What Is Gamma Aminobutyric Acid?

white capsule pills in a woman's hand

Gamma Aminobutyric Acid is naturally present in animals, plants, and microorganisms. Thus, the body produces it, but it’s also present in some foods. There are supplements in the market for the purpose of boosting it. Today’s article will examine how increased levels of it might impact the brain and body. It’ll also explore the possible benefits of these kinds of supplements if any.

What’s Gamma Aminobutyric Acid and Its Impact on the Brain

Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is a chemical messenger in the brain, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that blocks certain signals and slows the former down.

The main function of this neurotransmitter is to protect the brain and the rest of the body, through its calming effect. You may not know it but there are many of them in the brain and their function is to trigger or inhibit certain body reactions. For instance, GABA calms you down by blocking certain signals.

The human brain and some plants naturally produce the GABA chemical and its anti-seizure and anti-anxiety effects on us are well proven (its effects on foods are yet to be studied). In our case, it works by blocking our neurotransmissions.

As you can see, people are inclined to use GABA supplements for all of the above, especially to treat conditions like stress, anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure. The thing is there’s still no scientific evidence to support their use. This is because this neurotransmitter can’t cross the blood-brain barrier when taken orally. So, in short, we still don’t know these supplements have any effects on the brain.

an outstretched hand with drawing of brain above it

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Uses of Gamma Aminobutyric Acid

We already mentioned that people use Gamma Aminobutyric Acid to improve mood disorders and depression, relieve panic and anxiety, improve sleep, relieve PMS, treat ADHD, relieve pain or discomfort, increase tolerance to exercise, lower blood pressure, burn fat, increase the growth of lean muscle mass, etc.

While it’s true that people with these medical conditions often have lower levels of GABA, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that GABA supplements can help with most of these conditions even though it makes sense, in theory. It does help with anxiety though.

There haven’t been many studies conducted about the effects of supplemental GABA although the few ones suggest a possible link between this neurotransmitter and lower blood pressure. For the same reason, we don’t really know if GABA supplements can reach the brain in enough quantities to affect it.

Dietary Neurotransmitters

Natural GABA’s calming effect on the brain has led to all kinds of claims about the use of GABA supplements against stress, poor sleep, a weaker immune system, and a higher risk of depression, among others.

Indeed, foods are natural sources of many substances that impact your nervous system and some of them are neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, glutamate, gamma-aminobutyric acid, dopamine, serotonin, and histamine. The progressive integration of diet in clinical routines makes it necessary to explore such dietary neurotransmitters in neuropsychiatry.

Various animals and plants contain neurotransmitters, according to PubMed and Scopus databases that searched for data on food sources of acetylcholine, glutamate, GABA, dopamine, serotonin, and histamine. These substances are either naturally present as part of primary metabolic processes or ecological interactions, or derive from food technology processes, be it controlled or uncontrolled.

For instance, preservation and cooking methods, microbial activity, and ripening time contribute to the production of neurotransmitters. The gut microbiota is also a considerable source of these.

cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts on wooden background

The Natural Presence of Gamma Aminobutyric Acid In Animals and Plants

There isn’t enough evidence as to the significance of dietary neurotransmitters, especially in regard to their bioavailability, clinical implications, and neuronal effects as well as those of other cells.

Thus, we’re not positive that you can benefit from GABA supplements. However, many GABA foods are rich in other beneficial nutrients like vitamins and minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.

Some of the best sources are cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, soy and adzuki beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, fermented foods like tempeh and kimchi, spinach, buckwheat, peas, chestnuts, sprouted grains, brown rice, and white tea, among others.

We mentioned fermented foods, the bacteria these contain also produce GABA so they contain more of it. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Neurology, food usually contains between 1 and 40 milligrams per 100-gram serving. Similarly, the highest food sources of GABA include brown rice, sprouted grains, and spinach, according to a 2003 analysis published in Preventive Nutrition and Food Science.

Gabapentin

This is a prescription medication usually prescribed for the treatment of nerve pain and seizures. It modulates the GABA-making enzymes and increases them in your brain. There are no food contraindications and you can take it with or without a meal, according to MedlinePlus. They do recommend drinking a cup of water per dose.

glass of water on a counter

The Risks of Taking Gamma Aminobutyric Acid

There’s not enough information in regard to the safety of GABA supplements or of any side effects but pregnant or breastfeeding women, and people taking blood pressure medications should skip them just in case. Likewise, we don’t know enough about how Gamma Aminobutyric Acid interacts with pharmaceuticals, foods, and other herbs and supplements.

A doctor should be able to identify any potential food and drug interactions and side effects and this is why it’s important for people taking these supplements to inform their doctor about them, even if they're natural and organic – most poisons are.

Furthermore, the FDA does regulate dietary supplements although they categorize them as foods rather than medications. What this means is manufacturers don’t have to prove their products are safe before selling them, unlike pharmaceuticals.

Are GABA Supplements Effective?

Ok, so we don’t know much about the effectiveness of Gamma Aminobutyric Acid supplements or about how much of it actually reaches the brain. However, a study suggests it’s minimal. Still, here’s some of the information we do know behind its most popular applications.

Anxiety

A 2006 article in the National Library of Medicine describes two small studies that revealed that participants who took one or another GABA supplement had more increased feelings of relaxation during stressful events than those under placebo or L-theanine. They also note that the relaxing effects happened about an hour after taking the supplement.

It makes sense as anxiety stems from dysregulation of neurobiological systems – it also perpetuates them. However, we still don’t entirely understand the exact mechanisms of anxiety disorders. However, we do know that GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter that can counterbalance the action of glutamate, which is an upper. In fact, many drugs target the GABA system and modulate its overall effect.

This article highlights and evaluates the several neurobiological interactions at play during anxiety. It also mentions studies of plasma GABA and neurosteroid levels as well as benzodiazepine binding site sensitivity and density in some people who suffer from anxiety disorders. They conclude with further support for the role of the Gamma Aminobutyric Acid in anxiety with a summary of the evidence about the use of new GABA agents. Tiagabine for treating anxiety disorders, for example.

High Blood Pressure

Older smaller studies evaluated the use of products containing GABA for the purpose of lowering blood pressure. One from 2020 speaks of how daily consumption of kefir or yogurt decreased blood pressure in people with slightly elevated levels after only a few weeks.

Another study conducted in 2009 revealed that taking Chlorella, a GABA-containing supplement, twice a day reduced blood pressure in people with borderline hypertension.

Insomnia

A small study in 2018 had 40 participants take 300 mg of GABA an hour before going to sleep and they not only fell asleep faster than those who took the placebo but also reported improved sleep quality only four weeks after beginning treatment.

Stress and Fatigue

A study conducted in Japan in 2011 examined the effects of two beverages, one that contained 25 mg of GABA and another with 50 mg. They found that both reduced mental and physical fatigue during problem-solving tasks. Furthermore, the one with the higher dose was slightly more effective.

Similarly, another study conducted in 2009 revealed that eating chocolate reduced stress in participants during problem-solving tasks. Another study had people take capsules with 100 mg of GABA and found it reduced stress in those performing a 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.

woman with insomnia lying in bed

Side Effects

GABA is usually safe in the amounts contained in food and possibly in larger amounts as a supplement but always check with your doctor to know for sure. People usually take up to 1.5 grams per day and up to one month but there isn't enough reliable information to know if these supplements are safe for longer periods.

Some reported side effects include an upset stomach, headache, sleepiness, and muscle weakness. In addition, GABA makes some people sleepy so don’t drive or operate machinery until you know how it affects you.

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The Effects of GABA On Brain and Behavior

Gamma Aminobutyric Acid is an inhibitory brain transmitter in a mature brain and its actions are primarily excitatory in a younger one. Furthermore, some consider it the major excitatory neurotransmitter in many regions of the brain. Even before the glutamatergic synapses mature.

This acid is also synthesized by neurons and acts both on the same cell and on nearby cells. Thus, it’s a signaling mediator in the developmental stages preceding the formation of synaptic contacts. It also regulates the proliferation of neural progenitor cells, the migration and differentiation and the elongation of neurites, and the formation of synapses.

Another function of GABA is to regulate the growth of neural and embryonic stem cells. In fact, it can influence the development of the neural progenitor ones through a brain-derived neurotrophic factor expression. It also activates the GABA A receptor and causes a cell cycle arrest in the S-phase which limits growth.

The Effects of GABA Supplements on the Brain

As we mentioned above, gamma-aminobutyric acid is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human cortex. We also mentioned that its food supplement version is widely available online. Many consumers speak of its benefits but we don’t really know if these supplements confer benefits beyond a placebo effect.

Thus, the mechanism of action of these products is still unknown although some believe GABA can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. Still, the various studies assessing this issue are contradictory and range widely in their methods. This is precisely why we need more research to establish the effects of oral supplements on the GABA levels in the human brain. One way to do it would be through magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

GABA and Alcohol

Scientists used to think that alcohol was a membrane disruptor with a generalized effect all over the brain. They now know it targets certain cells in the brain by binding certain hydrophobic pockets on their surface receptors. The GABA receptor is one of these so alcohol is an indirect agonist — a drug or naturally occurring substance that activates physiologic receptors.

Conflicting Research

GABA supplements have recently become widely available, both in Europe and the USA. As we mentioned above, the FDA categorizes them as a “food ingredient” while Europe lists them as a “dietary supplement.” Thus, manufacturers don’t have to provide evidence supporting the efficacy of their products. At least as long as they make no claims with regard to benefits in the treatment of specific conditions.

You can purchase GABA supplements online through numerous websites. Many people report these have helped them relieve anxiety and/or improve sleep among others. However, researchers did find that GABA can’t cross the blood brain barrier. It makes you wonder about the mechanisms of action behind such claims. Is the effect through peripheral effects outside of the brain? What mechanisms do these supplements exert their action through? Is it merely a placebo effect? Or perhaps GABA can in fact cross the blood brain barrier?

There’s evidence to support the calming effect of GABA supplements. However, most of it has been reported by researchers with a potential conflict of interest. Experts suggest that any real effects of these supplements on brain cognition must be exerted through the blood brain barrier or through an effect on the enteric nervous system. In short, the mechanism of action of GABA supplements on the brain and behavior isn’t clear so we need more studies.

happy woman leaning against a wall and holding a cup of coffee

In Conclusion

GABA has an important role in your body as a chemical messenger but its role is less clear when used as a supplement. There’s evidence of its effectiveness in reducing stress, fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia although most of these studies are either small or outdated. We need more evidence to understand the potential benefits of taking GABA.

Furthermore, the GABA supplements you can find online might be good for relieving stress. Just don’t rely on them to treat other underlying conditions like seizure disorder, severe anxiety, and high blood pressure. While promotions by influencers are pretty standard for trendy supplements, GABA has received some attention from people with credentials like Dr. Oz, Joseph Mercola, and Mike Adams.

There’s much evidence coming from several branches of neuroscience that indicate anxiety disorders arise from a dysfunction in the modulation of brain circuits, the ones that regulate emotional responses to potentially threatening stimuli. Moreover, the concept of these disorders as a disturbance of emotional response regulation is useful. This is because it allows us to explain anxiety in terms of a more general model. It’s also because it identifies ways to develop psychological, behavioral, and pharmacological strategies for the treatment of said disorders.

The aforementioned circuits involve activity from the amygdala and indicate the presence of potentially threatening stimuli. It also reveals top-down control mechanisms that originate in the prefrontal cortex and signal emotion. Understanding the mechanisms of cortical control could open the way to more effective methods for identifying cognitive behavioral strategies for the management of anxiety disorders.

As you can see, anxiety disorders aren’t hard-wired defects in the brain but dysfunctions. An integrated modulatory model can be schematically represented by an imbalance between overactive bottom-up processing from the amygdala as it indicates the presence of potentially threatening stimuli and dysfunctional top-down control mechanisms. The ones related to an inappropriate representation of the emotional salience of stimuli that originate in the PFC.

Thus, neurophysiologists now recognize that the neural circuits that drive anxiety mainly comprise inhibitory networks of GABAergic interneurons. Thus, targeting the neurosteroid–GABA A receptor axis could allow the targeted modulation of anxiety as a function of its stimuli.

Some patients experience relief from anxiety, reduced stress, and improved sleep after taking GABA supplements but there isn’t enough evidence as to how these affect mood, stress, and sleep.

Hopefully, we’ll know more soon.

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