Some of the most common complaints I hear from my patients these days are stress, anxiety, and insomnia. According to a 2021 CDC study, 37% of Americans who responded to an online survey reported “feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge; or not being able to stop or control worrying.”
I wish I could snap my fingers and make all the disruptions, uncertainties, and discord of today’s world disappear. Of course, that’s impossible. But what I can do as a naturopathic doctor is suggest safe, natural remedies that have helped my patients handle stress and improve their mood and sleep—and one of them is taking GABA.
What Does GABA Do in the Brain?
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that enable neurons, or nerve cells, to communicate with one another. Of the more than 100 neurotransmitters identified so far, two of the most abundant and active in the brain are gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate.
- Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter, meaning it increases neural activity by transmitting signals that trigger nerve impulses.
- GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. It decreases neural activity by hindering impulse transmission and has calming effects on the brain and nervous system.
You can imagine the importance of balance between these two neurotransmitters. Excesses of glutamate overstimulate and damage nerve cells and are associated with neurodegeneration, seizures, and some mental illnesses. Excesses of GABA are also problematic and can cause lethargy, sleepiness, sedation, and respiratory distress.
A more common problem, however, is GABA deficiency. A low level of GABA removes the brakes on glutamate, resulting in overactive nerve impulses and an “excitatory” state. This has been linked with anxiety, poor sleep, restlessness, chronic stress, increased pain perception, seizures, and other symptoms. Boosting GABA restores neurotransmitter balance and helps to calm things down.
Drugs That Raise GABA Levels
This has not gone unnoticed by pharmaceutical companies, which have developed several drugs that target GABA pathways.
Pregabalin (Lyrica), gabapentin (Neurontin), and valproic acid mimic the effects of GABA and slow nerve firing. They are approved for the treatment of restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, seizures, and neuropathic pain related to diabetes, shingles, and spinal cord injuries. Pregabalin and gabapentin are also prescribed for other kinds of pain. Side effects of these drugs include drowsiness, dizziness, and serious breathing problems, particularly in people with lung diseases.
Benzodiazepines (tranquilizers and sleeping pills such as Valium, Xanax, and Halcion) owe their anti-anxiety and sedating properties to their effects on GABA and its receptors. The problem with these drugs, which are also used recreationally, is that they can cause excessive sleepiness and sedation. Worst of all, they are addictive.
Alcohol also binds to GABA receptors, plus it inhibits the excitatory effects of glutamate. This explains both the calming, relaxing properties of a drink or two, as well as many of the adverse effects of too much alcohol.
These drugs may be appropriate for certain medical conditions, but there are much safer ways to boost GABA for relief of stress, anxiety, and insomnia.
GABA Health Benefits
GABA is a naturally occurring amino acid as well as a neurotransmitter and, as such, is available as a supplement.
For many years, it was believed that oral GABA couldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, the selective membrane that prevents potentially harmful substances from entering the brain. There is still some controversy about this. In fact, some researchers believe that oral GABA operates through the enteric nervous system, the vast network of neurons and neurotransmitters in the gut that communicates with the brain.
Regardless of how it works, a 2020 review of studies on supplemental GABA for anxiety, stress, and sleep concluded that, although more research is needed, there is evidence that GABA supplements do indeed have benefits, especially for stress. Improvements noted in various clinical trials in this review included:
- Better scores on markers of calmness and worry
- Reduced levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress
- Increase in alpha waves, brain waves that signify a relaxed yet alert state
- Better heart rate variability, a marker of resilience to stress and cardiovascular health
- Shorter sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), fewer awakenings, and more restful sleep
Does GABA Help You Sleep?
Interestingly, the evidence in this study for GABA’s beneficial effects on sleep was less robust than its stress-relieving effects. In real life, however, sleep problems and stress-induced symptoms go hand in hand. Dialing down anxiety, ruminating thoughts, and restlessness reduces insomnia.
That’s why I believe the best time to take GABA is before bedtime. I often recommend taking GABA and melatonin together. GABA helps you relax and quiets the worrisome thoughts that can keep you tossing and turning, while melatonin, the sleep hormone, facilitates sleep.
The usual doses are 100 mg of GABA and 1–3 mg of melatonin, taken 30–60 minutes before bedtime. At these levels, melatonin and GABA are safe and generally well tolerated.
Other Sources of GABA
This amino acid is also present in some foods, including beans, peas, tomatoes, spinach, cruciferous vegetables, sweet potatoes, some fermented foods, and tea. This is not to say you’ll get therapeutic doses of GABA from food alone, but a good diet, which should include all these items, enhances both mental and physical health.
I am particularly interested in GABA and tea. You have probably experienced the invigorating yet relaxing properties of a nice cup of tea. Tea contains caffeine, so it perks you up yet rarely causes that jittery, overstimulated feeling you can get from coffee. This is likely due to the presence of both GABA and L-theanine, another amino acid in tea that elevates GABA levels and is renowned for its calming effects. These two amino acids allow you to enjoy caffeine’s boost in energy and alertness but feel calm and relaxed at the same time.
Other supplements used to help improve sleep, stress, and anxiety that work via GABA pathways in the brain include valerian, lavender, passionflower, lemon balm, and ashwagandha. Use as directed.