Should You Supplement with the Amino Acid GABA?

Discover the science behind GABA supplements, what this neurotransmitter does, and whether or not it’s effective in treating stress, insomnia, high blood pressure, and anxiety disorders. 

Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that functions as a neurotransmitter in our brains. Low GABA levels are known to be associated with movement and anxiety disorders, so some people will take GABA supplements to help improve the function of their minds and central nervous systems. Read on to find out how GABA works, and whether or not it may be appropriate for you.

What Is GABA? How Does GABA Work? Where Can You Find It?

GABA is classified as an inhibitory neurotransmitter due to its ability to block certain signals in the brain. GABA decreases activity in the central nervous system and binds with proteins in the brain known as GABA receptors, which creates a calming effect that helps ameliorate feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety. GABA may also help prevent seizures.

Because of these abilities, GABA has become a popular dietary supplement.

For those who want to know how to increase GABA naturally, GABA is found in oolong, black, and green tea, and fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, kefir, and tempeh. GABA production can be boosted by other foods, including nuts like almonds and walnuts, seafood like halibut and shrimp, whole grains, soy, beans, sunflower seeds, spinach, broccoli, fava, tomatoes, citrus fruits, berries, and cocoa.

Who Should Take GABA Supplements?

The reason people take GABA supplements is to get better access to its calming influence on the brain. GABA supplements are thought to relieve stress, and in so doing improve your overall health, because excess stress can lead to a weakened immune system, poor sleep quality, and a higher risk for anxiety and depression. There are also some health conditions that are associated with lower levels of GABA, so if you have any of the following health concerns, then GABA supplementation may be good for you.

People may need more GABA if they have:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression
  • Hypertension
  • Insomnia
  • Panic disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Movement disorders (including Parkinson’s disease)
  • Seizure disorders

Consult a qualified health care professional if you’re on any other medications for these conditions, and ask your doctor if GABA supplements could help manage some of the symptoms associated with these disorders. If you’re considering taking a GABA supplement, read on to find out how upping your intake of GABA affects your brain cells and may help improve your quality of life.

The science behind GABA supplements.

Are GABA Supplements Effective?

Even when supplementing with GABA, research suggests that only small amounts actually make it past the blood-brain barrier and reach your nerve cells. However, when it comes to some of the following uses of GABA, every little bit can count. Here is what the scientific research has to say about the effect of GABA on the human body.

GABA for Anxiety and Depression

This 2003 review on GABA usage for anxiety asserts that GABA is known to counterbalance the affect of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, and plays a role in multiple neurobiological interactions that are relevant to those with anxiety disorders. It supports the use of GABAergic agents in treating anxiety, as does this 2012 article on the GABA system in anxiety and depression cases, which also points out that certain GABAA receptor modulators and GABAB antagonists could serve as potential antidepressants.

GABA for Insomnia

One small study from 2018 tested GABA on participants with insomnia and found that 300 milligrams of GABA taken an hour before going to sleep resulted in reports of people falling asleep faster and noting improved sleep quality in the first 4 weeks after starting GABA treatment. Though there were only 40 participants, these results suggest that effects of GABA supplements in humans may beneficially impact sleep habits.

GABA for High Blood Pressure

There are many studies that have evaluated GABA-containing products and their effectiveness at lowering blood pressure. A 2003 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming fermented milk with GABA helped significantly lower blood pressure levels in participants with elevated blood pressure in 2-4 weeks (compared to the placebo group). And a 2009 study revealed that consuming a GABA-containing chlorella supplement 2 times a day lowered the blood pressure of subjects with borderline hypertension.

GABA for Stress and Fatigue

In 2011 Japanese researchers found that consuming a beverage with either 25 or 50 milligrams of GABA resulted in reduced measurements of physical and mental fatigue during problem-solving tasks, with the higher dose being slightly more effective.

A 2009 study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition showed that consuming chocolate containing 28 milligrams of GABA also reduced stress in participants as they performed a problem-solving test. Yet again in 2012, capsules with 100 milligrams of GABA led to reduced stress during the performance of a mental task. While these are small studies, they nevertheless appear to consistently show that GABA helps reduce stress and fatigue in human beings.

The Potential Side Effects of GABA Supplements

Though the side effects of GABA have not been specifically studied, there have been some reported side effects from people taking GABA supplements, including:

  • Headache
  • Muscle weakness
  • Sleepiness
  • Upset stomach

Since GABA appears to be useful in treating insomnia, it can cause feelings of sleepiness and shouldn’t be taken before driving or operating heavy machinery until you’re aware of how it affects you in whatever dosage you’re consuming it at.

There is also very little research done on GABA’s interaction potential with other supplements or medications, so it’s recommended that you seek medical advice if you’re currently taking any medication, particularly for insomnia, anxiety, or depression, and make sure that your doctor is aware of this or any other herb, supplement, or over-the-counter drug you’re consuming.

Go Gaga for GABA

GABA is a natural part of our body’s function, and plays an important role as a chemical messenger in our brains. Though the research on GABA as a supplement is somewhat skimpy, there are scientifically founded indications that it may help reduce anxiety, stress, high blood pressure, and insomnia.

It’s not just “supplements or bust” with GABA however, as practicing yoga can also lead to an increase of GABA levels, up to 27%! With a little yoga, some fermented foods, and the right GABA supplement, you could have all the bases covered when it comes to reducing the symptoms of certain dangerous medical conditions, and getting your brain in the right frame of mind.

Yoga and the Brain: How Yoga Can Boost GABA Levels

Did you know downward-facing dog can positively affect your brain chemistry? Turns out yoga and your brain make great pals. Researchers have found that practicing yoga may elevate brain gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels, your brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter.

A good yoga class can leave you feeling relaxed, focused, and completely Zen. Practicing this 10,000-year-old form of exercise can increase your flexibility, muscle strength, and energy, but did you know downward-facing dog and other yoga poses can positively affect your brain chemistry too? Turns out yoga and the brain make great mind-body pals. Researchers have found that practicing yoga may boost brain gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels, your brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter.

What Is GABA?

If the only GABA you’ve ever heard of is Yo Gabba Gabba, don’t feel discouraged. The GABA in your brain isn’t as well-known as its fellow chemicals serotonin and dopamine, but it is just as important.

Naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters send messages from nerve cell to nerve cell. Gamma-aminobutryic acid, or GABA, is the “downer” neurotransmitter that regulates many of the depressive and sedative actions in your brain tissue.

GABA is critical for relaxation and is thought to reduce feelings of anxiety and fear by decreasing neuronal excitability. In other words, it helps to chill you out and hits the brakes on an overactive and unruly mind. This chemical is vital to the healthy function of your nervous system and plays a big role in helping you unwind in the evening and allowing you to transition to sleep.

People with depression and anxiety have been shown to have low amounts of GABA, and medicines often used to treat these disorders increase GABA levels. A dip in this chemical has also been noted in people who have survived a distressing event or have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Scientists have also noted up to 30% less GABA in those who suffer from insomnia.

What reduces GABA in the body?

The Brain Benefits of Yoga

Lifestyle practices that combine breathing, stretching, and relaxation, like yoga, have been shown to positively impact GABA receptors and may offer a natural way for you to balance the chemicals in your brain.

A 2007 study found that practicing yoga postures increased levels of GABA in the brain. A group of experienced yoga practitioners showed a 27% increase in GABA after 1 hour, compared to the group who sat and read for an hour. Those in the group who were new to yoga had a 13% GABA boost over a 12-week period. Researchers concluded that while subjects can be trained to practice yoga in a relatively short time with a measurable effect, the associated change in GABA levels may increase with experience.

Yoga Your GABA Booster

Another related study examined the effects of yoga on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels compared to the effects of walking. Findings revealed that practicing yoga did increase GABA, and the yogis reported a greater improvement in their moods and a drop in their anxiety levels. The 12-week yoga intervention was the first study of its kind to show that an increase in GABA levels is tied to improved mood and decreased anxiety.

The results of both studies have prompted further research into yoga as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety disorders associated with low GABA levels. It has yet to be determined if yoga is the most effective activity or if other physical activities offer the same results.

Get a Natural Serotonin Boost

On top of boosting GABA levels, yoga helps release serotonin naturally. Serotonin controls your mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep patterns, and overall state of well-being. Serotonin levels increase while you are concentrating on breathing and putting your focus on mindfully being in the moment. Plus, the areas of the brain that respond to stress and send out hormones in response to such stressors are deactivated during this time.

Double the Impact with Meditation

Yoga and meditation also increase activity in the happiness-producing regions of the brain—the left prefrontal cortex—and help subdue the stress response. As you go into lotus position, you reduce stress hormones and increase “feel-good” endorphins, an effect coined the “yoga high.” The pituitary gland in the brain releases these endorphins, which then attach to receptors within the central nervous system. This binding of endorphins to receptors activates a reaction that blocks the brain from receiving messages of pain. With this blockage, chemicals that trigger swelling and inflammation are stalled.

The deep breathing of yoga and meditation greatly influence the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis) formed by the hyphothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. The HPA axis is in charge of the sympathetic nervous system that directs the fight-or-flight response and the parasympathetic nervous system that helps you relax. Yoga and meditation can help calm SNS activity and stimulate PNS activity. Not only does you mind calm, but your heart rate and blood pressure lower in response.

Anti-Aging Exercise for the Brain

Turns out the physical practice of yoga is also a mnemonic. Adults older than 55 with mild cognitive impairment participated in Kundalini yoga or memory training for 12 weeks. Memory gains were achieved in both groups, but individuals practicing yoga also showed greater gains in executive functioning skills and emotional resilience. Researchers suspect that the chanting involved in certain types of yoga such as Kundalini and Hatha yoga may help bolster verbal and visual abilities.

We’ve already seen how yoga and meditation can affect the brain in similar ways, and we can look to meditation studies to provide further explanation for yoga’s beneficial impact on brain function. Mediation has been shown to cause alterations to brain regions responsible for attention, self-awareness, and self-related thinking, as well as more gray matter density. Greater gray matter volume is associated with increased intelligence.

Overall, this ancient practice, as well as additional meditation practices, has been shown to have a huge impact on both mental and physical well-being. So, does becoming a yogi produce great GABA gains and fortify your brain against the ravages of age? It might be worth a try. Grab your yoga mat and go!