What’s all the fuss about GABA? Or, perhaps it should be said, “What’s all the ‘calm’ about GABA?” In our high-stress, fast-paced society, many people are looking for something to help calm them down. GABA has become a popular supplement for a variety of conditions, especially for anxiety and insomnia.
Others claim that GABA helps improve mental focus, decrease racing thoughts, and helps post traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks. It is reported to help with fibromyalgia, pre-menstrual tension, irritability, adrenal fatigue and menopause.
Nerve problems like neuropathic pain, restless leg syndrome, tremors, and epilepsy are also reported to be helped by GABA.
Even body builders and athletes are taking GABA. GABA influences the production of HGH (human growth hormone.) GABA is taken before exercise or sports performance to increase endurance and the building of lean muscle.
How Does GABA Work?
GABA, or more formally, gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a non-essential amino acid. “Non-essential” does not mean we do not need it; it means that the body produced it, as opposed to “essential amino acids” which must come from food (or supplemental) sources. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
More simply put, it keeps activity in the brain from going overboard. If you have ever experienced anxiety, racing thoughts, or restless leg syndrome, you certainly wish you could calm things down in the nervous system. That is GABA’s job.
The Pros and Cons of GABA
Pros: Thousands of people are taking GABA supplements and reporting relief from a variety of conditions. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence in favor of GABA.
Also, a 2002 National Institutes of Health study stated that, “GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter of the CNS. It is well established that activation of GABA(A) receptors favors sleep.”
Cons: Other scientists say that a GABA supplement does not cross the blood-brain barrier. They say that any help by a supplement is only a placebo affect. GABA proponents say that at least some must be crossing the blood brain barrier.
Can I Increase GABA Activity in the Brain Without a GABA Supplement?
There are many supplements, herbs and vitamins that are taken to help with anxiety and other similar problems. It is suspected that these work by facilitating GABA activity in the brain.
Chamomile, Valerian, Passionflower and St. John’s Wort are four herbs with a long history of having a calming effect, reducing anxiety and promoting sleep. This may be in part because of the effect that have on GABA activity in the brain. They are supporting healthy brain function.
- Chamomile and Passionflower can be taken as a tea or in a tincture.
- Valerian and St. John’s Wort are usually taken in tincture or capsule form, as they do not make a very tasty tea.
Foods that Naturally Increase GABA in the Brain
Vitamin B-6, Taurine, and Zinc are all precursors or cofactors in GABA activity. Foods with the amino acid glutamic acid are needed to produce GABA in the brain. Glutamic acid is not to be confused with monosodium glutamate, which is a chemical and excitotoxin which is not good for the brain.
Making sure to eat foods high in glutamic acid is a natural way to increase the GABA activity in your brain.
- These foods include oats, wheat, barley, almonds, oranges, potatoes, and brown rice, chicken, sea vegetables, peanut butter, walnuts, eggs, and plain yogurt.
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and kombucha also help with GABA production.
Green Tea is Relaxing
The amino acid theanine encourages GABA activity. Theanine is found in green tea. Having a cup of green tea, though it has caffeine, may actually help you relax!
Coffee inhibits GABA activity. This may be why people that suffer with anxiety find that giving up coffee decreases anxiety symptoms. And most people know that trouble sleeping is a consequence of having coffee too late in the day.
Exercise Relieves Stress
It is generally understood that exercise is good for the brain and decreases stress and anxiety. This may be in part because it helps your body to make GABA.
Of course, many people choose to take a supplement because in the middle of a health issue (especially anxiety issues) it can be hard to modify a diet or figure out just what to take. In those cases, just trying some GABA to see if it helps may be ideal. Once you feel less anxious, you might be able to figure out other ways to decrease anxiety, if desired.
Dosage recommendations for GABA vary from 500-1000 mg one to three times a day. There are a variety of different companies making GABA supplements, each a little different. Many of them will also include some of the complementary nutrients, like B-6, l-theanine, or taurine. It is recommended that GABA is taken on an empty stomach with water or juice.
GABA can also be bought in bulk. Buying in bulk is almost always cheaper, you can avoid the fillers in the pill forms, and you can adjust the dosages to suit your needs very easily.
As always, when starting a new supplement, start small and increase slowly so that you can monitor its effect on you.
Because GABA promotes good sleep, avoid taking GABA before driving or using heavy equipment until you know how it works for your body.
Always watch for side effects when taking a new supplement. Side effects of GABA including a “flush” feeling (similar to a “niacin flush,”) nausea, headache, vomiting, sweating, sleepiness, and vivid dreams. Other side effects include restlessness, grogginess, panic attacks, shortness of breath, increase in blood pressure, tinnitus, panic attacks, tingling feeling in the face, neck, tongue or whole body, racing heart, and withdraw symptoms.
GABA and Special Needs Children
Some parents with special needs children are learning about the benefits of GABA for their children. Parents whose children suffer from autism, attention deficit disorder, Tourette’s syndrome or obsessive compulsive disorder have often searched tirelessly for years for soutions to help their children. Some medications prescribed for mental health work by improving GABA activity. But many parents prefer a more nautural approach. This is where GABA may be part of the solution. Because GABA is often used in conjunction with other supplements, like B-6, it is best to have a qualified health practitioner working with a parent and child to maximize the child’s potential and health.
GABA may not be suitable for people with bi-polar disorder or depression. A supplement that “calms down” an already depressed system is not likely to be the best solution.
If you decide to take GABA for insomnia, do not take it on a night that you do not expect to be able to get a normal night of sleep (8 hours.) Because GABA promotes deep sleep, if you only have 5 hours in which to sleep, you may have a hard time getting up in the morning!
Pregnant and nursing mothers should speak to their doctor, midwife, or lactation consultant if they feel a GABA supplement is needed.
Have you tried GABA? Please be sure to share your experience with us!