Our brains are a uniquely complex organ. It controls our thoughts, memories, motor skills, breathing, various emotions, and many other regulatory processes.
The brain is home to a vast network of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, one of the most abundant being gamma-aminobutyric acid, or simply, GABA.
While this chemical messenger is naturally produced within the body, it is also widely popular in supplement form.
But what is GABA actually used for? What makes it so important?
What Is GABA?
Our brains are governed in large part by a network of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters have a pivotal role to play as it relates to our mental state.
GABA is naturally occurring within the body and is a non-proteinogenic amino acid and neurotransmitter in the brain and central nervous system (CNS).
This chemical messenger is formed from glutamate, with the addition of an enzyme known as glutamate decarboxylase (GAD), and an active form of vitamin B6, known as pyridoxal phosphate.
Although glutamate is a precursor to GABA, they actually serve opposite roles as neurotransmitters. While GABA acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, glucamate serves as an excitatory neurotransmitter. Issues can arise when imbalances between them occur.
There are also GABA receptors that respond when GABA is released into the nerve terminals within the CNS. These inhibitory GABA receptors are known as GABAa and GABAb.
GABA’s Role in the Brain
In adulthood, GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the CNS. However, during embryonic development GABA actually acts in the opposite way, as an excitatory neurotransmitter. GABA is believed to be the first active neurotransmitter during brain development.
GABA’s primary function within the CNS is to reduce excitability by inhibiting nerve transmissions. In one sense, GABA can be thought of as the set of brakes that slow things down when neurons get overly excited.
Due to this fact, GABA has been referred to as your body’s “chill out” signal. Its function has relaxing effects for your body, acting as a sort of anti-anxiety neurotransmitter.
When we experience stress our bodies produce hormones via our adrenal glands to fuel the body’s fight-or-flight response. One of these stress hormones is cortisol.
Although cortisol does have some important roles within the body, elevated cortisol levels can lead to chronic health issues. GABA plays a role in countering this hormonal stimulant by helping the brain to relax.
The Effects of Low GABA Levels
Maintaining adequate GABA levels in the body is extremely important. Low or abnormal GABA levels inhibit your body’s ability to relax after stress hormones are released. In fact, low levels of GABA have been linked to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Furthermore, low levels of GABA might also have an impact on your sleep health. GABA receptors have a crucial role to play when it comes to your brain relaxing before bedtime.
The Health Benefits of GABA
In addition to being produced naturally by the body, GABA is also found in dietary sources. Some dietary sources include:
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli
- Beans, like common bean and Adzuki beans
- Rice, oat, wheat, and barely
- Sweet potatoes
- St. John’s wort
Obtaining therapeutic doses of GABA from food alone is unlikely, but these are good sources nonetheless.
Oral GABA Supplementation
In terms of oral GABA efficacy, these clinical trials and systematic review findings are notable:
- Better scores on markers related to calmness and worry.
- Shorter time to fall asleep (sleep latency), fewer times waking up, and more restful sleep.
- Reduction in cortisol levels (stress hormone).
GABA for Sleep Support
As stated, GABA plays an important role in sleep as it allows the body and brain to wind down and relax prior to falling asleep. Low levels of GABA can disrupt this process.
That is why GABA is thought to be an effective supplement for better sleep.
As a supplement, GABA has a similar calming and relaxing effect that helps at bedtime. One four-week study found that participants who took 100 mg of GABA before bed fell asleep quicker and reported better quality of sleep overall.
In regard to sleep, GABA is also used in combination with magnesium.
GABA for Stress and Anxiety
As a supplement, GABA has also been used as a natural remedy for anxiety and stress management. As stated, GABA's primary role in the body is to diminish overactive neurons in the CNS, which leads to greater relaxation.
One research study looked at the relaxation effects of GABA versus L-theanine. The researchers looked at participants' brain waves with an electroencephalogram (EEG) after 60 minutes of GABA administration.
The study found that GABA significantly increased alpha brain waves and decreased beta brain waves. Alpha waves increase when people feel relaxed whereas increased beta waves are typically seen in stressful situations.
In light of these findings, the researchers concluded that GABA effectively induces relaxation and reduces tension.
GABA is one of the most abundant chemical messengers produced by the body. Its main role is as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the CNS.
GABA helps reduce the excitability of the neurons that are typically caused by the fight-or-flight response and the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. GABA acts as a set of brakes to slow the process down.
Its calming and relaxing effects are essential for sleep and mood regulation. When GABA levels are low, supplemental forms can help you put the brakes back on.