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GABA’s Paradoxical Role in Lung Tissue (Beware of Asthma Attacks)

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is a compound the body uses to relax. It helps calm the brain, soothes the nerves, and makes for a great natural sleep aid. Our bodies have GABA receptors all over the place but those in the lungs are kind of strange.

I’ve read reports of GABA causing asthma attacks and have experienced them myself. I wanted to get a better idea of how this happens, and what I found was strange—to stay the least.

Highlights

  • GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter
  • Counterbalances Glutamate and other excitatory compounds
  • GABA is excitatory in early childhood development
  • Lung tissue contains many GABA receptors
  • GABA Supplements may cause mild asthma attacks

Introduction

GABA is a neurotransmitter, found throughout our bodies, as well as the bodies of other mammals. It’s the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter used by the brain, but is found in other tissues as well (R).

Think of brain activity like jumping on a trampoline: glutamate is like the force the trampoline exerts to send you upward and GABA is like gravity that prevents you from going to high.

GABA’s Evolving Role

Gaba doesn’t always play the role of gravity, though. In our early developing minds, GABA has been observed as the primary excitatory neurotransmitter (R). GABA quickly transitions into the role of calming the central nervous system after early childhood.

Interestingly, certain pathologic conditions of the adult brain have been characterized by a regression of GABA’s role back to that of being excitatory (R). An overall loss in the density of GABA receptors in the brain has also been noted in those with brain damage (R).

Lung Tissue GABA Receptors

GABA receptors have been the subject of much research focused on the treatment of asthma and related conditions. The thought is that targeting GABA receptors in the lung tissue can help relax lung tissue during asthma attacks. But what if GABA receptors in lung tissue are serving an excitatory role—as opposed to their regular roles as mediators of calm?

First, let’s recognize that targeting GABA receptors has shown success in treating asthma (R)(R)(R) or, at least, shown not to make things worse (R). These reports have been made under clinical settings and aren’t just yahoos taking notes on themselves.

Yahoos Taking Notes on GABA

I was first recommended GABA as a potential supplement to help with mental and physical relaxation. GABA is sold legally as a dietary supplement in the United States and, therefore, is technically considered a “food ingredient.” So, I started “eating” 700mg GABA in the mornings and evenings.

On the first morning, about an hour after I had taken my GABA supplement, I had the first asthma attack of my life. I became flushed, sweaty, and couldn’t seem to breathe.  I was scared shitless.

I didn’t take my evening dose, and I discontinued the use of GABA while I did some digging. Almost immediately, I learned two important characteristics of GABA:

  1. It’s hotly debated whether supplemental GABA can cross the Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB)
  2. I wasn’t the only person to ever suffer an asthma attack after taking GABA.

On forums, most accounts of GABA-induced asthma attacks were described to be common among initial use, tapering in severity, and disappearing after continued use. The accounts described it in ways I would compare to building up a tolerance to something before getting its full benefits.

GABA’s Paradoxical Role in Lung Tissue

At this point, I’ve recognized that GABA might not be such a great choice for helping calm the mind. After all, if it can’t get across the BBB, how can it offer any direct benefit? I’d also recognized that GABA has a somewhat flip-floppy role in the body—inasmuch that it acts as an excitatory compound in early during early brain development and can act similarly in certain mental disorders.

It’s like bouncing on that trampoline and suddenly having gravity reverse. I’ve never been a fan of unplanned mental excursions to the stratosphere.

In one study, researchers tested a GABA-receptor targeting compound (Baclofen) known to induce inhibitory effects in tissue via GABA receptor interaction. The idea was that causing lung tissue to relax would lessen the severity of asthma symptoms. This premise has been validated in animal studies (R). What researchers found was astounding—in their words:

An enhancement of airway responsiveness is suggested … these seemingly paradoxical findings are quite interesting in light of previous report of two asthmatics, in one of whom a single dose of baclofen induced frank bronchospasm.

Far from conclusive, this study is one of the only clinical accounts in support of many anecdotal accounts I’ve seen posted to online forums. Still, it’s always nice to have a little insight into something you suspect might be happening to only yourself.

Personal Experiences With GABA

I’ve since found GABA to be useful enough for me to resume dosage. It still causes asthma attacks sometimes, but they aren’t an issue now that I know to expect them.

I don’t suffer from asthma otherwise, nor have I ever. These attacks typically last between 30-90 seconds and are made more intense by moving around and/or drinking lots of water during an attack.

I usually continue working calmly at my desk after sensing the start of one. In most cases, that initial sense is the peak of the experience.

If I’m being honest, I’ve come to almost enjoy the flushing as it helps to shift my body into gear some mornings. I also use IHT for that but make sure to time it before taking GABA as I imagine a combination of IHT and asthma might be unpleasant.

Review

GABA certainly helps me sleep more deeply as well. I do note a slight shift in mood for a few days if I quit taking it, so I’d caution all to be aware of that as well as the potential asthma attacks! I’d also encourage anyone considering a GABA supplement to take a look at this list of quality supplement brands to help guide their purchase.