Chemistry of Calm: The Benefits of GABA
Learn how GABA helps promote relaxation‡
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that plays important roles in relaxation and sleep.‡
GABA is one of over 100 neurotransmitters in the body. These specialized chemical messengers enable nerve cells to communicate with one another to regulate functions like emotions, thoughts, memory, and mood.‡
GABA is known as an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter because it slows down communication between nerve cells.‡
Keep reading to get answers to your questions about GABA:
- What is GABA?
- What are neurotransmitters?
- What are the benefits of GABA?
- What are the different sources of GABA?
Before making changes to your diet, nutrition, and exercise routine, consult your healthcare practitioner. Always discuss any vitamin and mineral supplements you are taking or plan to take, since these may interact differently with medications and health conditions.
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What is GABA?
In the brain, the function of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is to slow down signals that would normally excite other neurons. By discouraging those specific brain signals, GABA turns down the activity of certain neurons.1-3
Since the body makes GABA on its own, it’s not an essential nutrient. And while it’s possible that some people may be low in GABA, there are no tests available to measure GABA levels in the brain. The good news is that any beneficial effects on relaxation may be noticeable within a day or two.4-5 ‡
What are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are specialized chemical messengers or molecules that enable communication between cells or neurons. The central nervous system uses neurotransmitters to send and receive signals. Neurotransmitters are involved in almost every system in your body, regulating vital functions like muscle contraction, heartbeat, and digestion. Examples include acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.1-3
Neurotransmitters work by binding to receptors on the surface of target cells. The bound receptor triggers a change in the cell’s function. In neurons, it may stimulate the cell (excitatory neurotransmission), or calm it down (inhibitory neurotransmission).1-3
GABA and glycine are the primary inhibitory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system and brain.‡
The Benefits of GABA
GABA supplements do not mimic all the functions of your body’s own GABA. That’s because your brain tightly regulates GABA levels and has a very limited capacity to accept GABA from the bloodstream.
However, specific benefits of GABA supplements have been documented in small preliminary studies. These include:4-5 ‡
- Moderates occasional stress
- Encourages relaxation
- May support immune health during mild stress
What are the Different Sources of GABA?
The following foods provide small amounts GABA:
- Cruciferous vegetables including broccoli and kale
- Beans including soya, lupin, and adzuki
- Grains including oat, wheat, barley, and white, black, brown, and red rice
- Green tomatoes
- Sweet potatoes
- White tea
GABA supplements provide a higher, guaranteed potency that more closely resembles the effective dosages used in clinical studies.
Favorable effects of GABA supplements on relaxation and related outcomes are supported by small clinical trials. In a trial of 63 adults, GABA reduced stress (measured by EEG) during a challenging mental task.4 A study of 13 subjects found that GABA enhanced alpha brain waves, which indicate a relaxed state. GABA also maintained healthy immune function among participants subjected to stress.5 ‡
While these findings suggest that GABA enters the brain, we still don’t know how much GABA from a dietary supplement reaches the brain. However, recent data suggest that GABA may work indirectly via the “gut-brain axis,” which could explain the observed benefits in the absence of significant brain uptake.6 ‡
Before taking GABA supplements, discuss these with your healthcare practitioner.
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- What are Neurotransmitters? (Accessed December 21, 2021) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326649
- What Does Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Do? (Accessed December 21, 2021) https://www.healthline.com/health/gamma-aminobutyric-acid
- What are Neurotransmitters? (Accessed December 21, 2021) https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-physiology/what-are-neurotransmitters
- Yoto A, Murao S, Motoki M, et al. Amino Acids. 2012 Sep;43(3):1331-7.
- Abdou AM, Higashiguchi S, Horie K, et al. 2006;26(3):201-8.
- Cryan JF, Dinan TG.Nat Rev Neurosci. 2012;13,701-12.