What is GABA? (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid): Benefits, Side Effects, and Usage

GABA, or gamma-amino butyric acid, is an amino acid naturally produced in the brain. It acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter or a hormone that is widely distributed in the central nervous system (CNS). Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers released in the body that modulate our mood. GABA’s main function is to facilitate communication between brain cells. It plays an essential role in cognitive and physiological functions, most importantly it helps us calm down. [1] Increased GABA levels is known to help with sleep, digestion, relaxation and inflammation. In this article, we will outline the function of GABA, its benefits and the ways to boost its activity! Fortunately, there are ways in which you can increase GABA levels naturally. Some of these include taking pure GABA extract, supplementing with herbs which impact GABA synthesis and trying out lifestyle practices like yoga and meditation. [2]

What is GABA and How Does it Work? 

GABA is widely distributed in the neurons of the cortex and is produced from the precursor glutamate via an enzyme called glutamate decarboxylase. The glutamate neurotransmitter has the opposite role of GABA. Its main function is to excite whereas GABA’s function is to calm down. When glutamate levels are too high, they automatically get converted to GABA to promote calm and balance in the body. When there isn’t enough GABA serum in the brain, GABA sends chemical signals to the brain to initiate and hinder muscle contractions. This promotes feelings of calm and relaxation, reduces tension and enables smooth and fluid muscle movement. Studies have found low GABA activity to be linked to anxiety, depression, focus, and attention deficits. [3] In the past, supplementing with GABA was considered ineffective due to its inability to cross the blood-brain barrier, but as discussed below, new research is proving the contrary. [4]

GABA - Uses and Benefits 

Scientists have just recently recognized the importance of this neurotransmitter. In fact, GABA is popularized for its ability to relieve symptoms of anxiety, inflammation, ADHD, insomnia, and premenstrual symptoms. That is why it is critical to maintaining balanced levels of GABA and glutamate in the brain. Here are a few of our top benefits and uses for GABA.
  1. Relieves Stress

Studies have shown that GABA may be effective at reducing stress. GABA is a known inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it reduces nerve excitability and helps with stress. Researchers believe there is a strong correlation between low GABA levels and mood disorders. One study from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons’ Department of Psychiatry found that patients with a family history of anxiety disorders or those afflicted by these conditions had reduced brain concentrations of GABA. Another study found panic attacks occurred more in individuals with obstructed GABA response. [5] [6] In effect, many anti-depressants, sleep medications and anticonvulsants target GABA receptors due to its therapeutic properties.
  1. Promotes Relaxation and Sleep

GABA extract substantially affects sleep quality and duration. By inhibiting neural excitability, GABA has been shown to reduce mental and physical stress and induce relaxation and sleep. [7] In one study, individuals with insomnia were found to have 30% lower levels of GABA compared to the control group. [8] In another study, researchers gave mice a 100 mg/kg GABA extract from fermented rice to evaluate its effect on caffeine-induced sleep disturbance. Despite the presence of caffeine, the results showed that GABA offset the symptoms of insomnia without negatively affecting motor function. [9] Even more, a 2015 study examined its effect on sleep latency. The findings indicated that supplementing with GABA helped the test subjects fall asleep 5 minutes faster than the control. [10] 
  1. Boosts Immunity and Gut Health

Due to its calming effects, GABA has the potential to boost immune and gastrointestinal function. In fact, clinical trials on mice found GABA may regulate appetite and promote a healthy metabolism due to the abundance of GABA receptors in the gut. [11] GABA is an important factor in the healthy functioning of the immune and endocrine systems. There is new research indicating GABA may be beneficial at reducing inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Indeed, a review in the Journal of Neuroinflammation demonstrated that GABA could decrease the activity of neural pathways responsible for stimulating joint inflammation. [12]
  1. Enhances Focus and Cognitive Function

Another one of GABA’s health benefits is its ability to improve focus and reduce symptoms in individuals with attention deficit disorder. ADHD causes short attention span, hyperactivity and impulsivity. This theory was put to the test when scientists examined the GABA levels of children with and without ADHD. Those with ADHD had significantly reduced concentrations in the brain vs. the control group. Thus, we can hypothesize that raising the brain's natural GABA levels may be great for focus and cognition. [13]  

What is GABA as a supplement? 

Despite the disagreement on the ability of GABA to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB), new research is showing that GABA may be absorbed by both the brain and the gut. The blood-brain barrier is a selectively permeable membrane that keeps our blood and cerebrospinal fluid separate to let certain chemical substances in and keep some of the bad guys out. This barrier is essential as it protects the brain by blocking the entry of certain drugs or substances to cross over or lessen their effect. What we do know about the BBB is that it contains transporters for GABA, but that GABA is removed at a much faster rate than when it enters. Despite these findings, research is now showing that the enteric nervous system, the group of neurons which control your gastrointestinal tract, contains GABA receptors and GABA molecules. [14]

GABA activity in the Brain

There are several ways to stimulate the release of GABA from the brain.  These include taking a pure GABA extract or supplementing with extracts which directly increase the brain’s GABA levels such as valerian root [15], ginseng, magnesium and L-theanine. Other known GABA promoters include practising yoga and meditation – this activates the parasympathetic/relaxation response. If you are still undecided about GABA’s benefits, please refer to our product description for more information.


GABA Side Effects and Usage 

GABA is considered safe for most people and appropriate for daily intake making it a safe alternative for a sleeping aid. [16] The recommended serving size for this supplement is 1000 mg, taken once to three times daily. Side effects may be experienced when taken in high doses. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, avoid taking GABA as there isn’t enough information in this respect. Further, if you are taking any medications or sleeping, please consult with your health care practitioner as it could interfere with these medications.  

Conclusion: What is GABA?

In summary, we know this inhibitory neurotransmitter plays an essential role in our sleep and stress management. When GABA conversion becomes impaired, glutamate levels and thus neural activity becomes too elevated. As a result, GABA drops and consequently, anxiety and depression ensue. Although there is much debate as to GABA’s ability to affect the brain, current evidence is showing it is highly effective at promoting restful sleep, reducing inflammation and boosting immunity.  

Medical Disclaimer

Not intended to treat, diagnose, or cure any disease or ailment. Please read and fully understand the potential adverse effects before using this product. These statements have not been reviewed by the FDA and are not written by a medical professional. Please consult your doctor before using any supplements, especially if you have any medical conditions.


Health Consultant, studying Health Sciences and Naturopathic Medicine Researched & written by Murielle and verified by the Liftmode.com Research Team

Citations and Supporting Literature:

[1] The Brain from Top to Bottom. Mcgill.ca Available online at https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_01/i_01_m/i_01_m_ana/i_01_m_ana.html [2] Petroff OA. GABA and glutamate in the human brain. Neuroscientist. 2002 Dec;8(6):562-73. Review. PubMed PMID: 12467378. [3] GABA: Here's How It Works In Your Brain + Why It's So Important. Mindbodygreen.com  available online: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/gaba-what-is-it [4] 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. 2015;6:1520. [5] Goddard AW, Mason GF, Appel M, Rothman DL, Gueorguieva R, Behar KL, Krystal JH. Impaired GABA neuronal response to acute benzodiazepine administration in panic disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2004 Dec;161(12):2186-93. PubMed PMID: 15569888. [6] Kent JM, Mathew SJ, Gorman JM. Molecular targets in the treatment of anxiety. Biol Psychiatry. 2002 Nov 15;52(10):1008-30. Review. PubMed PMID: 12437941. [7] Gottesmann C. GABA mechanisms and sleep. Neuroscience. 2002;111(2):231-9. Review. PubMed PMID: 11983310. [8] Winkelman JW, Buxton OM, Jensen JE, Benson KL, O'Connor SP, Wang W, Renshaw PF. Reduced brain GABA in primary insomnia: preliminary data from 4T proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS). Sleep. 2008 Nov;31(11):1499-506. PubMed PMID: 19014069; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2579978. [9]  Mabunga DF, Gonzales EL, Kim HJ, Choung SY. Treatment of GABA from Fermented Rice Germ Ameliorates Caffeine-Induced Sleep Disturbance in Mice. Biomol Ther(Seoul). 2015 May;23(3):268-74. doi: 10.4062/biomolther.2015.022. Epub 2015 May 1. PubMed PMID: 25995826; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4428720. [10] Yamatsu A, Yamashita Y, Maru I, Yang J, Tatsuzaki J, Kim M. The Improvement of Sleep by Oral Intake of GABA and Apocynum venetum Leaf Extract. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2015;61(2):182-7. doi: 10.3177/jnsv.61.182. PubMed PMID:26052150. [11] Delgado T. C. (2013). Glutamate and GABA in Appetite Regulation. Frontiers in endocrinology4, 103. doi:10.3389/fendo.2013.00103 [12] Kelley, J. M., Hughes, L. B., & Bridges, S. L., Jr (2008). Does gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) influence the development of chronic inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis?. Journal of neuroinflammation5, 1. doi:10.1186/1742-2094-5-1 [13] Edden RA, Crocetti D, Zhu H, Gilbert DL, Mostofsky SH. Reduced GABA concentration in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry.2012 Jul;69(7):750-3. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.2280. PubMed PMID:22752239; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3970207. [14] Kakee, A., Takanaga, H., Terasaki, T., Naito, M., Tsuruo, T., and Sugiyama, Y. (2001). Efflux of a suppressive neurotransmitter, GABA, across the blood–brain barrier. J. Neurochem. 79, 110–118. doi: 10.1046/j.1471-4159.2001.00540.x [15] Santos MS, Ferreira F, Cunha AP, Carvalho AP, Macedo T. An aqueous extract of valerian influences the transport of GABA in synaptosomes. Planta Med. 1994 Jun;60(3):278-9. PubMed PMID: 8073095. [16] Yamatsu A et al, op., cit., 10

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