GABA is a neurotransmitter that can downplay signals in the central nervous system. This calming influence is why many people turn to GABA supplements, as the molecule could have far-reaching implications related to stress, sleep, and anxiety. To find out if you could benefit from increased GABA levels, keep reading.
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a fascinating molecule that plays a role in cell signalling. While technically a non-essential amino acid (meaning the body produces it naturally, using the precursor glutamine), it also works as a neurotransmitter, specifically an inhibitory neurotransmitter—GABA helps to block or inhibit activity in the central nervous system.
However, the GABA molecule is only one piece of a sophisticated biological network; it works alongside GABA receptors mostly found in the limbic system, an area of the brain that stores feelings and memories. A slowdown in cell signalling in the nervous system gives GABA its calming influence and also helps it regulate other biochemicals.
The soothing effect of gamma-aminobutyric acid is why GABA supplements are becoming an increasingly popular option for individuals addressing conditions such as stress and anxiety. But is there any benefit to dramatically increasing levels of GABA, or does it create more problems than it solves?
Before we can look to answer those crucial questions, let's first look at several neurotransmitters influencing our mind and body.
Neurotransmitters are essential signalling molecules that affect how different cells interpret nerve impulses. Some downregulate signalling (like GABA), while others encourage a dramatic uptick.
• Dopamine: Produced in the brain, dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure. Because of this, its influence extends to memory, behaviour, motivation, sleep, and arousal.
• Acetylcholine: Residing in a branch of the peripheral nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, acetylcholine helps to transmit signals linked to muscles, blood vessels, and heart rate.
• Serotonin: Another mood-related neurochemical, serotonin is often nicknamed the "feel-good" chemical because of its role in emotional stability, digestion, sleep, and sexual health.
• GABA: As we've already established, gamma-aminobutyric acid's main function is the control of signals associated with relaxation, emotions, and sleep. In essence, it balances areas crucial to mental well-being.
The neurotransmitters highlighted above play a pivotal role in how we think and feel, but they represent merely a fraction of the chemicals involved in our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Moreover, the balance of these neurochemicals constantly fluctuates based on our level of physical activity, diet, use of supplements, social schedule, and more.
Ultimately, trying to balance these various neurochemicals is an impossible task. Instead, it's best to focus on areas of well-being you want to enhance. If that area relates to sleep or arousal, then there may be a benefit to focusing on a particular chemical or hormone.
Aside from an incredibly rare condition called GABA-transaminase deficiency, the typical signs of a GABA deficiency are much more nuanced. Remember, GABA's primary job is to calm down overactive signals contributing to feelings of stress and anxiety.
Therefore, if you find yourself feeling anxious, nervous, or irritable, often without reason, it could be that your GABA levels are no longer balanced. When your brain isn't producing a regular supply of GABA, it can lead to bursts of emotion and upsetting feelings, disrupting mental well-being.
The exact cause of a fluctuation in GABA levels is difficult to pinpoint because everyone's lifestyle is slightly different. However, if you're experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, it's time to look at factors that might upset your body. These include:
• A long or challenging work schedule
• Conflict with a family member or partner
• Lack of rest
• Poor nutrition or diet
Ultimately, low GABA levels are a symbol of our modern age. Many people likely experience one or more of the above factors daily. The key, of course, is recognising these factors, alongside the symptoms of low GABA, and taking steps to improve your body's desire for biochemical balance.
While certain foods and supplements (more on these shortly) are a good way to restore GABA levels, the most consistent approach is to make minor changes to lifestyle and introduce calming activities. You see, GABA production is very much a self-perpetuating cycle.
We need GABA to deal with stress and to calm our body, but at the same time, calming our body through meditation, soothing music, and breathing exercises can help to ensure the natural and healthy production of essential neurochemicals like GABA.
You can even try calming herbs such as valerian, passionflower, or chamomile. Not only can they help to soothe your mind, but many herbs provide their own unique wellness benefits. As long as you focus on activities or substances you find calming, you'll directly support your body's GABA production.
Increasing GABA levels by consuming enriched foods is another popular option for driving mental well-being. Fermented foods are the ones to focus on, including:
• Probiotic yoghurt
Indirectly, foods rich in antioxidants may also contribute to GABA production. Try to include a healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, and herbal teas.
The final approach to improving GABA levels is with food supplements; although we should be clear from the start, the clinical evidence is mixed. A 2015 study states that "there is some evidence in favour of a calming effect of GABA food supplements", while a more recent 2020 paper claims the opposite.,
A review posted in Frontiers in Neuroscience explains that "although more studies are needed… results show there is limited evidence for stress and very limited evidence for sleep benefits of oral GABA intake". That's not to say GABA supplements will have zero impact on your mental well-being, but it's up to the individual to decide if these supplements are the right fit for their lifestyle. Just keep in mind that too much GABA can cause side effects such as drowsiness.
Although a GABA deficiency is difficult to pinpoint, there's no denying the neurotransmitter's role in well-being. From its regulation of other essential biochemicals to its calming influence on overactive nerve signalling, sufficient GABA levels are fundamental to thinking and feeling at your best.
With a few minor changes, it's possible to enhance the body's GABA production, perpetuating a self-fulling cycle of calmness. Of course, when the pressures of modern society start to build, and you feel increasingly irritated, anxious, or nervous, you can also try GABA-rich foods and supplements for a boost.
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 Boonstra E, de Kleijn R, Colzato LS, Alkemade A, Forstmann BU, Nieuwenhuis S. Neurotransmitters as food supplements: The effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Frontiers in psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4594160/. Published October 6, 2015. Accessed August 10, 2022. [Source]
 Hepsomali P, Groeger JA, Nishihira J, Scholey A. Effects of oral gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration on stress and sleep in humans: A systematic review. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2020.00923/full. Published January 1, 2020. Accessed August 10, 2022. [Source]