Can GABA Supplements Lower Anxiety and Stress?

GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps reduce stress and sleep problems.

Mature woman in bed sleeping peacefully
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Gamma-aminobutyric acid, often referred to as "GABA," is an amino acid and neurotransmitter (a type of chemical responsible for carrying information from one cell to another). Produced naturally in the body, GABA is also widely available in supplement form. Manufacturers claim that GABA supplements can help boost the brain's GABA levels and, in turn, treat anxiety, stress, depression, and sleep problems.

In fact, some supplement manufacturers call GABA a "natural form of Valium" -- presumably meaning that it reduces stress and improves relaxation and sleep.

Unlike many dietary supplements, GABA cannot be found in ordinary foods. Certain foods, however, including fruits, vegetables, teas, and red wine, can have a significant impact on GABA modulation. At present, it is not clearly understand whether certain foods increase or decrease the impact of GABA on the brain.

The Science Behind GABA's Health Benefits

Research shows that GABA might play a key role in protecting against depression and anxiety. For instance, a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2010 indicates that people with major depression may be more likely to have low levels of GABA. And in a 2009 study from the same journal, researchers found that increasing GABA levels may be useful in treatment of anxiety. These results are consistent with the fact that GABA is the primary calming (inhibitory) neurotransmitter in the brain

However, there is lack of research on the health effects of GABA supplements. What's more, scientists have yet to determine if orally ingested GABA can actually reach the brain and trigger any beneficial changes. 

Natural Approaches to Boosting GABA Levels

Relaxants such as alcohol stimulate GABA receptors, leading to feelings of relaxation and sleepiness.

The same effect occurs as a result of taking sleep-inducing drugs such as Ambien. But these approaches are only effective for the short term and, of course, have undesirable side effects.

Preliminary research suggests that certain herbal supplements (including valerian) may help elevate GABA levels in the brain (possibly by promoting the production of GABA or slowing its breakdown). Additionally, a 2010 study from the Journal of Biological Chemistry suggests that breathing in the scent of jasmine (a substance frequently used in aromatherapy) may help enhance the effects of GABA.

Certain mind-body practices may also help boost your brain's levels of GABA. For example, a 2010 study from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that practicing yoga may lead to higher GABA levels (and, as a result, better mood and less anxiety). This study compared people who exercised by walking to those who took regular yoga classes, thus suggesting that the yoga in particular -- rather than exercise in general -- made the difference.

As yoga is a mind-body exercise, some have theorized that mindfulness and focus are somehow related to the rise in GABA levels.

Using GABA Supplements

Due to the lack of supporting research, it's too soon to recommend GABA supplements (or herbal supplements said to increase GABA levels) for any condition. If you're considering the use of GABA supplements for prevention or treatment of a specific health problem, consult your physician before starting your supplement regimen.

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Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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