Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short, is an amino acid made in the brain that functions as a neurotransmitter. Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., often known as “The Sleep Doctor,” is a clinical psychologist who is also a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine.
What is GABA?
He clarifies that GABA’s primary role is to lower neuronal activity in the brain and central nervous system (which includes the brain and spinal cord). Breus explains, “It has the effect of shifting the brain and the body into lower gear. Research suggests that GABA can aid in promoting relaxation as a result.
“GABA aids sleep, reduces mental and physical stress, lowers anxiety, and creates a peacefulness of mood by blocking neuronal activity,” he continues. Breus adds that GABA might promote better gut and immune health, as well as a better running metabolism.
According to Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition, “The relevance of this important neurotransmitter has only recently been discovered, but it is now considered to play a role in a myriad of health issues, including ADHD, inflammation, and premenstrual syndrome.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic and a review published in the journal Nutrients, GABA is also offered as a dietary supplement even though some foods either naturally contain this amino acid (such as green, black, and oolong tea, along with fermented foods, like miso and tempeh) or boost its production (such as mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, oat, wheat, brown rice, and sweet potato).
Products meant to augment the diet are known as dietary supplements. They are not meant to treat, diagnose, alleviate, prevent, or cure diseases and are not drugs. When taking dietary supplements while expecting or breastfeeding, exercise caution.
What drives people to use GABA supplements?
Despite the fact that GABA deficiency cannot be detected through blood tests, some symptoms and medical disorders, such as:
- Anxiety disorders, including panic disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Movement disorders, including epilepsy and seizures
- Difficulties with concentration, including ADHD.
- Furthermore, one study conducted by researchers from University
Data indicates that research on the usefulness of GABA capsules is limited, although below are some of the most prevalent uses for this supplement:
1. Quell anxiety
“One of the key tasks of GABA is to lower neuron excitability, which could be linked to sensations of worry and fear,” adds Axe. “In fact, certain anxiety disorders have even been related with lower levels of GABA.” One study involved 13 participants who received an EEG (electroencephalogram, a test which measures electrical activity in the brain) one-hour after taking a GABA supplement. The researchers from Japan noted that the non-invasive test revealed that the participants’ experienced significantly enhanced alpha waves (which denotes relaxation), as well as decreased beta waves (which suggests a less awakened state) (which indicates a less awakened state).
Another study published in the same journal as the previous research focused on eight adults who suffered from acrophobia (a fear of heights) and were advised to cross a suspended bridge. The volunteers who were given GABA showed considerably greater levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels in their saliva compared to the placebo group, demonstrating that the supplement may increase immunity under stressful settings.
2. Improve sleep
Reduced levels of GABA have been related to disrupted sleep, along with problems falling and/or staying asleep, adds Breus. In one study published in the journal Sleep, those living with insomnia had around 30% decreased GABA activity compared to those who didn’t suffer from this illness. “Plus, low GABA levels also corresponded to more restless, wakeful sleep,” he explains.
Breus refers to a study conducted in Korea that suggests a combination of GABA and 5-hydroxytryptophan (also known as 5-HTP, a compound made in the body that produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in sleep-wake cycles, along with mood, digestion, and sexual desire) could improve sleep quality and increase sleep time. “Given the importance of GABA to the body’s sleep patterns, more research into the effects of GABA supplements on sleep is sorely needed.”
3. Lower blood pressure
An article published in the journal Nutrients stated that some evidence points to a moderate drop in blood pressure after taking a GABA dietary supplement. In a 12-week study comprised of 80 adults with borderline hypertension, volunteers were recorded having significantly lower blood pressure readings after consuming a chlorella supplement, a GABA-rich type of algae. “In addition to being important on its own, maintaining a healthy blood pressure can also help protect your sleep,” states Breus.
4. Reduce inflammation
“Although inflammation is a normal response triggered by the immune system as a result of illness or injury, chronic inflammation can contribute to diseases like arthritis, heart disease, and cancer,” says Axe. A review published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation theorizes that GABA may reduce the activity of a pathway that triggers joint inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, he explains. Also, a research paper published in the peer-reviewed journal EBioMedicine suggests that not only might GABA help regulate the release of both pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines (small proteins) in adults living with type 1 diabetes, but targeting GABA signalling could be the key in finding a cure for types of diabetes.
5. Encourage muscle growth
Muscle pain and headaches could be symptoms of low GABA levels, states Breus. According to a 12-week study conducted by researchers from Japan, healthy men between the ages of 26 and 48 who performed resistance training exercises, such as leg presses, leg extensions, and leg curls, twice a week experienced enhanced muscular hypertrophy (meaning muscle growth) after taking post-workout GABA supplementation with whey protein.
GABA side effects and risks
Breus says possible side effects include:
- gastrointestinal issues
- burning throat
- muscle weakness
- shortness of breath at high doses
The United States Pharmacopeia (USP)—an independent, non-profit organization that sets quality, purity, strength, and identity standards for medicines, food ingredients, and dietary supplements—conducted a safety evaluation of GABA supplements and their results showed no serious side effects associated when consuming 120 milligrams daily for 12 weeks, as reported in an article published in Nutrients. Doses vary based on age, sex and weight, states Axe. “Before starting supplementation, it’s best to talk to your doctor and determine if it’s right for you as well as how much you should take.”
Axe warns that pregnant and breastfeeding women should refrain from taking GABA since studies have yet to be conducted. And lastly, both doctors add that GABA may interfere with prescription medications that treat high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.