Best Ways to Chill Out

Written by Geoff Kane, MD, MPH. Posted on

We pay attention to our senses, which tell us about our bodies and the people and things around us. We notice our thoughts, movements, and feelings. In response to ailments or other concerns, we narrow our attention to particular body regions, organs, or organ systems—back, skin, or digestive tract, for example. But we rarely contemplate the smallest components of our bodies: the cells and molecules. Yet if you wish to chill out, you may want to take into account your brain cells and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)—a chemical messenger that quiets brain cells down—lest your preferred means of chilling leads to consternation rather than relaxation.

GABA, a common neurotransmitter in the human brain, inhibits the firing of mature brain cells by making the electrical charge within those cells more negative. Fluids in large and small compartments throughout the body have electrical charges reflecting the net effect of the positive and negative chemical electricity of particles (ions) within each compartment. At rest, fluids within our brain cells have a negative charge, while fluids surrounding those cells have a positive charge. The net charge within brain cells changes constantly, as various mechanisms admit or expel charged particles such as sodium (positive), potassium (positive), and chloride (negative).

When the charge within a brain cell (neuron) becomes positive enough to reach its “threshold,” the cell “fires” and a wave of chemical electricity (action potential) rushes along the cell’s membrane, down a nerve fiber (axon) to nerve endings that almost touch thousands of neighboring cells. The nerve endings release neurotransmitters into the gaps (synapses) that separate the cell from its neighbors. These chemical messengers enter receptor sites on the neighboring cells, causing changes that make those cells more likely or less likely to fire as well.

Some receptor sites are embedded in channels in nerve cell membranes such that, when the neurotransmitter occupies the receptor site, the channel is more open. So called excitatory neurotransmitters may, for example, open a channel that lets more sodium into the cell, making the inside more positive and the cell more likely to fire. The inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA opens a channel that lets more chloride into the cell, making the inside more negative and the cell less likely to fire. So boosting the action of GABA reduces brain cell activity, which chills us out.

Specific chemicals increase GABA activity, sometimes rapidly. But consider the following risks before taking them in the hope of chilling out.

Sedative-hypnotics (alcohol and several other substances) augment the action of GABA. Some are prescription medications such as lorazepam (Ativan), a benzodiazepine often prescribed for anxiety, and zolpidem (Ambien), a Z-drug often prescribed for insomnia. The actual medical benefits of sedative-hypnotics are controversial. For example, patients and prescribers sometimes overestimate their safety and efficacy, and the symptoms they relieve sometimes return worse than before (rebound).

You could become addicted to a sedative-hypnotic, especially if you have a personal or family history of addiction. Besides boosting GABA, sedative-hypnotics increase the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter of reward, in the brain’s pleasure center (nucleus accumbens). All addictive substances increase this activity of dopamine, which—by mediating pleasure (positive reinforcement) and relief from displeasure (negative reinforcement)—is instrumental in conditioning primitive regions of the brain to drive addictive behaviors.

Like a number of other addictive substances, excessive and/or extended use of sedative-hypnotics can cause tolerance (increased dose needed to obtain same effect) and withdrawal (including seizures). Individuals in recovery from addiction who accept a sedative-hypnotic medication may find they overuse the medication itself, or resume use of a substance with similar effects, such as alcohol.

You could die of an overdose. During 2001 to 2013, when overdose deaths involving prescription opioid pain relievers increased 3-fold, overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines increased 4-fold. Drug combinations can be fatal. In 2010, for example, benzodiazepines were present in 30 percent of overdoses attributed to opioids, and opioids were present in 77 percent of overdoses attributed to benzodiazepines. In one study, the risk of death by drug overdose among US veterans receiving benzodiazepines and opioid analgesics together was more than 3 times greater than the risk among veterans on opioid analgesics without benzodiazepines.

Those are the warnings. How can you safely boost the activity of GABA and find the chill you’re after? Research is limited, but suggests that yoga, tai chi, meditation/mindfulness, healing breathwork, and possibly qigong augment GABA. Regular exercise may augment GABA also, though walking was found to be less effective than yoga. Exploring any of these practices could be well worth the effort.

Dietary supplements are often promoted as means to augment GABA and treat symptoms such as anxiety that may be related to insufficient GABA. But once again, supporting evidence is limited. A few examples of proposed supplements are L-glutamine, theanine, magnesium, tryptophan-rich foods, and Oolong tea. If you wish to try a supplement, read up on it first. Some can have unwanted side effects.

By now, if this article has you feeling more overloaded than relaxed, try a few deep breaths.