If you’re in the market for a natural calming agent that works just as well as prescription medications without the side effects, then gamma-aminobutyric acid or (GABA) might just be your new best friend. GABA is a brain chemical that has been shown to be more efficient than pharmaceutical drugs when it comes to treating sleep disorders (1).
In addition to helping you feel relaxed enough to drift off to sleep, GABA reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. It also boosts human growth hormone production by 400 percent (2), which is affected by poor sleep quality. Here’s what you need to know about supplementing with GABA to improve your sleep.
Your nervous system is composed of nerve cells called neurons. Their job is to send signals throughout the body as an electrical impulse. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow neurons to jump from cell to cell to communicate with each other.
The central nervous system is made up of the spinal cord and the brain. Neurotransmitters help keep communication in the nervous system running smoothly by passing messages from neuron to neuron. The peripheral nervous system is made up of nerves that branch out from the central nervous system to other parts of the body. The nerves in the peripheral nervous system communicate by passing a chemical signal between a muscle cell and a neuron.
The two primary neurotransmitters in the central nervous system are glutamate and GABA. The central nervous system is the part of the body where sensations are felt and thinking occurs. Located at the end of every neuron is a tiny sac filled with a bunch of neurotransmitters. When a nerve impulse travels down the neuron, it causes the sacs to release its neurotransmitters into the areas that separate each nerve cell, which is called a synapse.
Neurons communicate with each other when neurotransmitters travel across a synapse to reach a nearby neuron. Once the neurotransmitter reaches the other side, it attaches to a receptor like a lock and a key. When enough neurotransmitters attach themselves to a receptor, it sends out an electrical impulse.
GABA is produced in brain cells. Its job is to work as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. While glutamate is an excitable neurotransmitter that encourages neurons to send a nerve impulse, GABA does just the opposite and encourages the neuron not to send the message.
When there is a shortage of GABA in the body, neurons are free to send as many excitable messages as it can without any interference. This is what causes anxiety disorders such as seizures and panic attacks, as well as headaches and addiction. GABA’s job is to prevent the transmission of nerve impulses from building up on you by providing a calming effect.
Caffeine has been shown to inhibit the release of GABA, which is why you often feel jittery after too much. Tranquilizer drugs such as benzodiazepines work by increasing GABA’s nerve inhibiting abilities.
The blood-brain barrier is a protection wall your body uses to keep harmful agents in the blood from entering the brain. While it’s an excellent way to keep your brain safe from harm, it also makes it harder for beneficial compounds to enter. For years, researchers have not been able to prove that oral supplementation of GABA enters the blood-brain barrier, but recent studies are making progress (3).
Besides, the studies that disprove oral GABA supplementation effects on the blood-brain barrier have some flaws in them. For example, they do not give specific details such as the type of GABA used, how it was administered, or what types of animals were used during testing. Although there is no conclusive data to prove that GABA crosses the blood-brain barrier, plenty of research confirms its benefits on the brain, which is very promising for the future of GABA supplements. Some research suggests that taking GABA with other supplements such as l-arginine may help it cross the blood-brain barrier.
Research shows that GABA helps relax your muscles and can be used to treat the following conditions (4):
Deep sleep is one of the most important stages of sleep for boosting the immune system and consolidating memories. GABA has been shown to enhance deep sleep by preventing you from being woken up during this critical stage of sleep (1)(5).
GABA is one of the best supplements for naturally reducing stress and anxiety. Most prescription medications work by boosting GABA in the brain, which forces GABA receptors to stay open for longer periods of time (6). This causes your brain to receive more GABA so it can calm down and balance over-excited signals.
Human growth hormone or HGH is a hormone that is needed for cell regeneration, growth and cell reproduction. HGH is released in short bursts throughout the day and night. For men, 70 percent of the HGH levels are released right after they fall asleep and enter slow wave sleep (7). When you don’t sleep well, your HGH levels become affected. Research shows that orally supplementing with GABA boosts HGH levels by as much as 400 percent (2)(8).
According to a 2001 study, GABA plays a major role in the treatment of epilepsy. The study found that people with epilepsy have reduced levels of GABA in their brain. The study also found that drugs that block GABA synthesis cause seizures (12). Because of this, people who have epilepsy may benefit from GABA supplementation.
GABA should be taken as directed by the instructions on your supplement label. If you are taking GABA to help you sleep, take your supplement about 30 minutes before bed to help you calm down.
There is no recommended dosage for GABA. According to Livestrong.com, some doctors have their patients take 200 mg four times a day as a maximum dose. Most supplements contain anywhere from 500 to 750 mg of GABA per serving. Research shows that as much as 18 grams of GABA have been used in clinical trials, but any amount over 11 grams does not appear to be safe for long term use (9).
You may need to experiment with your dosage to find the one that’s right for you. GABA is relatively safe when taken in reasonable amounts. If you start experiencing adverse side effects, you may have taken too much. On the other hand, if you do not feel its effects after several days on a low dose, gradually increase the amount you are taking.
There is no research to indicate that GABA would lose its effectiveness over time. If you have been taking GABA for a long time and find that it might not be working as well as it did, try cycling your dosage. For example, take GABA as you normally would for three days on and one day off.
According to WebMD, there are currently no interactions listed for GABA (10). Talk to your doctor if you are currently taking any prescription medication such as an antidepressant or antipsychotic medication before taking GABA to rule out any possible risks. GABA supplements may also negatively interact with pain relieving drugs and muscle relaxants.
GABA appears to be safe even when taken in high amounts. A 2014 report indicated that natural GABA supplementation is virtually safe with no known side effects (11). As with all supplements, everyone reacts to health products differently. Here are some possible reported side effects of GABA:
GABA should not be taken with other substances that might affect the brain, such as alcohol and drugs that affect the central nervous system. Talk to a doctor before taking GABA if you are on one of the following medications:
GABA has promising effects on children who have anxiety, depression, autism, seizures, or attention deficit disorders. According to a 2013 report, there are multiple studies to indicate that enhancing GABA may help treat ADHD in children while improving mental health and brain function at the same time (13). The report also found that sixth-grade students who took GABA supplements improved their math test scores by 20 percent and showed fewer symptoms of stress (13). Researchers concluded that the GABA supplement helped students deal with everyday stress and focus better mentally.
Results of the study indicated that GABA is safe for children. Talk to your child’s pediatrician before giving them GABA if they are on a prescription antidepressant, anti-seizure or anti-anxiety drug.