A highly important amino acid in the brain, there are various benefits of GABA including, reducing anxiety and stress, improving mood and promoting restful sleep.
What is GABA?
GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) is an amino acid produced in the body from glutamate and an active form of vitamin B6.
It is considered to act as the primary inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitter in the brain that works on preventing stimulation of glutamate, the primary excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitter.
Even though glutamate (glutamic acid) is crucial for many brain functions including memory, attention span and learning, an imbalance with GABA can lead to receiving nerve cells becoming overstimulated. That may cause the inability to relax, anxiety, PTSD, depression and insomnia.
Clinical studies have shown that GABA supplements promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, improve your mood and increase the ability to focus, however, the value of taking it as a Nootropic continues to be questionable due to the fact that it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to affect cognitive functions.
Although GABA is not approved by the FDA to treat or prevent any conditions, there are many reports from users that support positive effects with it’s use as a sleep aid, for symptoms of ADHD, panic attacks, addictions and anxiety.
What are the Effects of GABA in the Brain?
GABA is vital for proper brain function. It is found in the highest concentrations in specific areas of the brain including the hippocampus, hypothalamus and in the central brain and is present in 30% to 40% of all synapses.
It is the second most important neurotransmitter in the brain. Neurotransmitters, are chemical messengers the brain uses to communicate with other neurons.
GABA produced in the brain acts as a primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, preventing neurons from firing too fast (causing anxiousness) by attaching to receptors and preventing stimulation of glutamate.
For the brain to produce GABA, you need to have adequate levels of glutamate. However, glutamate excites the cells while GABA balances them out. This mechanism as a whole, is thought to play an important role in calmness versus excitability and controlling balance.
When adequate GABA levels are lacking, glutamate levels can become too high causing overstimulation and in turn, leading to symptoms of low levels of GABA.
It general, it reduces brain activity and is often referred to as “nature’s valium” since many benzodiazepine drugs such as Diazepam, Valium and Zanax work to increase GABA availability by binding to specific sites on their receptors. Alcohol has similar effects in the brain to benzodiazepines.
What are the Benefits of GABA?
GABA is often referred to as a natural tranquilizer with many potential benefits on anxiety and insomnia. It also helps in the production of endorphins, a mood boosting effect, which makes us feel happy and gives us a sense of well being.
It is the second most important chemical messenger in the brain. Individuals can have deficiencies or naturally lower brain GABA levels. There are many connections that have been established between anxiety, panic disorder, insomnia, unusual levels of depression and the tendency towards drug and alcohol abuse with low levels of GABA.
When GABA levels are low, there may be other symptoms such as constant state of worrying, disorganization, racing thoughts and the inability to relax enough to sleep.
Raising low levels may have many benefits for users including feeling more relaxed, better mood, more focused, less anxious and may help you battle insomnia. When GABA levels are balanced, motivation and energy are present when needed and calmness ensues at a normal rate during downtime.
In addition, symptoms of ADHD have been associated with insufficient amounts of this brain chemical. Increasing GABA levels may have positive results on mental focus and the ability to concentrate.
In summary, GABA’s main function is to help the brain calm down and reduce feelings of irritability, restlessness, stress and anxiety that are caused by too much activity in the brain.
Do GABA Supplements Work?
GABA is quickly absorbed into the blood stream. In terms of the effectiveness of using GABA supplements to generate higher levels of this amino acid, research has shown that GABA molecules are too large to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore cannot affect the brain. However there are mixed theories on this subject.
In spite of this, there are a multitude of claims online by users stating that GABA supplementation has helped them to relax, cope with stress, fall asleep with more ease and reduce anxiety. In some cases, even where other alternatives may not have worked.
It is suggested in theory, that this may be due to a potential connection between neuronal networks in the gastrointestinal system and GABA interacting with their receptors. This may cause the effects on our mental state without having to reach the brain. More research is required to prove this theory.
In terms of the debate on whether GABA supplements can reach the brain, studies have mixed findings. It’s suspected that under certain circumstances such as a “leaky blood-brain barrier” GABA supplements will cross the blood-brain barrier in some people. This may be due to the possibility of individualistic differences in blood-brain barrier permeability.
Alternative ways to increase this amino acid or precursors to it, are found in foods such as bananas, beef liver, almonds, halibut, whole grains, broccoli and spinach.
If you are considering GABA supplementation, it is considered generally safe as a dietary supplement when taken in proper dosages with few side effects reported. As with all supplements, consult your doctor first before taking GABA as it may interact or interfere with medications.
Alternative Supplements to GABA
There are many real benefits of GABA. If you are finding that supplementation of GABA isn’t working for you, there are a few alternative supplements you may to consider for boosting GABA levels in the brain.
GABAergic natural supplements that have shown to be effective at reaching the brain are L-Theanine and Lemon Balm. Through their mechanisms of action, both supplements are thought to result in raising brain levels of GABA and provide calming effects.
Another supplement that binds to and stimulates GABA receptors, is Magnesium. An essential dietary mineral, it also serves to restrict the release of stress hormones from entering the brain. Deficiencies have been linked to anxiety and panic attacks.
GABA Side Effects
GABA supplements are considered generally safe when taken in proper dosages for up to 3 months. However, there is not enough research on the side effects or safety other than anecdotal reports at dosages between 250mg-750mg.
When staying within the dosing guidelines, reported side effects have been considered mild to moderate, may disappear shortly after onset and are more common in high doses, however, may pose potential serious side effects. They include; tickling sensation in the limbs, drowsiness, rapid breathing, nausea and increase in heart rate.
GABA is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women or children. It is a good idea to avoid this supplement due to lack of research.
This supplement is also not recommended for people who have liver or kidney disease or people with bipolar or unipolar depressive disorders due to lack of research. This supplement may cause drowsiness and it is recommended to not drive or use heavy machinery.
GABA should be taken with caution when combining with any drugs that affect GABA pathways in the brain including benzodiazepine, barbiturates or alcohol.
Research has not provided evidence that supplementation has any effects on anxiety, depression, insomnia or ADHD due to it’s inability to cross the blood-brain barrier. Supplementation may or may not work in all individuals.
A standard dosage has no yet been determined, however some manufacturers will include dosing suggestions and in some cases, will list the side effects.
Based on thousands of user reports, the dosage seems to be between 250mg-1000mg per day depending on what you are taking it for. For a relaxing effect, users recommend a total daily dosage between 500mg-1000mg. Those taking it for insomnia suggest 500mg-750mg in one daily dose right before bed.
It is recommended to always stay within the lowest dose available when starting on any new supplement. This helps you gauge your body’s effect and find what works best for you.
These are just guidelines. Please follow instructions on the product label. It is recommended to consult your doctor first to determine what dosage may work best for you.