Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, in the brain. It blocks specific signals in the central nervous system, slowing down the brain. This provides a protective and calming effect on the brain and body.
The body produces GABA, and it may also be present in some fermented foods, such as kimchi, miso, and tempeh. These are not foods that most people include in their daily diets, so some people take GABA supplements to achieve the benefits.
In this article, we examine how increased levels of GABA may impact the brain and body, and whether taking GABA supplements could have the same benefits.
What is GABA?
GABA is a neurotransmitter that inhibits or slows the brain’s functions. This activity produces effects such as:
The brain naturally releases GABA at the end of a day to promote sleepiness and allow a person to rest. Some of the medications doctors prescribe to induce sleep and reduce anxiety may also increase the action of GABA.
Medical benefits of increased GABA
Some experts have suggested that increased levels of GABA may have benefits, but the evidence is not clear. According to a 2019 review, GABA has anti-microbial, anti-seizure, and antioxidant properties and may help treat and prevent conditions such as:
Medications to increase GABA
Doctors may prescribe medicines that increase the amount of GABA or stimulate the same neurotransmitters in the brain to treat some medical conditions, such as epilepsy.
For example, benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax) act on many of the same neurotransmitter receptors as GABA. According to one study, people who have depression may have reduced GABA levels in the brain. The use of benzodiazepines may be beneficial in those instances.
Doctors also prescribe the medication gabapentin (Neurontin), which is chemically similar to GABA to reduce seizures and muscle pain.
However, doctors are not clear whether the therapeutic effects of these medications are related to their effect on GABA receptors or whether they work in other ways.
GABA as a supplement
Some people take supplements of GABA for their supposed stress- and anxiety-relieving benefits.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved GABA for use as a supplement and as a food additive. Manufacturers may add GABA to:
- sports drinks
- snack bars
- chewing gum
- candies, and more
Manufacturers produce GABA supplements by fermenting a form of lactic acid bacteria.
However, the FDA do not regulate dietary supplements in the same way as medications. Therefore, consumers should exercise caution as to where they purchase the product from and only buy from reputable vendors and companies.
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.
Benefits of taking GABA supplements
Some researchers have voiced concerns about the supposed positive benefits of taking GABA supplements. An article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology notes that experts remain unclear whether GABA offers real benefits or whether the effects that people report experiencing are a placebo response.
Other researchers do not believe that GABA supplements cross the blood-brain barrier, which they would have to do to have any effect on the body.
However, some studies report positive effects from taking GABA supplements. These include:
Enhanced thinking and task performance abilities
A study from 2015 found that taking 800 milligrams (mg) of GABA supplementation per day enhanced a person’s ability to prioritize and plan actions. Although the study was small, involving just 30 healthy volunteers, it showed how GABA supplementation might promote enhanced thinking.
An older study from 2012 found that taking 100 mg of GABA daily helped reduce stress due to mental tasks. Like many other studies related to GABA, the study was small and involved just 63 participants.
Workout recovery and muscle building
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.
GABA naturally plays an essential role in promoting sleep, relieving anxiety, and protecting the brain.
Scientists have not been able to prove the positive effects of GABA supplementation on a large scale, and their use may have limited effectiveness.
If a person has received a diagnosis for conditions such as depression, anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, they may wish to talk to their doctor about medically-proven treatment before taking GABA supplements.