GABA is a chemical that is made in the brain.
GABA is taken by mouth for relieving anxiety, improving mood, reducing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and treating attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is also used for promoting lean muscle growth, burning fat, stabilizing blood pressure, and relieving pain.
GABA is used under the tongue for increasing the sense of well-being, relieving injuries, improving exercise tolerance, decreasing body fat, and increasing lean body weight.
What is GABA?
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain.
Neurotransmitters function as chemical messengers. GABA is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it blocks, or inhibits, certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous system.
When GABA attaches to a protein in your brain known as a GABA receptor, it produces a calming effect. This can help with feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear. It may also help to prevent seizures.
As a result of these properties, GABA has also become a popular supplement in recent years.
This is partly because it isn’t available from many food sources. The only foods that contain GABA are fermented ones, such as kimchi, miso, and tempeh.
But how well do these supplements work? Read on to learn more about the science behind the potential benefits of GABA supplements.
Why do people take GABA supplements?
GABA’s natural calming effect on the brain has led to countless claims about the use of GABA supplements to reduce stress. Too much stress is linked to poor sleep, a weaker immune system, and a higher risk of depression, among other things. Here’s a closer look at the effects of stress on your body.
Also, people with certain medical conditions may have lower levels of GABA. Some of these conditions include:
- seizure disorders
- movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- panic disorder
- mood disorders, such as depression
People take GABA as a supplement to try to:
- Improve mood
- Relieve anxiety
- Improve sleep
- Help with premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
They may also take GABA to try to:
- Relieve pain or discomfort from injuries
- Increase tolerance to exercise
- Lower blood pressure
- Burn fat
- Increase the growth of lean muscle mass
Limited studies have shown a possible link between GABA and lowered blood pressure. But research on GABA supplements is lacking. Researchers haven’t confirmed whether or not it works for the many reasons people take it.
It is not clear whether GABA taken as a supplement reaches the brain in large enough quantities to affect. There isn’t a set dosage for GABA at this time.
Some people with these conditions take GABA supplements to help manage their symptoms. While this makes sense in theory, there hasn’t been much evidence to suggest that GABA supplements can help with these conditions, aside from anxiety.
How does it work?
GABA works by blocking brain signals (neurotransmissions).
How to use GABA supplements
Some people may take a supplement in pill form, while others may add it to foods, such as protein drinks.
Researchers have not established a daily recommended intake or a suggested upper limit for GABA. Anyone wanting to take GABA as a supplement should consider talking to their doctor first.
At present, there is not enough research to evaluate the possible side effects of taking GABA supplements. However, if a person does experience side effects that might be GABA-related, they should discontinue the use of the supplement and contact their doctor.
The appropriate dose of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) depends on several factors such as the user’s age, health, and several other conditions. At this time there is not enough scientific information to determine an appropriate range of doses for GABA.
Keep in mind that natural products are not always necessarily safe and dosages can be important. Be sure to follow relevant directions on product labels and consult your pharmacist or physician or other healthcare professional before using.
The following doses are based on amounts that have been investigated in scientific studies. In general, it is recommended that users begin with the lowest suggested dose, and gradually increase as needed.
- For sleep, stress and anxiety: 100-200 mg and higher doses, in scientific studies. Individual dosing and length of use will vary.
- For high blood pressure: 10-20 mg, in scientific studies.
For example, 100 mL of fermented milk containing 10-12 mg of GABA per 100 mL was used by patients with high blood press in a study where they consumed the drink daily at breakfast for 12 weeks. In another study, a chlorella supplement containing 20 mg of GABA was taken twice daily for 12 weeks.
How effective are GABA supplements?
Not much is known about the effectiveness of GABA supplements. Experts don’t know how much GABA reaches the brain when consumed as a supplement or food. But some researchTrusted Source suggests that it’s only small amounts.
Here’s a look at some of the research behind GABA’s more popular uses.
According to a 2006 article, two very small studies found that participants who took a GABA supplement had increased feelings of relaxation during a stressful event than those who took a placebo or L-theanine, another popular supplement. The article also notes that the relaxing effects were felt within an hour of taking the supplement.
High blood pressure
Some small, older studies have evaluated the use of GABA-containing products for lowering blood pressure.
In one study from 2003, daily consumption of a fermented milk product that contained GABA reduced blood pressure in people with slighted elevated blood pressure after two to four weeks. This was compared with a placebo.
A 2009 study found that taking a GABA-containing Chlorella supplement twice a day reduced blood pressure in those with borderline hypertension.
In a small 2018 study, participants who took 300 milligrams (mg)Trusted Source of GABA an hour before going to bed fell asleep faster than those taking a placebo. They also reported improved sleep quality four weeks after starting treatment.
Like many other studies looking at the effects of GABA supplements in humans, this study was very small, with only 40 participants.
Stress and fatigue
A 2011 study in Japan examined the effects of a beverage containing either 25 mg or 50 mg of GABA on 30 participants. Both beverages were linked to reduced measures of mental and physical fatigue while doing a problem-solving task. But the beverage containing 50 mg appeared to be slightly more effective.
Another study from 2009 found that eating chocolate containing 28 mg of GABA reduced stress in participants performing a problem-solving task. In another study, taking capsules containing 100 mg of GABA reduced measures of stress in people completing an experimental mental task.
The results of all of these studies sound promising. But most of these studies were very small and many are out of date. Larger, more long-term studies are needed to fully understand the benefits of GABA supplements.
Overall, there isn’t enough information to be sure about the safety of GABA. For this reason, it’s best to play it safe and not use GABA if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Side Effects of GABA supplements
There has not been enough research to uncover the side effects of GABA supplements.
The potential side effects of GABA supplements haven’t been properly studied, so it’s hard to know what to expect.
Some commonly reported side effects include:
- upset stomach
- muscle weakness
Since GABA can make some people sleepy, you shouldn’t drive or operate machinery after taking GABA until you know how it affects you.
GABA oral supplements are generally well tolerated by healthy adults. Some people may experience negative side effects, including:
- Gastric distress.
- Diminished appetite.
- Burning throat.
- Drowsiness and fatigue.
- Muscle weakness.
- Shortness of breath, at very high doses.
It’s also not clear whether GABA interacts with any medications or other supplements. If you want to try GABA, consider talking to a doctor first. Make sure to tell them about any prescription or over-the-counter medications you take, including herbs and other supplements. They can give you a better idea of potential interactions to watch for while taking GABA.
Benefits of GABA
The body’s own GABA activity is important for sleep. GABA enables the body and mind to relax and fall asleep, and to sleep soundly throughout the night. Low GABA activity is linked to insomnia and disrupted sleep. In one study, GABA levels in people with insomnia were almost 30 percent lower than in people without the sleep disorder. And these low GABA levels also corresponded to more restless, wakeful sleep.
Sleep medications including those with zolpidem (Ambien and others) and eszopiclone (Lunesta and others) target the body’s GABA system to increase sedation and sleep. Research indicates that one negative side effect of these sleep medications hallucinations may result from their alterations to GABA activity.
There’s relatively limited research on the direct benefits of supplemental GABA for sleep.
Some recent research suggests that GABA produced in fermented food may increase sleep time and decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. Another recent study showed that a combination of GABA and 5-HTP may together 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.
For stress and anxiety
For stress and anxiety As a natural chemical, the body produces, GABA’s primary role is to diminish the activity of neurons in the brain and central nervous system, which puts the body in a greater state of relaxation and alleviates stress and anxiety. Supplemental GABA may benefit sleep by aiding relaxation and providing relief from anxiety and stress.
There remains debate among researchers about supplemental GABA’s effectiveness in reducing anxiety and stress because of longstanding questions over supplemental GABA’s ability to enter the brain from the bloodstream. (It’s important to note that GABA, in supplement form, may have other ways of relaxing the body, including possibly through GABA’s activity in the gut microbiome.)
While the scientific debate goes on, some studies have shown GABA to be effective in lowering anxiety and boosting relaxation. One small study of 13 adults showed GABA to be effective as a relaxant and anxiety reliever, with slowed brain waves seen within an hour of taking the supplement.
This study also found that a boost to the immune system also occurred with GABA, suggesting supplemental GABA may enhance immunity in people undergoing mental stress.
Another larger study investigated the effects of 100 milligrams of GABA among a group of people who’d recently undertaken a stressful mental task.
Scientists measured a slowing down of brain waves in people who’d taken GABA, pointing to the alleviation of mental stress. Another study tested the effects of GABA on people who were about to take a stressful math test. Those who ate chocolate infused with GABA rebounded more quickly from test-related stress, including stress-lowering changes to heart-rate variability.
For high blood pressure
GABA supplements are sometimes used by people as a natural way to lower blood pressure. There is evidence indicating that GABA may work to reduce high blood pressure. In one study of people with borderline high blood pressure, 12 weeks of use of the supplement chlorella, a type of algae rich in GABA, significantly lowered blood pressure.
In addition to being important on its own, maintaining healthy blood pressure can also help protect your sleep. A natural drop in blood pressure at night is one part of the body’s progression into sleep.
High blood pressure can be a sign of hyperarousal, a state of physical alertness and vigilance that can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Poor sleep and sleep disorders, particularly sleep apnea, contribute to high blood pressure and can lead to the kind of hypertension that is difficult to treat.
Not enough is known about how GABA may interact with drugs, foods, or other herbs and supplements, but use with caution if taking with blood pressure medications.
Be sure to tell your doctor about any supplements you’re taking, even if they’re natural. That way, your doctor can check on any potential side effects or interactions with medications, foods, or other herbs and supplements. He or she can let you know if the supplement might raise your risks.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate dietary supplements; however, it treats them like foods rather than medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market.
These are commonly used medications and supplements that have scientifically-identified interactions with GABA. People who take these or any other medications and supplements should consult with a physician before beginning to use GABA as a supplement.
Interactions with medications
- High blood pressure medications. GABA can lower blood pressure. If you take GABA in addition to taking blood pressure medication, your blood pressure may drop too low.
- Antidepressant medications. People taking antidepressants should consult with their physician before taking GABA.
- Neurally-active medications. People taking medications that affect brain activity should consult their physician before taking GABA.
Interactions with other supplements
Herbs and supplements that may lower blood pressure. Because GABA may lower your blood pressure, if you take GABA along with other herbs or supplements that also may lower blood pressure, the combination may lead to your blood pressure dropping too low. Herbs and supplements that lower blood pressure include, but are not limited to:
- Alpha-linolenic acid.
- Blond psyllium, and other fiber supplements.
- Cod liver oil.
- Folic acid.
- Coenzyme Q10.
- Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Alpha-linolenic acid.
- Blond psyllium, and other fiber supplements.
- Cod liver oil.
- Folic acid.
- Coenzyme Q10.
- Omega-3 fatty acids.
I’ve seen patients experience relief from anxiety, reduced stress, and improved sleep via the relaxing impact of supplemental GABA. I don’t think we’ve seen nearly enough research to have a sufficient understanding of how GABA supplements might affect stress, mood, and sleep, or other ways GABA as a supplement may benefit emotional, cognitive, and physical health. As we learn more—which I hope we do, soon I’ll be sure to update you.
Natural Ways to Boost GABA Levels
Relaxants such as alcohol stimulate GABA receptors, leading to feelings of relaxation and sleepiness. The same effect occurs as a result of taking sleep-inducing drugs such as Ambien. But these approaches are only effective for the short-term and, of course, have undesirable side effects.
Preliminary animal research suggests that certain herbal supplements (including valerian) may help elevate GABA levels in the brain3 (possibly by promoting the production of GABA or slowing its breakdown). Another study suggests that breathing in the scent of jasmine (a substance frequently used in aromatherapy) may help enhance the effects of GABA.4
Certain mind-body practices may also help boost your brain’s levels of GABA. For example, a 2010 study from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that practicing yoga may lead to higher GABA levels (and, as a result, better mood, and less anxiety).
This study compared people who exercised by walking to those who took regular yoga classes, thus suggesting that the yoga in particular—rather than exercise in general—made the difference. As yoga is a mind-body exercise, some have theorized that mindfulness and focus are somehow related to the rise in GABA levels.
Workout recovery and muscle building
A 2019 research study asked 21 healthy males to take a supplement with whey protein or whey protein plus GABA once a day for 12 weeks.
The participants performed the same resistance training exercises twice a week, and the researchers measured the results. The researchers found that the combination of whey protein and GABA increased levels of growth hormone compared to whey protein alone.
Although this was another small study, the researchers concluded that GABA supplements might help to build muscle and assist in workout recovery. They recommended that researchers conduct more studies.1 250