What is GABA? Benefits and Ways to Improve Its Levels

gamma aminobutyric acid

Are you looking to decrease your anxiety levels, boost your mood and improve sleep? You must improve your GABA levels. Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter.

It calms the neurons and keeps the brain from getting overexcited. Though our body naturally produces this neurotransmitter, its reduced levels have been linked to neurological disorders like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and PMS.

Fortunately, there are many ways to increase your GABA levels. Here’s a complete guide to GABA, how it works, its uses and benefits.

What is GABA?

Gamma aminobutyric acid is a neurotransmitter that performs the vital job of sending chemical messages through the brain and the nervous system and regulates communication between the brain cells.

GABA plays a vital role in behavior and body’s response to stress by reducing the activity of the neurons. GABA helps control fear and anxiety.

Lower levels of GABA in the brain have been linked to schizophrenia, depression, sleep disorders, and anxiety.

How does the body manufacture GABA?

GABA is manufactured in tissues from glutamic acid through the enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase, catalyzed by the active form of vitamin B6, pyridoxal-5-phosphate acting as a cofactor. The beneficial microbes in the gut also synthesize GABA.

Benefits of GABA

1. Reduces anxiety and improves mood

GABA performs the critical job of reducing nerve excitability, which leads to the feelings excitability and fear. This is the reason why low levels of GABA can lead to anxiety disorders.

According to a 2004 report published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, abnormality in GABA neuronal function leads to human panic disorder (1). 

Another study by the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons found that lower levels of GABA can lead to panic disorders and mood and anxiety disorders (2).

Several studies have also shown that taking GABA supplements increases alpha brain waves, promotes relaxation, boosts mood, reduces stress and provides anxiolytic activity in both stressed and healthy subjects.

gamma aminobutyric acid infographic-1


2. Improves sleep

According to the Division of Sleep Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, patients with primary insomnia have 30 percent lower GABA levels (3).

Research has shown that GABA can play an essential role in improving sleep quality and duration.

It is well established that activation of GABA(A) receptors favor sleep (4). GABA has a sedative effect which naturally induces sleep.

According to one 2005 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, simultaneous intake of GABA and AVLE shortened sleep latency by 4.3 minutes and increased non-REM sleep time by 5.1 % (5).

In fact, supplementation with GABA extracts can also help counter sleep disturbance induced by caffeine (6).

3. Helps deal with depression

People that are diagnosed with depression typically have low levels of GABA (7). Treatment of depression also improves GABA levels.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, when patients with severe depression underwent a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), there was a significant increase in their occipital cortex GABA concentrations (8).

Thanks to its antidepressant properties, GABA may be an effective treatment for depression.

4. Relief from PMS

The premenstrual syndrome refers to a group of symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, mood swing and cravings that affect women before menstruation. According to research, GABA levels are disrupted by menstruation, and they decline during the menstrual cycle (9).

Research seems to suggest that GABA can be used to provide relief from the symptoms of PMS. Various studies have shown that GABA can be used to provide relief from pain and muscle cramps (10, 11).

5. Improves ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by symptoms such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty in concentrating. Studies have found that children with ADHD have lower levels of GABA concentration.

A study from The Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, Baltimore, found that GABA concentration is reduced in children with ADHD as compared to typically developing control subjects (12).

Taking GABA supplement along with the traditional treatment for ADHD can help improve the symptoms.

6. Helps decrease inflammation

In addition to its anti-anxiety properties, GABA also helps in inhibiting inflammation. Chronic inflammation can lead to diseases like cancer, arthritis, and even heart disease. So, GABA may be helpful in the treatment of these diseases.

According to a 2011 animal-based study, when researchers gave GABA supplements to mice, it reduced the risk of developing rheumatic arthritis, and the mice that did develop arthritis had milder symptoms (13).

7. Elevates growth hormone

Human growth hormone (HGH) increases muscle strength, lowers the risk of heart disease, improves body composition and creates stronger bones.

The decrease in this hormone can delay puberty, slow down growth in children, and can also lead to sexual dysfunction. Studies have shown that GABA supplements can increase the levels of growth hormone.

During a 2008 study, researchers gave eleven men either GABA supplements or a placebo which was followed by resistance training. The results showed that the men who took GABA saw a 400 percent rise in their growth hormone levels (14).

How do you know if you are low on GABA?

Low levels of GABA have been linked to many anxiety disorders, mood swing, epilepsy, and pain. GABA deficiency can also lead to insomnia and schizophrenia.

A person with low levels of GABA may have symptoms that include nervousness, panic, and feeling of dread. He may also feel overwhelmed without reason and guilty for making everyday decisions.

A person with GABA deficiency also has difficulty in switching off his mind while trying to sleep.

What causes GABA deficiency?

Prolonged stress, inadequate diet, and even genetics may lead to GABA deficiency. Serotonin is a positive regulator for GABA receptor interaction.

So, low levels of serotonin can also cause a GABA deficiency. Genetic polymorphism can also reduce the efficacy of GABA neurotransmission.

Ways to increase GABA levels

1. GABA supplements

GABA supplements are available at pharmacies, health shops and online. Since the dosage varies according to age, sex, and weight, you should talk to your doctor for the correct dosage.

  • For stress relief, you should take 750 to 800 mg of GABA divided over three or four times a day.
  • For anxiety, the recommended dosage is between 750 to 1,950 mg divided over three times a day
  • For ADHD, you should take up to 1200 mg a day, split over three times a day.

2. Valerian root

Valerian root is often used as a remedy for anxiety, insomnia, and menstrual cramps. Valerian root contains valerenic acid, which increases the release of GABA from the brain nerve ending and prevents it from being taken back into the nerve cells.

Studies have also shown that valerian root improves both the quality and duration of sleep (15).

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3. Kava

The kava plant contains kavain and other psychoactive compounds that stimulate GABA receptors and help relieve anxiety (16).

According to one study, kava extracts were found to be as effective as diazepam in the treatment of anxiety (17).

4. Magnolia Bark

Honokiol and magnolol, the active components of magnolia bark, act as positive allosteric modulators of GABA(A) receptors. They promote relaxation and alleviate anxiety, depression, and seizures.

5. Magnesium

Magnesium increases GABA, which encourages relaxation and sleep. Healthy magnesium levels protect health, stabilize mood, keep stress in check and promote better sleep.

You can increase magnesium level in your body by eating foods like dark leafy greens, broccoli, legumes, seeds, and nuts.

6. Vitamin B6

GABA is synthesized in the body from the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and vitamin B6, an essential cofactor.

Inadequate levels of vitamin B6 can diminish GABA synthesis. Vitamin B6 is found in foods like pork, poultry, fish, oatmeal, and brown rice.

7. Exercise

Long-term exercise can enhance GABA synthesis in the brain and reduce stress. It also promotes well-being and reduces the risk of mental illness.

8. Meditation and yoga

Various studies have shown that GABA levels are higher in people who practice meditation. Meditation also helps in lowering cortisol, which can inhibit proper GABA function. Yoga too is helpful in increasing GABA.

Side effects of GABA

GABA is generally considered safe though it can have some mild side effects. These include sleepiness, tingling sensation and shortness of breath. However, these side effects occur only if you take very high doses of the supplement.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take GABA supplements as their effects have not yet been studied on such individuals.

If you are already taking medication for depression, anxiety, and insomnia, consult with your doctor before you start taking GABA supplements.

Final thoughts

Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms the neurons. It has many essential functions in the body including reducing anxiety, improving sleep, treating depression, improving ADHD and reducing inflammation.

You can enhance the GABA levels in your body by taking supplements or through natural remedies like valerian root, kava, magnolia bark, eating foods rich magnesium and vitamin B6 and even exercising and meditation.

Though GABA supplements are safe for most people, you must consult with your doctors if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or if you are already taking medication for depression or anxiety.

Manveen had an illustrious career in journalism and writing. She is the mother of a super active 7-year-old. While chasing her around the house, she also finds time to pursue her passion for writing on parenting, education, health, fitness, and entertainment.