Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that is inhibitory, that is, it decreases the ability of other neurotransmitters to work. GABA is involved in our level of excitability. Rather than encouraging communication between cells such as Dopamine, Serotonin or Norepinephrine – GABA reduces, discourages, and blocks communication. This neurotransmitter is important in brain areas involving emotion and anxiety.
When GABA is in the normal range in the brain, we are not overly aroused or anxious. At the same time, we have appropriate reactions to situations in our environment. GABA is the communication speed controller, making sure all brain communications are operating at the right speed and with the correct intensity. Too little GABA in the brain, the communication becomes out of control, overstimulated, and chemically unstable. Too much GABA and we are overly relaxed and sedated, often to the point that normal reactions are impaired.
With GABA levels below average, the brain is too stimulated. We begin talking rapidly, staying up for days at a time, and develop wild and grandiose ideas.
Low levels of GABA are also associated with problems of poor impulse control, including clinical conditions such as gambling, temper tantrums, and stealing. When GABA is low in the brain, impulsive behaviors are not inhibited (stopped) by logical or reasonable thinking.
High levels of GABA produce more control, relaxation, and even sedation. Alcohol works by increasing GABA levels, which is why all body systems are relaxed at first – then sedated to the point of slurred speech, unsteady gait, and foggy thinking. Alcohol withdrawal, or the sudden severe drop of high GABA levels, produce a low GABA level and the possibility of seizures.
Medications for anxiety create relaxation and a decrease in anxiety by increasing GABA levels in the brain. Alcoholic beverages work in the same manner; the alcohol increasing GABA levels to produce mild euphoria, loss of social anxiety, and other symptoms of intoxication.
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 .
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.
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
Preliminary research suggests that certain herbal supplements (including kava and 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 ).