brain GABA levels but no change in a control group . Another study from 2010 reported similar findings, with greater improvements in mood and decreased anxiety compared with a control group, as well as increased thalamic GABA levels . These findings are important and notable given the fact that the Transcendental Meditation movement considers yoga a similar practice, derived from the Hindu tradition .
A study in type 2 diabetic patients found that Integrated Amrita Meditation boosted GABA levels compared with a control group, albeit these levels were not measured in the brain .
A brain study using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy and diffusion tensor imaging in long-term meditators showed that myo-inositol, glutamate, and N-acetyl-aspartate are important metabolites that are subtly altered in the white matter of the brain in meditators . A separate study linked meditative processes to GABAergic cortical inhibition that could underlie enhanced cognitive performance and enhanced emotional regulation, using transcranial magnetic stimulation for this purpose .
How Does Meditation Affect Other Neurotransmitters?
Alongside GABA, meditation has effects on other neurotransmitters too. Serotonin metabolites are significantly increased in the urine of individuals that meditate, suggesting elevated levels in the brain . The increased concentration and attention associated with meditation may also be a result of increased acetylcholine levels .
Can Psychedelics Affect or Assist the GABA System?
The so-called GABAergic system is involved in the acute (i.e., short duration) and potentially the long-term effects of psychedelic compounds . For instance, ketamine has been shown to act as an antidepressant by modulating GABA receptors in cortical neurons and by downregulating GABA reuptake. Elsewhere, serotonin receptors located on GABAergic interneurons within the striatum and nucleus accumbens might be involved in modulating the psychedelic effects of psilocybin.
A recent study in rats showed that ketamine and psilocybin increase extracellular levels of GABA in the frontal cortex, in addition to dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate .
Can Psychedelics Enhance Meditation?
Meditation and psychedelics, when combined or in isolation, can disrupt narrative, agentive, and somatosensory aspects of self-consciousness [23,24].
A study from Johns Hopkins University found that psilocybin combined with meditation and other spiritual practices had persistent effects at 6 months . These effects included positive changes in interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping, and community observer ratings.
Systematic review evidence has suggested a link between mindfulness meditation (MM) and psilocybin, in that they may have complementary therapeutic effects when combined together . For example, MM might boost or prolong the effects as well as bring about psilocybin-induced peak experiences . This combination might offer a lot of promise for treating depression and continues to be studied intensely.
From both physical and psychological perspectives, there is no doubt that meditation has a huge impact on health and well-being, and the neurotransmitter GABA seems to play a big role.
So enhancing GABA production, either naturally or exogenously (via supplementation such as with Tro Calm) may enhance your meditation. Just remember that directly supplementing with GABA isn't helpful because it is poorly bioavailable (i.e., won't get absorbed). That's why Tro Calm has a specific type of GABA with a vitamin B3 attached to enhance this dramatically.
With enhanced meditation, your feeling of well-being is very likely to get a nice upgrade + there is research is ongoing that it may help in conditions such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and many others as well.
As Dr. Ted likes to say, it's time we all get just a little bit more GABA-delic!
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