Can GABA Supplements Decrease Anxiety and Stress?
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 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 understood whether certain foods increase or decrease the impact of GABA on the brain.
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 the treatment of anxiety. These results are consistent with the fact that GABA is the primary calming (inhibitory) neurotransmitter in the brainHowever, there is a 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 Ways to Boost 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.
Possible Side Effects
GABA supplements are considered to be likely safe when taken by mouth for up to 12 weeks. However, pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid GABA as there is not enough information to determine if it is safe or effective.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.
Dosage and Preparation
Because there is limited information about GABA supplements, there is no recommended dose if you choose to supplement.In clinical trials, various doses of GABA supplements have been used. For example, 100 mL of fermented milk containing 10-12 mg of GABA per 100 mL was used by patients with high blood press in a study where they consumed the drink daily at breakfast for 12 weeks. In another study, a chlorella supplement containing 20 mg of GABA was taken twice daily for 12 weeks.
What to Look For
GABA supplements are sold in pill and capsule form. You may also see the supplement sold in powder form. It’s important to check the label if you choose to purchase these products because there may be a variety of ingredients in the package.Before you buy any supplement, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that you look for a Supplement Facts label. This label provides important health information including the amount of active ingredients per serving, and other added ingredients (like fillers, binders, and flavorings).Lastly, the organization suggests that you look for a product that contains a seal of approval from a third party organization that provides quality testing. These organizations include U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com, and NSF International. A seal of approval from one of these organizations does not guarantee the product’s safety or effectiveness but it does provide assurance that the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants.