What is GABA?
Thinking about taking a GABA supplement? Before you do, read through this article to learn all about what GABA is and how it can help keep you from feeling stressed out and overwhelmed. We'll tell you how to increase your GABA levels naturally and give you enough information about this important neurotransmitter so you can figure out if supplements are right for you.
What is GABA?
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring amino acid. GABA is a neurotransmitter, which means it delivers a message through your nervous system from one neuron to another. GABA, in particular, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, so it blocks other messages and controls the speed at which information travels through the nervous system.
- You might think of GABA in your nervous system as brakes on a car. The right amount of pressure on the brake pedal slows your car down. Similarly, the correct amount of GABA slows information in your nervous system to keep you from getting overwhelmed.
How do low GABA levels affect mental health?
Low GABA levels are associated with most mental health conditions. While researchers aren't clear on why, it seems that most people diagnosed with a mental health condition also have low GABA activity. Conditions associated with low GABA include schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and major depressive disorder.
- GABA functions to calm the nervous system and help your nerves process sensory input in an organized way. In many of these disorders, people tend to confuse sensory input or be overwhelmed by their senses—something higher levels of GABA could keep from happening.
- Low GABA can cause difficulty concentrating and memory problems, which are often symptoms of ADHD.
Sleep. GABA helps your brain slow down and relax in preparation for sleep. Once you drift off, GABA helps regulate rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep, especially slow-wave or "deep" sleep.
- There's also evidence that GABA plays a role in modulating your circadian rhythm and keeping your overall sleep-wake cycle in balance.
Calm. GABA helps slow down messages being sent by other neurotransmitters, which allows your brain to process that information at a more relaxed pace. This keeps you from becoming anxious or overwhelmed.
- To understand how GABA works, imagine you're out with friends having dinner at a busy restaurant. GABA steps in and slows down the stream of input all around you so that your brain can prioritize the conversation with your friends over the background noise.
Metabolism and appetite control. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA helps ensure that your body has the energy it needs to function. It does this by controlling when you feel hungry and letting you know when you've had enough. Once you're full, GABA blocks the hunger signal so you don't overeat.
- Research on GABA's role in appetite and weight control is ongoing and could prove significant in the development of drugs to help control appetite and fight obesity.
Blood pressure. GABA is a natural ACE inhibitor that helps lower your blood pressure. Since researchers determined ACE plays a significant role in increasing your blood pressure, ACE inhibitor drugs have become a front-line treatment for high blood pressure.
- If you supplement your body's natural production of GABA or stimulate increased production of the neurotransmitter, it might be possible to lower your blood pressure to healthy levels without taking ACE inhibitors.
Inflammation and immune system support. GABA reduces your body's inflammatory response and also helps lessen existing inflammation, which enables damaged tissue to heal more rapidly. GABA can also suppress the immune system to help make allergic reactions a little easier to deal with.
- People with autoimmune conditions and diseases, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), also have low GABA levels. Researchers are focusing on ways that these conditions can be treated with drugs that increase GABA production.
Protection against nerve damage. When nervous tissue is damaged, your body produces various chemicals as part of the inflammatory response to the damage. These chemicals can actually cause further damage to nervous tissue and pave the way for degenerative neural diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. GABA interferes with these chemicals to protect your nervous system from further damage.
- GABA also suppresses degeneration of the nervous system generally and supports cognitive function in the brain. This helps prevent neurological diseases and disorders from taking hold in the first place.
Taking GABA Supplements
Talk to your doctor before starting a GABA supplement. It's generally a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start taking any new supplements—and this is especially true if you're taking other medications. While GABA supplements don't have any major side effects or interactions with other drugs, there also hasn't been a lot of research on them.
- Remind your doctor of any other medications you're taking as well as any allergies you have. That will help them better advise you on taking GABA. Since there's a wide range of recommended doses, ask your doctor what dose would be best for you.
- Because GABA supplements might lower your blood pressure, avoid taking them if you're already taking other drugs to treat high blood pressure.
- You might also tell your doctor why you want to start GABA supplements. They might be able to recommend something that could work better for you.
Take the lowest recommended dosage listed on the bottle. Researchers haven't determined a specific recommended dosage, but most products list dosages of around 100mg total taken in a divided dose throughout the day. Canada's Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD) advises not to take more than 300mg a day or use supplements for more than 4 weeks without talking to your doctor.
- For sleep, scientific studies have used dosages ranging from 100 to 200mg.
- If you're taking GABA to treat high blood pressure, you'll need a much lower dose. Researchers have studied 10-20mg doses.
Watch for mild side effects immediately after taking GABA. No significant side effects have been reported from using GABA supplements. At the same time, these supplements haven't been researched extensively, so medical professionals advise caution. There are mild side effects that might occur immediately after you take a GABA supplement, especially when you first start taking it. These include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Burning sensation in throat
Use doctor-prescribed medications to treat underlying health conditions.I f you're currently taking medication for anxiety or panic disorder, depression, or ADHD, avoid suddenly stopping your medication and replacing it with GABA supplements. There's not enough research done on GABA supplements for them to be considered a valid substitute.
- A GABA supplement might help if you take it in addition to your prescribed medication. But again, you should talk to your doctor about it and see what they say.
- Get medical treatment for physical conditions rather than trying to self-treat with supplements. For example, while GABA supplements might lower your blood pressure, it's too risky to rely on supplements alone if you have high blood pressure—just go see a doctor.
Increasing GABA Naturally
Drink tea with high GABA content. Green tea, white tea, and oolong tea naturally have high amounts of GABA. Some tea companies also add GABA to their tea blends for an additional boost. If you already enjoy drinking tea, this is probably the easiest way to naturally increase GABA.
- L-theanine, one of the key amino acids found in tea, might also stimulate the production of GABA in your brain. Scientists are still researching this effect.
Try yoga to naturally increase GABA activity. During one study, participants practiced yoga 60 minutes a day 3 times a week for 12 weeks. Brain scans showed an increase in GABA in their brains. Participants also reported improved mood and decreased anxiety.
- If you find the idea of yoga intimidating, just start slow. There are many different kinds of yoga and you don't necessarily have to be flexible to practice it effectively.
Practice meditation and deep breathing every day. Research shows that meditation can increase the production of GABA in your brain, as well as boost its activity. To get this boost, meditate for at least 20 minutes every day.
- You don't have to do that 20 minutes all at once—you can break it up into shorter sessions throughout the day.
- Deep-breathing exercises are a good practice to get in little short bursts of meditation. You can even download free meditation and breathing apps for your smartphone that will take you through guided meditation and breathing exercises.
Engage in vigorous exercise to stimulate GABA production.Moderate exercise is great for your health, but it takes a little more effort to stimulate GABA production—exercise at about 85% of your maximum heart rate, to be exact. Research shows GABA production in your brain increases after an 8- to 20-minute session of vigorous exercise.
- You can alternate vigorous exercise with moderate exercise to make it more doable. You might also try high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which alternates brief bursts of vigorous activity with low-intensity exercises, such as walking.
Eat more foods that contain GABA or boost GABA production. GABA isn't really found in a lot of foods unless they're fermented foods (like kimchi or kefir). But there are foods that naturally boost the production of GABA in your body. These foods include:
- Whole grains
- Fava beans, soy, lentils, and other beans
- Nuts, especially walnuts and almonds
- Sunflower seeds
- Fish, especially shrimp and halibut
- Fruits and vegetables such as citrus, tomatoes, berries, spinach, broccoli, and potatoes
Treating Low GABA Levels with Medication
Sedatives activate GABA receptors to increase their sensitivity to it. These medications include barbiturates (phenobarbital), benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin), and Quaaludes. They're also referred to as central nervous system depressants and have profound calming effects.
- Drugs that block the reabsorption of GABA (technically "GABA reuptake inhibitors"), such as Deramciclane, have a similar effect to the sedatives because they ensure there's more GABA around the receptors for a longer period.
Anti-seizure meds decrease the breakdown of GABA in the body. This means that there's ultimately more GABA available because it isn't destroyed as quickly. Anti-seizure drugs that work this way include sodium valproate and vigabatrin.
- Other medications that increase the production of GABA, such as gabapentin, are also prescribed to prevent seizures.
- Divalproex sodium (Depakote) is another anticonvulsant used to treat seizure disorders and migraines. It's also approved to treat manic episodes in bipolar patients. The drug works by increasing the amount of GABA in the brain.
GABA analogue drugs provide a synthetic substitute for GABA. These drugs, including Lyrica and gabapentin, are prescribed to reduce or eliminate seizures, treat neuropathic pain, and ease the symptoms of anxiety. Gabapentin is also prescribed to treat and prevent migraines.
- Researchers have discovered many conditions that gabapentin might be helpful for, although the drug hasn't been approved to treat these conditions. Still, the drug might be prescribed off-label for bipolar disorder, restless leg syndrome, hot flashes, and smoking cessation.