The amino acid Gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA) is one of the main inhibitory neurotransmitters in the human central nervous system. The GABA neurotransmitter functions to moderate transmission between nerve cells, promotes nerve cell development and induces relaxation. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it functions to slow down and calm brain activity. The brain’s neurotransmitter system is a complex balance between inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA and excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate. Achieving the balance between this inhibitory effect and excitatory effects is critical for brain health and homeostasis. Just like there are times when the brain needs to jump into action to perform complex cognitive tasks, there is an equal need for the brain and body to recognize when it needs to slow down and induce a calming and restorative sensation. This is where GABA plays a major role.
Research into the effects of GABA on the brain show that it supports calming and relaxation, promoting sleep and healthy mood. It also plays a profound role outside of the central nervous system. In peripheral tissues, it acts to regulate blood pressure, serves as an antioxidant, promotes immune health, and balances inflammation.
In addition to being naturally present in the central nervous system, several foods are a source of GABA. These include green tea (where it is found along with theanine, another relaxing amino acid, yogurt, pickled cabbage, and others.
A major role of GABA in the brain is its protective effect on brain tissue and cells. Inflammation in the brain leads to damage by free radicals and brain tissue is particularly susceptible to this damage. Research has found that GABA counteracts this damage by reducing the effects of inflammation on the brain and counteracting free radical attack. As neurons contain GABA receptors on their surfaces, GABA binds to neuronal receptors, leading to alleviation of nerve damage and an overall protective effect.
Another important function of GABA is its ability to induce relaxation and support a healthy mood. In animal models, GABA administration led to increased levels of chemicals in the brain including dopamine, norepinephrine and 5-hydroxytryptamine. The ability of GABA to preserve the levels of these important chemicals led to an overall antidepressant effect. In addition, through electroencephalogram (EEG) studies, GABA has been found to increase the production of alpha waves, reduce beta waves, and enhance IgA levels, particularly in situations of stress, indicating its ability to calm and relax the brain, relieve stress, and increase immune vigilance.
Reduce Stress, Calm Anxiety
Anxiety is a serious issue and can be a downstream effect of chronic stress. From time to time, many of us experience anxiety symptoms. In people with anxiety, these signs of anxiety can manifest as an increased heart rate, feeling nervous or restless, rapid breathing, sweating or trembling, and trouble concentrating or thinking.
A common question that arises then is: How to calm anxiety? While the causes for anxiety vary between individuals, supplemental GABA can be a useful tool for addressing this by supporting the body’s response to stressful situations and providing stress relief.
Several clinical trials support the use of supplemental GABA for stress and anxiety relief. In a Japanese study that looked at the benefits of GABA supplementation for psychological stress and fatigue as well as benefits on overall performance, a single dose of supplemental GABA led to reductions in cortisol levels and chromogranin A, a marker of physical fatigue. At the same time, GABA led to improved performance on an arithmetic task compared to the group not supplemented with GABA. These results support the significant benefits of GABA in reducing stress and improving parameters of physical and mental fatigue, along with enhancing task-oriented performance.
In a separate two-part clinical trial, EEG testing was conducted in healthy subjects who were supplemented with GABA to assess its effects on brain wave patterns. After 60 minutes of GABA administration, significant increases were noted in alpha waves, with significant decreases in beta waves, indicating GABA’s ability to support relaxation and reduce anxiety. In the second part of the study, the role of GABA on immunity was assessed. After undergoing a stressful stimulus, individuals taking GABA showed an increase of salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels, compared to a decrease in IgA levels in those consuming a placebo. GABA was found to enhance immunity in stressed individuals while also inducing relaxation and relieving anxiety.
GABA Dosage for Better Sleep
As GABA is well-researched for its ability to relieve stress and anxiety, it makes sense that GABA would also be an effective sleep aid in those experiencing sleep disorders. In one clinical trial evaluating GABA for sleep, a GABA supplement or a placebo were administered 30 minutes prior to bedtime for one week. All participants were monitored nightly with an EEG device. In the group supplementing with GABA, researchers noted significant improvements in sleep latency, meaning those taking GABA went to sleep faster than those taking the placebo. GABA benefits also included increased total deep sleep time, which is more restful and restorative than REM sleep. Moreover, in participant self-evaluations, the researchers saw favorable results for GABA versus the placebo treatment, including on their ability to wake refreshed, indicating the restful nature of the sleep that GABA induced.
In addition, blood tests were taken before and after the administration of GABA and suggested that GABA was quickly absorbed and reached peak levels nearly 30 minutes after supplementation. This indicates that GABA has a fast-acting effect to induce relaxation and help individuals sleep better by improving overall sleep quality.
The most common GABA dosage for sleep used in studies is 100 mg daily. In addition to supplementing with GABA, an effective way to address poor sleep is ensuring good sleep hygiene, which includes developing a regular sleep time, improving the environment in which you sleep, and limiting the effects of blue light by reducing electronic device use close to bedtime. The effects of GABA on sleep can also be enhanced by supplementing with nutrients that act synergistically with it to support GABA pathways in the brain. These beneficial nutrients include melatonin, magnesium and L-theanine.
GABA is one of the most important inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain and supporting its levels by supplementing with this amino acid is an effective way of reducing stress, relieving anxiety, and enhancing sleep quality. Given its critical functions both on the brain as well as in peripheral tissues, ensuring adequate GABA intake facilitates homeostasis and brings brain function (and therefore, the entire body) into optimal balance.
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