GABA - An Overview
GABA is the main neurotransmitter of the central nervous system in humans and other mammals responsible for inhibition.
This means that it is responsible for regulating relaxation, sleep, and overall mood.
Think of GABA as the “brakes” of your brain.
It also plays a vital role in modulating synaptic transmission, promoting neuronal development, and preventing depression.40Ngo DH, Vo TS. An Updated Review on Pharmaceutical Properties of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, Molecules. 2019
Many people take GABA as a nootropic for:
- Addiction recovery
GABA may also have some positive effects on physical issues like blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer.
You can purchase GABA as a supplement, however, it is unclear whether or not it can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and have an effect.
It may be more useful to take a synthetic derivative to boost your GABA levels, rather than simply taking GABA itself.
What Does GABA Do?
GABA is a promising candidate for treating anxiety-related issues.
As the main inhibitory transmitter in your brain, it is responsible for relaxing you when you get overstimulated.1Nuss P. Anxiety disorders and GABA neurotransmission: a disturbance of modulation, Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2015
This means that anxiety may be due at least partially to lack of GABA in the brain.
In fact, many of the most potent anti-anxiety drugs out there, like Xanax and Valium, work on the GABA system.
So, theoretically, you should be able to get at least some of the benefits of these pharmaceuticals (without the downsides) by taking GABA as a supplement.
Research seems to back this up.
Animal studies show that infusions of GABA or GABA receptor agonists into the amygdala decrease measures of fear and anxiety in several species.
At the same time, infusions of GABA antagonists tend to increase anxiety.2Sanders SK, Shekhar A.. Regulation of anxiety by GABAA receptors in the rat amygdala, Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1995 3Palomares-Castillo E, et al. The intercalated paracapsular islands as a module for integration of signals regulating anxiety in the amygdala, Brain Res. 2012 4Anne Marowsky, Kaspar E. Vogt. Delta-subunit-containing GABAA-receptors mediate tonic inhibition in paracapsular cells of the mouse amygdala, Front. Neural Circuits. 2014
Trials involving humans also indicate that GABA is able to induce relaxation, diminish anxiety, and enhance immunity under stressful conditions.
Researchers propose this is due to increasing alpha waves (meditative, calming waves), decreasing beta waves (faster, higher decision making waves), and enhancing immunoglobin A (a stress hormone) levels under stressful conditions.
Effects could be seen within 1 hour of its administration to induce relaxation and diminish anxiety.5Adham M. Abdou, et al. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of γ‐Aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans, Biofactors. 2008
The GABA system is also heavily tied to overall emotional regulation.
So, it comes as no surprise that there is some evidence that maintaining proper GABA levels could treat depressive symptoms and raise mood.
Multiple preclinical studies suggest that GABA levels may be decreased in animal and human models of depression.
Antidepressants, mood stabilizers, electroconvulsive therapy, and other GABA agonists show promise in reversing depression-like behavior in animals and humans.6Brambilla P, et al. GABAergic dysfunction in mood disorders, Mol Psychiatry. 2003
In one study, twenty pre-menopausal female patients took a GABA-rich nutritional supplement at every meal.
Researchers observed that sleeplessness, somnipathy, and depression were remarkably improved in most of the patients that had previously complained of these symptoms.7Tadashi Okada, et al. Effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid-accumulating defatted rice germ on oral menopause and presenile mental disorders, Journal of Japan Society for Food Science and Technology, 2000
GABA supplementation also reduced signs of depression in rats in a forced-swim model.
Researchers suspected it’s antidepressant effect was due to balancing the levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin in the hippocampus.8AlfredoBriones-Aranda, et al. Alterations in GABAergic function following forced swimming stress, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior. 2005
GABA’s anti-inflammatory effects could also play a role in fighting depression. According to some researchers, “chronic exposure to increased inflammation [may] drive changes in neurotransmitters and neurocircuits that lead to depressive symptoms.”
So, by suppressing some of the cytokines and other proteins associated with inflammation, GABA may treat depression in this way.9Felger JC, et al. Role of Inflammation in Depression and Treatment Implications, Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2019 10Gerald Prud’homme, et al. GABA exerts anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects, J Immunol. 2013
Additionally, GABA can counterbalance the excitatory hormone glutamate, which can also cause low moods when levels get excessive.11Gerard Sanacora, et al. Towards a glutamate hypothesis of depression, Neuropharmacology. 2013
Memory and Learning
There is some evidence that maintaining proper GABA can improve some aspects of memory function. However, researchers are still unsure exactly how it influences these processes.
One study found that GABA may play an important role in motor-skill learning, but not sequence learning.12Bryant J. Jongkees, et al. Influences of glutamine administration on response selection and sequence learning: a randomized-controlled trial, Sci Rep. 2017
GABA improved the long-term but not short-term memory recovery of mice in one trial.
High doses of GABA enhanced memory recovery up to 85% compared to the control group.
However lower doses only enhanced memory 20%. These results imply that a high-dose intake may be necessary for GABA to be effective for memory.13Yong Chang Seo, et al. Enhancement of the Cognitive Effects of γ-Aminobutyric Acid from Monosodium Glutamate Fermentation by Lactobacillus sakei B2-16, Food Biotechnology 2012
By reducing inflammation and promoting Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, GABA may protect against the degenerative effects of aging on short-term memory. 14Author Name. The Effects of Fermented Laminaria japonica on Short-Term Working Memory and Physical Fitness in the Elderly, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2018
GABA plays an important role in neural plasticity. This may improve short-term motor learning behavior and learning-related brain activity.15Stagg CJ, et al. The role of GABA in human motor learning, Curr Biol. 2011
GABA’s anti-inflammatory properties make it a valuable neuroprotective, especially as you age. It can seemingly reverse cell damage in some cases.
GABA has shown a protective effect against neurotoxic-induced cell death.16Fragu P, et al. Functional microscopic imaging of the thyroid gland with the help of analytical ion microscopy, Pathol Biol. 1991
It may also improve cell viability, and reduce indicators of chronic cell damage.17Li W, et al. Novel fermented chickpea milk with enhanced level of γ-aminobutyric acid and neuroprotective effect on PC12 cells., Peer J. 2016
GABA is heavily tied to sleep. Taking it as a supplement may improve sleep quality and alleviate insomnia.
According to multiple studies, GABA supplementation significantly shortened sleep latency, increased total non-REM sleep time, and reduced the symptoms of sleep disorders.18Atsushi Yamatsu, et al. Effect of oral γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration on sleep and its absorption in humans, Food Science and Biotechnology. 2016 19Abdou AM, et al. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans, Biofactors. 2006 20Jung-Ick Byun, et al. Safety and Efficacy of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid from Fermented Rice Germ in Patients with Insomnia Symptoms: A Randomized, Double-Blind Trial, J Clin Neurol. 2018
It might be especially helpful in combination with l-theanine. This duo could have a synergistic effect on neural systems associated with sleep.21Atsushi Yamatsu, et al. Effect of oral γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration on sleep and its absorption in humans, Food Science and Biotechnology. 2016
One of the physical benefits of GABA is decreasing blood pressure.
This may be due to it’s holistic inhibitory effect on the central nervous system. It doesn’t simply put the brakes on your brain, but on your body as well.
GABA has been shown to have positive effects on lowering BP.
One study observed that administering GABA caused a dose-related decrease in the blood pressure in 30 to 50 minutes.22Kimura M, et al. Involvement of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) B receptors in the hypotensive effect of systemically administered GABA in spontaneously hypertensive rats, Jpn J Pharmacol. 2002
One clinical trial has confirmed that daily supplementation of 80 mg of GABA per day was effective in reducing the blood pressure of adults with mild hypertension.23F. Matsubara, et al. Effects of GABA supplementation on blood pressure and safety in adults with mild hypertension, Japanese Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 2002
GABA supplements may have multiple benefits for treating some types of diabetes.
Research shows that GABA can be effective agents in lowering blood glucose, attenuating insulin resistance, stimulating insulin release, and preventing pancreatic damage.24Soltani N, et al. GABA exerts protective and regenerative effects on islet beta cells and reverses diabetes, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 25Ashley Untereiner, et al. GABA promotes β-cell proliferation, but does not overcome impaired glucose homeostasis associated with diet-induced obesity, FASEB. 2019
GABA has also been shown to decrease ambient blood glucose and improve blood glucose fluctuations.26Wenjuan Liu, et al. Combined Oral Administration of GABA and DPP-4 Inhibitor Prevents Beta Cell Damage and Promotes Beta Cell Regeneration in Mice, Front. Pharmacol. 2017
In multiple animal trials, oral treatment with GABA inhibited weight gain, reduced the concentrations of fasting blood glucose and improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity in mice.
27Tian J, et al. Oral treatment with γ-aminobutyric acid improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity by inhibiting inflammation in high fat diet-fed mice, PLoS One. 2011 28Wenting Shang, et al. Wheat bran with enriched gamma-aminobutyric acid attenuates glucose intolerance and hyperinsulinemia induced by a high-fat diet, Food And Function. 2018
GABA’s anti-inflammatory properties may also make it a potential treatment for some types of cancer.
In one study, GABA was shown to inhibit leukemia cell proliferation, while at the same time causing the cancer cells to die off at a faster rate.29Oh CH, Oh SH. Effects of germinated brown rice extracts with enhanced levels of GABA on cancer cell proliferation and apoptosis, J Med Food. 2004
There is also some preliminary evidence that GABA may suppress the proliferation of lung cancer, bile duct cancer cells, colon cancer cells, pancreatic tumors growth, and liver cancer cell migration.30Hildegard M. Schuller, et al. Gamma-aminobutyric acid, a potential tumor suppressor for small airway-derived lung adenocarcinoma, Carcinogenesis. 2008 31Lihua Song, et al. γ-Aminobutyric acid inhibits the proliferation and increases oxaliplatin sensitivity in human colon cancer cells, Tumor Biology. 2016 32Hussein A. N. Al-Wadei, et al. Celecoxib and GABA Cooperatively Prevent the Progression of Pancreatic Cancer In Vitro and in Xenograft Models of Stress-Free and Stress-Exposed Mice, PLoS One. 2012 33Chen ZA, et al. Suppression of Human Liver Cancer Cell Migration and Invasion via the GABAA Receptor, Cancer Biol Med. 2012
How GABA Works In The Brain
GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (CNS).
Neuroscientists estimate that at least one-third of all CNS neurons utilize GABA as their primary neurotransmitter.
This means that maintaining proper GABA functioning is crucial for proper cognitive function.34Bloom FE, Iversen LL. Localizing 3H-GABA in nerve terminals of rat cerebral cortex by electron microscopic autoradiography, Nature. 1971
GABA’s inhibitory effect is essential for maintaining a balance between neuronal excitation and inhibition, synaptic signaling, neuronal excitability, and for maintaining the natural “pulse” of your brain system. 35Klausberger T, Somogyi P. Neuronal diversity and temporal dynamics: the unity of hippocampal circuit operations, Science. 2008 Jul
Essentially, without enough GABA, your brain “overheats,” and stops functioning properly. Glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter, builds up in the synapses without GABA to counterbalance it.
This can lead to overstimulation and anxiety, among other problems.36Ngo DH, Vo TS. An Updated Review on Pharmaceutical Properties of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, Molecules. 2019 37Nuss P. Anxiety disorders and GABA neurotransmission: a disturbance of modulation, Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2015
GABA also decreases inflammatory hormones, which can cause cell damage and cognitive dysfunction.
Over longer periods of time, too much inflammation can kill neurons and lead to mental decline, especially as you get older.
Luckily, GABA can help prevent and even reverse some of these effects.
This nootropic can also modulate brain waves. It can increase Alpha waves (which are associated with relaxation), and decrease Beta waves (which are associated with stimulation).
This is also a source of GABA’s anti-anxiety and sleep-promoting benefits.38Abdou AM, et al. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans, Biofactors. 2006
GABA Potential Side Effects
GABA is a naturally occurring amino acid and neurotransmitter in the body, and it is generally considered safe and non-toxic.
Studies show that doses up to 300 mg of GABA are safe.
However, some people experience minor adverse side-effects, such as mild gastrointestinal discomfort, headache, and drowsiness.
We strive to bring you the most up to date, research-based information about GABA and other nootropics.
Something we missed? Do you use GABA? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
About the author:
Erik Levi is a co-founder of HolisticNootropics.com and a certified holistic nutritional therapy practitioner.
As an NTP Erik takes a nutrition first approach to health. He has worked with many different people to help them use nutrition to optimize their quality of life.
Erik believes that mental health is a physiological process and cognitive enhancement is not something that can be achieved by just taking some pills with good Amazon reviews.
Instead, true cognitive enhancement comes with the right balance of nutrients, movement, and gratitude. Erik continues to stay up to date with the most current nootropic and holistic health research and promises to deliver the best solutions possible.
You can check out his personal health blog/podcast/YouTube Channel all under the name Holistic A-Hole.