What Is GABA?
Medically reviewed by Karina Tolentino, RD, CHWC
Gamma-aminobutyric acid, commonly known as GABA, is an amino acid (a molecule that builds proteins) naturally produced in the brain. GABA acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which is a chemical that blocks messages between brain cells. Because of this, GABA serves a critical role in reducing brain activity to calm the central nervous system.
While certain foods contain GABA, the amino acid is widely available as a dietary supplement. Some people take GABA supplements to help with stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and high blood pressure, though the evidence for its effectiveness is mixed.
If you’re thinking about using GABA, it’s important to understand its potential benefits, safety profile, and possible side effects.
Benefits of GABA
As a neurotransmitter within the central nervous system, GABA has been studied for its impact on both mental and physical conditions. Here are some of the potential benefits.
May Reduce Stress
Stress is a common physical and emotional response that can arise for a number of reasons, such as problems at work or at home, financial troubles, or a death in the family.
If your stress is ongoing, it may start to have an impact on your health. Long-term stress can lead to issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Taking GABA supplements may help reduce stress. A review of research found oral consumption of GABA had a beneficial effect on stress. The authors did note that more research is needed to establish GABA as a treatment for easing stress.
May Help Manage Depression
Depression is a mood disorder that can impact both mental and physical health, especially if the condition is long-lasting. It can cause irritability, anxiousness, sadness, and feelings of frustration and restlessness, as well as issues with sleep and appetite. Physical signs of this condition include aches, stomach and digestive problems, and headaches.
Depression has been linked to lower levels of GABA in the brain. Some research shows when medications that stimulate GABA receptors were taken alongside antidepressants, it improved the antidepressant effect. Taking GABA supplements to increase your GABA levels may be helpful in managing depression, especially when paired with other therapies and approaches.
May Reduce Anxiety
While feeling anxious and worrying for short periods is common, experiencing those feelings consistently for a long period of time can be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders can impact sleep quality and cause irritability, headaches, and difficulty concentrating, among other symptoms.
GABA may be a helpful tool in easing anxiety. Researchers have consistently linked GABA receptor activity with lower overall levels of anxiety. However, more research is needed to determine if taking GABA as a supplement can actually affect the brain in a way that effectively treats anxiety.
May Improve Sleep
Not getting enough sleep or having trouble falling or staying asleep (also known as insomnia) can significantly impact your health. Where occasional sleep deprivation causes crankiness, drowsiness, and concentration difficulties, long-term sleep troubles can lead to conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease.
Some evidence has shown that GABA can have a type of sedative effect, which could be beneficial for promoting sleep. A small study in Japan found those who took GABA supplements fell asleep on average 5.3 minutes faster and had a 7.3% increase in deep sleep—which is important for brain, immune, and metabolic health—compared to when they did not take the supplements.
However, a larger review of research noted limitations in the existing evidence surrounding the use of GABA for sleep improvement and called for more work to confirm any association.
May Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, medically known as hypertension, is when the pressure put on artery walls by blood traveling through the arteries becomes excessive. This can lead to serious health issues like heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and kidney disease.
Research has shown GABA to have a beneficial effect on blood pressure. A study in Japan found adults with mildly high blood pressure experienced a decrease in blood pressure after consuming GABA-enriched white rice daily for eight weeks.
The researchers stated GABA effectively reduced blood pressure, and that consuming GABA may help delay or prevent the early onset of blood pressure-related conditions.
How to Take GABA
GABA can be found in various foods, including:
Some fermented foods, such as tempe and kimchi
Some vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, and kale
GABA is also widely available as a supplement in either powder or pill form. Supplements can offer more concentrated amounts of the amino acid if you are not getting enough through your diet.
If you’re considering taking a GABA supplement, let your healthcare provider know.
Since GABA is a dietary supplement and not a regulated medication, there are no standard guidelines for dosage of GABA. Typically, daily doses range from 50 to 3,000 milligrams (mg), and it’s suggested that you take no more than 750 mg at one time.
In absence of established guidelines, it’s important to seek guidance from your healthcare provider.
Is GABA Safe?
When taken as recommended, GABA supplements are considered safe to take for up to 12 weeks.
However, there is almost no research on the effects or safety of taking GABA while pregnant or breastfeeding. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding may want to avoid GABA supplements as they could impact the endocrine system, which is connected to hormone production.
Potential Drug Interactions
There is a potential for GABA to interact with certain medications you’re taking. Because GABA supplements may lower blood pressure, taking them alongside drugs for hypertension may cause levels to drop too low. Drugs used to treat hypertension that can interact with GABA include:
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
Angiotensin-2 receptor (ARB) inhibitors
Some evidence also suggests that GABA can interact with drugs treating epilepsy, such as the anticonvulsants topiramate (sold under brand names like Eprontia and Topamax) and sodium valproate (sold under brand names like Depakene and Depakote).
Talk to your healthcare provider before taking GABA supplements while on other medications.
What to Look For
Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When shopping for herbal supplements, it’s important to be mindful of what you’re purchasing.
Most supplements have a dietary supplement label, which lays out which ingredients your product contains and includes the manufacturer’s dosage recommendations. Check this label and rely on your healthcare provider’s directions when figuring out how much to take.
In addition, there are several independent agencies that provide reputable third-party testing of supplement safety and efficacy. When looking for GABA supplements, look for products that contain seals of approval from the following agencies:
Can You Take Too Much GABA?
You can safely consume up to 3,000 mg of GABA per day for up to 12 weeks. Higher doses of up to 5,000 to 18,0,800 mg a day were associated with an increase in side-effects. The general recommendation is to take no more than 750 mg in a single dose.
Side Effects of GABA
When taken as recommended, side effects of GABA supplements are few and rare. However, researchers have reported some temporary effects, especially when taking higher doses.
These side effects may include:
Slight burning in the throat
Intermittent and brief shortness of breath
Moderate drop in blood pressure
Tingling in the skin
A Quick Review
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that's naturally produced in the body and helps regulate brain and body function. While GABA can be found in some foods like tea and soybeans, it is also available as a supplement. It may help with anxiety, stress, depression, sleep problems, and high blood pressure, though more research is needed to determine its true effectiveness.
GABA supplements are generally considered safe to take, but they may interact with certain blood pressure and anti-seizure medications. If you’re considering this dietary supplement, talk to your healthcare provider about whether GABA is safe for you and what the correct dosage would be.
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Read the original article on Health.