GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid and neurotransmitter. GABA is your brain’s primary inhibitory transmitter. Its role is to keep glutamate, the primary excitatory transmitter, from overwhelming you.
Too much glutamate can cause a seizure, and too much GABA can put you in a coma. A healthy brain maintains a critical balance of GABA and glutamate.
GABA acts like a “brake” on neuron circuits during stress. Low GABA levels can result in anxiety, insomnia, poor mood and restlessness.
Clinical studies show that boosting GABA with a supplement relieves anxiety, stress, and boosts the production of alpha brain waves.[i] If GABA is optimized in your brain you’ll feel focused, relaxed and stress-free.
- Balance mood. GABA has an inhibitory effect on overly stimulated neurons. Low GABA levels lead to anxiety, depression and insomnia. GABA helps restore that balance. Promoting a more positive mood which improves focus and relaxation.
- Boost Human Growth Hormone. Bodybuilders and athletes use GABA before resistance training. Studies show GABA boosts blood levels of Human Growth Hormone. Promoting greater recovery support and lean muscle growth.
- Recovery from addiction. Some addiction doctors have been administering drugs that enhance the brain’s GABA-receptors. Normalizing GABA receptors takes away the craving and anxiety that one would typically experience in the absence of the addictive drug.
GABA enhances normal sleep cycles, and improves blood pressure. GABA stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete Human Growth Hormone. And helps produce endorphins that make you feel good after a workout or sex.
When you normalize GABA levels you’ll experience a reduction in anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, restlessness and stress.
How does GABA Work in the Brain?
GABA helps brain health and function in several ways. But two in particular stand out.
- GABA works by preventing neural signaling associated with anxiety from reaching other neurons. It does this by attaching to the receptors that would otherwise excite those neurons. Over-stimulating neurons in certain areas of your brain is what causes anxiety-related symptoms.
Researchers in Japan studied the calming effects of GABA with 8 volunteers. They had study subjects cross a suspension bridge as the stressful stimulus. The placebo subjects in this group showed significant drops in blood level markers indicating high stress levels. While the GABA group showed significantly higher blood levels of these same markers.
GABA worked as a natural relaxant and its effects could be seen within 1 hour of taking GABA. The researchers concluded that GABA could enhance immunity from stress.[iv]
- GABA also helps decrease Beta brain waves and increase Alpha brain waves.[v] Beta brain waves are important for attention, alertness, concentration and developing memories. But excess levels of concentration, particularly during stress, can lead to anxiety, depression, insomnia and more stress.
When you are in an alert state, both Alpha and Beta brain waves can be stimulated. But the type of alertness will determine which brain wave is produced.
Alertness during an Alpha wave state is associated with a relaxed state. And a stressed alert state produces a Beta wave. But an excess of Beta brain waves contributes to a variety of nervous disorders including anxiety and stress.
As a side note, I’m writing this while listening to binaural music which produces an Alpha state. It allows for a relaxed environment which promotes creativity and productivity.
How things go bad:
Low levels of GABA are associated with a variety of health problems.
↑ Anxiety[vi], panic attacks, stress and insomnia
↑ Muscle spasms, hypertension, convulsion, Tourette’s Syndrome and epilepsy
↑ Dry skin and wrinkles
↑ Poor digestion, bloating, flatulence, and constipation
When your neurotransmitters, including GABA, are in balance, you feel motivated, productive and energetic. And you feel calm and relaxed during downtime.
When GABA levels are low you feel filled with dread, you’re constantly worried, you have racing thoughts, and you’re frequently late and disorganized.[vii]
Many people in this GABA-slump resort to high carbohydrate foods, and drugs or alcohol to relax.
GABA to the rescue
The amino acid L-glutamine is the precursor to GABA production in your body. L-glutamate gets converted to glutamic acid or glutamate. Glutamate is your body’s most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter. Which is responsible for attention span, brain energy, learning ability, memory, and staying awake.
An enzyme called glutamate decarboxylase converts glutamate to GABA. It does it with the help of the active form of Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate (P5P)).
The amino acid taurine helps increase the communication and productivity of this enzyme. And zinc helps the release of GABA from its receptors.
When this process works efficiently, you feel relaxed with no stress or feelings of anxiety. And you get a more restful night’s sleep.
How does GABA feel?
When you balance GABA levels in your brain, you feel relaxed and calm. But many neurohackers who try using GABA as a supplement don’t feel the effects. Because some research shows that the GABA molecule is too large to cross the blood-brain barrier.[viii]
If you do feel the calming effects of GABA within a ½ hour of taking it, it may mean you have a “leaky” blood-brain barrier. Not a good thing.[ix] Because if GABA can get through, all kinds of nasty stuff can get through too. Including toxins, undigested food particles and anything else in your blood stream that shouldn’t be in your brain.
We’ll deal with how to fix a “leaky” blood-brain barrier in another article on Nootropics Expert. But the good news is, supplementary GABA can also benefit other functions in your body.
GABA is found in your adrenal glands, pituitary gland, pancreas and your sex organs.[x] GABA is also anti-inflammatory, and has an immune benefit. When all these are running optimally, you’ll feel good.
We’ll also cover other ways to boost GABA levels in our brain in the “Available Forms” section of this article.
GABA was identified as a neurotransmitter several decades ago. And there had been a lot of research on GABA published since. But most of it is focused on how GABA works. And the drugs and chemicals which affect its action.
There is very little research available on using GABA as a supplement. Likely because many scientists believe that GABA taken as a supplement will not cross the blood-brain barrier.
GABA Increases Human Growth Hormone
In one study, researchers worked with 19 subjects who were given a single oral dose of 5 grams of GABA. 18 subjects were given a placebo during this trial.
3 hours after the administration of GABA, blood samples were taken. The team reported that “GABA caused a significant elevation of plasma growth hormone levels”.[xi]
GABA helps Reduce Insomnia
A Los Angeles study conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial with 18 patients with sleep disorders. The patients received either a placebo, or Gabadone (a combination of GABA and 5-hydroxytryptophan).
The difference between the two groups of sleep-deprived patients was significant. The Gabadone group fell asleep faster, stayed asleep longer, and had a better quality of sleep than the placebo group.[xii]
The recommended daily dosage of GABA is 500 to 1000 mg for a relaxation or calming effect.
Some neurohackers notice an immediate relaxing effect, while others need to take it for a couple weeks before it starts to kick in.
L-Arginine which increases nitric oxide may also help supplementary GABA cross the blood-brain barrier.[xiii]
PharmaGABA™ which is a natural form of GABA produced with the help of Lactobacillus hilgardii bacteria is dosed at 50 – 200 mg per day.
GABA is considered very safe when taken in normal recommended doses.
Bodybuilders who use much higher doses of GABA do report experiencing flushing, tingling, a spike in heart rate and blood pressure, and anxiety.
GABA as a supplement is available in tablet, capsule and powder.
Scientists have shown that GABA does not readily cross the blood-brain barrier. But many neurohackers report feeling a calming effect when using GABA.
PharmaGABA™ is a natural form of GABA made using Lactobacillus hilgardii bacteria. The same bacteria used to ferment vegetables when making the Korean cabbage dish called kimchi. This form seems to be effective in helping mood.
Another safe way to change GABA action in the brain is to use any of several commonly used herbs, vitamins and minerals.
Extracts of green, black and oolong tea also elicit a GABA effect.[xv]
Taurine protects against glutamate over-stimulation. And this inhibitory effect acts as an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety).
Suntheanine, which is a branded from of L-Theanine is also found in some pre-formulated nootropic stacks including Mind Lab Pro®.
And Phenibut, which is a derivative of GABA developed in Russia, also increases levels of GABA in the brain. While some report that Phenibut causes drowsiness and fatigue, it’s a much safer way to boost GABA than with a pharmaceutical like Valium or Xanax.
Nootropics Expert Recommendation
Your body does make GABA on its own from glutamate in your brain. Most healthy people have an adequate supply of GABA.
But if you’re dealing with anxiety or stress and need some extra help in calming things down, GABA can help.
While GABA does not readily cross the blood-brain barrier, you have many other options available for regulating or boosting GABA, if GABA as a supplement doesn’t work for you.
We suggest trying a GABA supplement first at a dose of 500 mg.
Or try one of the readily available GABA supplements made by major supplement makers containing PharmaGABA™.
Another safe option for regulating GABA levels is to use a vitamin or supplement which influences the way GABA works in your brain.
Check the “Available Forms” section of this article for details.
[iv] Abdou A.M., Higashiguchi S., Horie K., Kim M., Hatta H, Yokogoshi H. “Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans.” Biofactors. 2006;26(3):201-8. (source)
[v] Abdou A.M., Higashiguchi S., Horie K., Kim M., Hatta H, Yokogoshi H. “Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans.” Biofactors. 2006;26(3):201-8. (source)
[vii] Struzyńska L., Sulkowski G. “Relationships between glutamine, glutamate, and GABA in nerve endings under Pb-toxicity conditions.” Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. 2004 Jun;98(6):951-8. (source)
[viii] Kuriyama K., Sze P.Y. “Blood-brain barrier to H3-γ-aminobutyric acid in normal and amino oxyacetic acid-treated animals” Neuropharmacology Volume 10, Issue 1, January 1971, Pages 103–108 (source)
[xi] Cavagnini F., Invitti C., Pinto M., Maraschini C., Di Landro A., Dubini A., Marelli A. “Effect of acute and repeated administration of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) on growth hormone and prolactin secretion in man.” Acta Endocrinologica (Copenhagen). 1980 Feb;93(2):149-54. (source)
[xii] Shell W., Bullias D., Charuvastra E., May LA., Silver D.S. “A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of an amino acid preparation on timing and quality of sleep.” American Journal of Therapeutics. 2010 Mar-Apr;17(2):133-9. (source)
[xiii] Shyamaladevi N., Jayakumar A.R., Sujatha R., Paul V., Subramanian E.H. “Evidence that nitric oxide production increases gamma-amino butyric acid permeability of blood-brain barrier.” Brain Research Bulletin. 2002 Jan 15;57(2):231-6. (source)
[xiv] Yuan C.S., Mehendale S., Xiao Y., Aung H.H., Xie J.T., Ang-Lee M.K. “The gamma-aminobutyric acidergic effects of valerian and valerenic acid on rat brainstem neuronal activity.” Anesthesia and Analgesia. 2004 Feb;98(2):353-8 (source)
[xv] Hossain S.J., Hamamoto K., Aoshima H., Hara Y. “Effects of tea components on the response of GABA(A) receptors expressed in Xenopus Oocytes.” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. 2002 Jul 3;50(14):3954-60. (source)
[xvi] Möykkynen T., Uusi-Oukari M., Heikkilä J., Lovinger D.M., Lüddens H., Korpi E.R. “ Magnesium potentiation of the function of native and recombinant GABA(A) receptors.” Neuroreport. 2001 Jul 20;12(10):2175-9. (source)