What Is GABA & How Do You Maintain Healthy Levels?
As convenient as it would be to be in total control of our mood, the truth is, our mental state is governed in large part by a unique cocktail of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain—one of which is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).
GABA is essentially your body's "calm down" signal, pumping the brakes on overexcited neurons, contributing to an overall relaxing effect. However, various lifestyle and genetic factors can throw GABA out of whack, leading to serious disruptions in physical and mental health. In fact, abnormal GABA levels and GABA activity have been implicated in anxiety, insomnia, depression, epilepsy, and more.
Here, we unpack how GABA affects the brain and body, the benefits of maintaining healthy GABA levels, and how to optimize GABA with lifestyle changes and strategic supplementation.
What is GABA?
GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter produced in the body. That means it blocks certain signals in the central nervous system to counter the excessive neural "excitement" that can lead to mental and physical health problems. GABA works in conjunction with another neurotransmitter called glutamate to maintain overall balance. Glutamate has the opposite role of GABA—to excite and motivate—and it's also the precursor to GABA. Think of GABA and glutamate as the yin and yang of the brain.
You experience the calming effects of GABA when it binds to GABA receptors (predominantly GABA-A and GABA-B receptors) throughout various parts of the brain. When GABA-receptor binding occurs, it triggers the release of compounds (such as peptides and chemokines) that can quell hyperexcitability of brain cells, explains Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., integrative neurologist.
Why that's important: "Depending on the area of the brain involved, hyperexcitability of the neurons can manifest as seizures, headaches, muscle cramping, anxiety, insomnia, tics, or psychiatric disorders," says Ruhoy.
Normally, excess glutamate is automatically converted to GABA by the body to keep you on an even keel (i.e., not too amped up, not overly lethargic). But a variety of factors can cause imbalances in these two neurotransmitters, resulting in poor GABA activity in the body. According to Ruhoy, these factors include genetics, along with environmental stressors, poor diet, poor sleep, excessive heat or cold exposure, medications (especially antibiotics), lack of exercise, and gut disorders.
Benefits of maintaining healthy GABA levels.
Abnormally low GABA levels have been implicated in a number of undesirable life-disrupting conditions and disorders. The good news: Research reveals that when you optimize GABA levels and activity, you support mood, focus, sleep, and more.*
Although most of the research examines the effects of GABA supplementation on various health outcomes, you can also optimize GABA levels via lifestyle changes (outlined in detail in the following section).
GABA for sleep.*
"GABA enables the body and mind to relax and fall asleep and sleep soundly throughout the night," says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and board-certified sleep specialist. GABA-A receptors are also highly expressed in the thalamus, a brain region involved in sleep processes, and in one study, patients with insomnia had GABA levels nearly 30% lower than people without the sleep disorder.
The deep and restorative sleep you've always dreamt about, featuring pharmaGABA.*
In a recent study, participants who took 100 mg of a natural form of GABA (PharmaGABA) before bed fell asleep faster and had better quality sleep after one week of supplementation.*
"When your body produces [GABA], your central nervous system slows down, which makes a person feel more relaxed, and in many cases sleepy. In fact, most of the current sleep aids support normal GABA levels in the brain," says Breus.
Additionally, supplementation with magnesium, which is a GABA agonist (i.e., a substance that binds to GABA receptors and activates them the same as GABA would, explains Ruhoy), has been shown to support sleep quality.*
GABA for stress and anxious thoughts.*
Given GABA's role in balancing out the excitatory effects of glutamine, it's thought that it also helps to keep feelings of stress in check (this is why many anti-anxiety drugs target GABA-A receptors).* Several studies illustrate how adequate GABA levels can trigger calming effects.*
In one small study, researchers had participants consume either distilled water, distilled water with L-theanine (a calming compound in green tea), or distilled water with a natural form of GABA (PharmaGABA). Sixty minutes later, they measured their brain waves with an electroencephalogram (EEG) test and found that GABA significantly increased participants' alpha brainwaves (which are typically generated in a relaxed state) and decreased beta brainwaves (typically seen in stressful situations) compared to L-theanine or water.*
In another experiment conducted by the same researchers, participants with a fear of heights received either a placebo or 200 mg GABA (in the form of PharmaGABA) before walking across a suspension bridge over a canyon. Salivary levels of the antibody immunoglobulin-A (sIgA)—which is associated with relaxation at higher levels—were measured at various stages. The placebo group experienced a significant drop in sIgA, while the GABA group's levels remained stable and even increased slightly by the end, indicating that they remained more relaxed.*
GABA and mental focus.*
Research demonstrates that GABA can have a positive influence on an individual's ability to perform mental tasks that require significant concentration and relieve both the psychological and physical fatigue that typically impair this concentration.*
In one small study, participants (several of whom had chronic fatigue) were given a beverage containing either 0, 25, or 50 mg of GABA and then asked to perform a difficult math problem. Researchers found that those in the two GABA groups experienced a significant reduction in psychological and physical fatigue, as measured by reductions in certain biomarkers including cortisol.* Those in the 50-mg group also scored higher on the math problem, suggesting improved focus and problem-solving ability.*
GABA for healthy blood pressure.*
Preliminary research suggests GABA can promote healthy blood pressure, at least according to a few lab studies.* It is hypothesized that GABA might be acting by helping blood vessels to better dilate, thus promoting healthy blood pressure.*
Understanding just how effective GABA might be for supporting healthy blood pressure will require more robust research, but one early study found that daily supplementation with 80 mg of GABA had a positive effect on blood pressure in adults.*
How to maintain healthy GABA levels in the body.
In many cases, we can do quite a bit with supplementation, diet, and lifestyle to optimize GABA levels, says Ruhoy, including "eating the right diet free of processed foods, exercising, calming our minds, meditating, breathwork, and more." Here are some research-backed strategies to improve GABAergic activity (i.e., any activity that pertains to or affects GABA) in the body:
1. Supplements that include GABA
Many studies regarding GABA's effects on health outcomes have been done using supplements because they're easy to control and administer. Of these studies, several have utilized PharmaGABA, which is a naturally sourced form of GABA, produced via a fermentation process that uses the same bacterial strain (Lactobacillus hilgardii) used to make kimchi.
Ruhoy explains that "patients do experience a response" with supplements and that "a few studies suggest [they] do cross the blood-brain barrier." They may also exert their benefits through indirect pathways "such as impacting the gut microbiome to increase GABA," which communicates with the central nervous system, explains Ellen Vora, M.D., holistic psychiatrist and sleep expert.
Supplementing with magnesium or consuming plenty of magnesium-rich foods can help alleviate side effects associated with low-GABA levels, such as stress and sleeplessness,* due to its activity as a GABA-agonist—magnesium binds to GABA receptors and activates them as GABA would.
Research has shown that it is magnesium's effect on GABA-A receptors, specifically, that elicit this calming effect.*
Foods naturally rich in magnesium include cooked greens, salmon, dark chocolate, kefir, black beans, avocado, and a variety of nuts and seeds. When shopping for a supplement, Vora prefers magnesium glycinate, which has been shown in studies to help combat insomnia. "Taking it at bedtime can be great for relaxing your mind and your muscles and helping you fall into a deep sleep," she says.
3. Meditation and exercise
Additional ways of improving GABAergic activity include movement and meditation. "Exercise like yoga, Pilates, running, or walking and daily meditation with focused deep breathing can help us feel relaxed," says Ruhoy. "These modalities serve to decrease tone and tension in the central nervous system by increasing GABA, decreasing glutamate, and improving serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine levels—other essential neurotransmitters."
In a new study, patients with clinical depression were assigned to do yoga two to three times a week. After 12 weeks, researchers found that this yoga practice increased levels of GABA on a temporary basis, and suggested that taking one yoga class weekly might help maintain those enhanced levels. This study supports older research finding that GABA levels were significantly increased (up to 27%) after a 60-minute yoga session.
Another study found that people who meditated for a 60-minute session experienced a significant increase in something called a cortical silent period (CSP) in the brain, which is basically a period of reduced neuron activity in the brain caused by GABA. Additionally, research on animals suggests that long-term exercise enhances the brain's capacity to synthesize GABA, at least in certain brain regions.
Diet is crucial for maintaining healthy GABA levels and activity for a number of reasons. For one, a poor diet can drive inflammation, putting an excessive burden on your body that impairing your ability to make and use GABA.
"When the inflammatory fires are stoked within our body, physiologic energy has to then be diverted to combat the inflammation," says Ruhoy. "Therefore, energy and resources are depleted and not available for brain function, which requires many different biochemical reactions to synthesize, utilize, and degrade neurotransmitters."
So, in terms of eating to optimize GABA, passing on processed fare and consuming a variety of nutrient-rich, minimally processed foods (think a Mediterranean diet) is a great place to start.
Homing in a bit more: There are also foods that actually contain GABA itself. "Plants synthesize [GABA]—tea is a very important source with the highest concentration being in white tea, followed by oolong tea, green tea, and then black tea," says Ruhoy.
Glucose (ideally from complex carbohydrates or dark chocolate) and B vitamins (from a variety of veggies, whole grains, legumes) are also important GABA precursors, she adds.
Per a 2018 research review, here are some of the best dietary sources of GABA that you can start layering into your overall anti-inflammatory diet:
- Cruciferous vegetables (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc.)
- Sweet potatoes
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Adzuki beans
- Lupini beans
- Brown rice
Additionally, Ruhoy recommends consuming fermented foods, as certain bacteria in fermented foods also synthesize GABA. These include:
- Raw sauerkraut
5. Certain herbal supplements
A variety of herbs have also demonstrated GABAergic activity by behaving as GABA receptor agonists (the same way magnesium seems to function). "These botanicals include skullcap, valerian, passionflower, and lemon balm and are commonly recommended for insomnia and anxiety but are also thought to be helpful as an adjunct therapy for seizure or movement disorders," says Ruhoy. "Many of these botanicals also serve as adaptogens and can help the body modulate its response to stressors, which can lead to a low balance of GABA compared to the stress hormone neurochemicals."
Of course, consult with your doctor before starting a new herbal supplement, especially since they may interact with other medications you're taking.
Safety and side effects.
Clearly, taking steps to optimize GABA via diet and lifestyle changes is a smart and safe way to promote overall health. GABA supplements, specifically PharmaGABA (which has received "Generally Recognized As Safe," GRAS, status), also seem to be quite safe at recommended doses. Manufacturers don't recommend this supplement if you're pregnant or breastfeeding or for children under 6 years old.
If you choose to take GABA, both Vora and Ruhoy recommend 100 to 200 mg per day. This is a common dose recommended by supplement manufacturers, though some people choose to go higher, says Ruhoy. If you're unsure about the appropriate dose for the symptoms you're dealing with, consult with your doctor or an integrative or functional medicine expert who's well-versed in dietary supplements.
The bottom line.
It's clear that GABA, your body's main inhibitory neurotransmitter, is key for physical and mental well-being. And while optimizing GABA with diet, exercise, and stress-busting practices like meditation can help, research is increasingly suggesting that naturally derived supplements (including magnesium glycinate and PharmaGABA) may deliver that extra boost you need, particularly if you're dealing with something like anxiety or insomnia.