GABA is the mind’s natural calmness signal, it’s the neurotransmitter that relieves anxiety, helps you get good sleep, relax, and wind down. By reducing overactivity in the brain, GABA increases empathy, emotional intelligence, attention, and cognition. GABA may even enhance exercise performance and boost energy levels. Read on to learn about why GABA is so important.
What is GABA?
GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, which means that it functions as the mind’s brakes. It slows down and stops the firing of brain cells and brings a state of relaxation, calmness, and of simply winding down [R].
GABA counters the main excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate. The brain has a smart way to balance activation and relaxation, noise and silence, yin and yang. It does so through glutamate and GABA [R].
We can think of GABA and glutamate in the brain as if on a scale:
As always, balance is key. On the extreme side, too much glutamate can cause seizures and mania. But an overly active GABA system, such as due to sedative drugs like Valium, can cause extreme sedation and even coma. In fact, some general anesthetics bring about a state of deep unconsciousness by enhancing GABA [R, R, R].
When GABA and glutamate are in harmony, the brain can function optimally. However, many factors can throw this balance off. In our modern, urban world and fast lifestyles, GABA often takes the toll. When the mind is constantly activated, under stress, or anxious, glutamate increases, GABA levels drop and so does stress resilience [R, R, R, R].
GABA reduces the rate at which neurons fire, which is important for normal, healthy, daily functioning. But it’s especially important when neurons become too excited, such as in anxiety, headaches, muscle tension, chronic pain, and even Parkinson’s Disease symptoms [R, R]
It’s questionable how GABA acts to improve cognition, since it’s relaxing, not stimulating. But this may actually be the key – the brain cannot focus when stressed and anxious. In fact, poor cognition is one of the main symptoms of mental health disorders like schizophrenia and anxiety [R, R].
How the Brain Produces GABA
Many parts of the brain are naturally high in GABA. The concentrations of GABA in these regions are >1000 times higher than of other neurotransmitters anywhere in the brain [R].
The main relaxing neurotransmitter, GABA, is made directly from the main stimulating neurotransmitter, glutamate. The brain makes GABA in several important steps [R]:
- It usually starts with glucose, although the brain can alternatively use amino acids like pyruvate
- Glucose is transformed into glutamate
- Glutamate is only then transformed to GABA
- Glutamate decarboxylase (GAD) is the main enzyme needed to make GABA from glutamate. It needs vitamin B6 to function [R].
Once GABA is made, it’s released to achieve its effects. Afterward, neurons quickly take GABA back inside them to be used again next time. Neurons selfishly store GABA inside, where its amounts are 200x higher than outside the cells, in the brain’s bloodstream [R].
GABA is especially high in the amygdala, the brain’s gateway for generating fear in response to danger. In anxiety, the fear response is increased without any real danger. GABA decreases the fear response in the amygdala and reduces anxiety [R].
GABA needs to bind to receptors in the brain in order to achieve an effect. It can act on two receptors in the brain called [R]:
- GABA-A, and
What’s the difference between them and why does it matter?
GABA-A activation does not have the same effects as GABA-B activation in the brain. GABA-enhancing drugs often target one more – such as rapid relaxation and sleepiness (GABA A) vs. enhanced cognition and socialness [R].
Recently, GABA-C receptors were also discovered, which may be especially important for restorative, slow-wave sleep [R].
- Relaxation and calmness
- Sleep [R]
- Sedation or unconsciousness in excess
- Reduced anxiety
- Euphoria and pleasure, from stimulating the reward system [R]
- Improved and relaxed breathing [R]
- May impair memory (from medications)
GABA-B activity is very important for [R].:
- Reducing stress
- Reducing general and social anxiety
- Increasing socialness and empathy
- Improving depression
- Boosting cognition
- Relaxing tense muscles
- Reducing chronic pain and inflammation [R, R, R]
- Improving chronic and mental fatigue (possibly) [R]
GABA Effects & Benefits
1) GABA Benefits Sleep
GABA plays an important role in getting a good night’s rest.
Scientists have known this since the 60s when the first sleep-inducing drugs that activate GABA (called barbiturates) started to be used [R].
GABA mostly acts on slow-wave, restorative sleep. Drugs that block GABA (GABA-B) increase wakefulness and REM, dreaming sleep [R].
GABA deficiency is one of the probable underlying causes of insomnia. In one brain imaging study of 32 people, those with insomnia had 30% lower brain GABA levels compared to healthy people. The insomnia sufferers naturally had lower GABA as nobody took sleep medications that could affect its levels [R].
In another study of 40 people, those with insomnia had lower GABA in specific brain regions important for emotions and cognition (ACC) [R].
But in another study of 33 people, GABA levels in some brain regions were higher in people with insomnia. GABA fluctuates a lot in this brain region, though. Plus, lower GABA was linked to staying awake longer after waking up in the middle of the night and to poorer sleep quality in those with insomnia [R, R].
It could also be that people with insomnia had increased GABA as the brain’s first attempt to reduce hyperarousal — an adaptive response. Over time this response dies down and GABA brain levels drop in the whole brain [R, R].
Low brain GABA and high glutamate were also linked to sleep apnea in a study of 36 people. Low GABA in sleep apnea could be a sign of the body’s inability to relax, which activates the fight-or-flight response and increases heart disease risk [R].
Other studies using GABA supplements back up its importance for sleep.
GABA Supplement Studies
In one clinical trial of 40 people, GABA from fermented rice germ improved insomnia and sleep after 4 weeks. It reduced the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and increased the quality of sleep [R].
In mice, this combination enhanced sleep quality, duration, and reduced the time it takes to fall asleep. Mice given a high dose of GABA experienced better sleep quality even under the influence of caffeine [R, R, R].
If you can’t fall asleep at night and wake up feeling more tired in the morning than you did the night before, you may need to dig deeper for answers. Biohacking Insomnia is a sleep resource guide that looks at all the possible factors contributing to you missing out on restorative sleep, and works to get you sleeping better from a holistic viewpoint. It’s time for you to finally get your nights and your days back in balance.
2) GABA Affects Brainwaves
The brain’s electrical activity is measured by brainwaves, such as alpha, beta, theta, delta, and gamma. GABA plays a very important role in this process – it works to synchronizes different brain cells, affecting both cognition and relaxation [R].
Benzodiazepine drugs, which increase GABA-like activity, increased sustained attention in animals when they needed to focus and enhanced relaxation during rest. GABA activation synchronized neurons by making gamma waves more powerful but less frequent [R].
But the effects of benzodiazepine drugs on GABA are not the same as GABA produced in the brain or GABA supplements. Unlike natural GABA, benzodiazepines can cause memory problems and other side effects.
Normally, a natural boost in GABA is linked to better cognitive function and more powerful gamma waves. Abnormal gamma brainwaves and low GABA were linked to cognitive problems in studies of people with schizophrenia [R].
GABA supplements boosted alpha brain waves – the main meditative, relaxing brainwaves – in a study of 13 people. They also reduced beta brainwaves, which are more linked to regular waking consciousness [R].
3) GABA Boosts Cognition and Intelligence
High GABA levels were linked to high intelligence, IQ, and cognitive performance in a brain imaging study of healthy people. This is because, as it turns out, people who pay attention to everything without discriminating what’s important are less intelligent. GABA is inhibitory – it can suppress irrelevant information from the surroundings to enhance cognition [R].
Functional GABA receptors enhance learning and neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change throughout life [R].
GABA reduces distraction in the brain, which makes it possible to react and make quicker decisions [R].
Low brain GABA is linked to poor cognition in:
- Schizophrenia [R, R].
- Anxiety [R]
- Depression [R]
- Children and adolescents with a genetic disorder that causes brain tumors [R].
4) GABA Increases Emotional Intelligence
People with low GABA may be prone to emotional imbalances, while those with high GABA may be more empathic and in-tune with other people’s feelings. In a brain imaging study of 32 people, higher GABA brain levels were linked to higher emotional aspects of empathy [R, R].
GABA was increased in a brain region called the ACC, which plays a unique role in cognition and emotions. This region connects the emotional brain (limbic system) to the rational brain (prefrontal cortex). GABA seems to enhance the emotional connections, while low GABA could reduce empathy in people with autism and schizophrenia [R, R].
A couple of other studies support this:
- People with schizophrenia have low brain GABA [R, R]
- Phenibut, which activates GABA receptors, increased emotional intelligence in 62 people with anxiety [R]
- Brain GABA increased when 22 healthy participants saw sad faces, which shows its role in recognizing and reacting to emotions [R]
- Rats with autism have low brain GABA. Benzodiazepines, which act on GABA, improved their social interaction and cognition [R].
5) GABA Is Important for the Gut
GABA is important for digestion both as a neurotransmitter that connects the gut to the brain and as a gut hormone. It’s found throughout the gut and in surrounding nerves. The gut lining also has many GABA receptors that aid in digestion and may help balance electrolyte levels [R].
GABA helps digest food in the stomach and gut and increases gastric acid production [R].
GABA plays a large role in controlling appetite by acting on the hypothalamus, a very important part of the brain for appetite regulation and energy use. Fasting increased GABA levels in the hypothalamus in mice [R].
6) GABA Prevents Depression
According to one theory, depression is caused by a GABA deficiency. In some studies, people with depression had reduced GABA levels both in the brain and blood as well as abnormal GABA receptors. GABA is very low in specific brain regions in depression, especially in people with melancholic and treatment-resistant depression [R].
Plus, low GABA reduces resilience to stress and can trigger depression in the first place [R].
GABA activity helps the brain make new brain cells – called neurogenesis, which is linked to improved mood and overcoming depression. Some antidepressants work by increasing brain GABA and neurogenesis [R, R].
Mice deficient in GABA receptors can’t respond to GABA and develop severe depression [R].
Early life stress may cause depression by turning off genes that make GABA receptors. Baby mice without genes that can make specific GABA receptors got depression after being separated from their mothers [R].
7) GABA Reduces Anxiety
Chronic stress can reduce brain GABA, which in turn leads to an overactive emotional response via the HPA. Stress hormones rise in the brain (CRH and ACTH), creating a feedback loop that additionally lowers GABA and causes or worsens anxiety [R].
GABA relieves fear and anxiety and calms the HPA axis, acting as a “natural Valium” [R].
GABA can also control serotonin activity in some brain areas. Mice with serotonin brain cells unresponsive to GABA develop depression and anxiety [R].
By using flumazenil, a drug that blocks GABA-A receptors, researchers discovered that people with panic attacks, anxiety, and PTSD have fewer receptors in the brain that can respond to GABA [R].
When given to healthy people, this drug had no effects since it could not saturate all the receptors that control GABA action. But it could trigger panic attacks during symptom-free periods in people prone to them. That’s because people with panic disorders have so few receptors that the drug occupies them all and completely blocks natural GABA activity [R].
8) GABA Reduces Addiction
On one hand, drugs of abuse can increase GABA, which contributes to feelings of reward, pleasure, craving, and withdrawal. But increasing GABA activity by other means may reduce addiction and withdrawal by affecting the same emotional pathways in a safe way [R].
New drugs that slightly activate GABA in the brain are being developed for reducing drug addiction. Baclofen is an older drug that acts on GABA and is used to treat alcohol, opioid, cocaine, nicotine, and amphetamine dependence [R, R].
By activating GABA-B, Baclofen reduced cocaine addiction in mice by decreasing dopamine release. Dopamine is what often drives the addictive behavior and reinforces it. Baclofen also reduced activation of the limbic system – key for emotions – to cocaine [R].
9) GABA Helps Combat Pain
In a way, pain is just too much activity in the brain. Pain arises when signals from brain cells and nerves are not turned off properly within pain pathways. Nerve overactivity often underlies chronic nerve pain after injury [R, R].
After an injury, glutamate can become dominant and shunt GABA. Glutamate then increases inflammatory substances and free radicals. It activates other surrounding cells, which also become inflamed. Pain arises and the process continues chronically because there is nothing to stop it [R].
GABA and GABA-like drugs put a stop to chronic nerve pain by relaxing the nerves and blocking excessive signaling [R].
In a brain imaging study of 39 people, those with more intense osteoarthritis pain had lower brain GABA [R].
But there is one problem: the amount of GABA activity needed to reduce severe pain may also cause too much sedation. One drug that mimics GABA (THIP) reduced chronic cancer pain in 60% of the cases in a trial of 14 people. But it also caused sedation, euphoria, dizziness, and nausea [R].
10) GABA Protects the Brain
GABA stabilizes and protects brain cells. It prevents an excessive rise in calcium that can trigger brain cell death. Low GABA activity contributes to diseases like Parkinson’s. Stopping or slowing down the decline in brain GABA levels may prevent or improve Parkinson’s Disease [R].
A rise in GABA reduced nerve injury in oxygen-deficient brain tissues [R].
A drug that activates GABA reduced damage and increased the survival of brain cells in one cellular study [R].
11) GABA Helps the Brain Develop
GABA is needed for proper brain and nerve development. Although in adults GABA is the “brake”, in early life GABA is “excitatory” – it acts more as the gas that speeds up brain development. GABA is needed for making new brain cells (neurogenesis), for their development, and for building brain connections and circuits early on in life [R].
12) GABA and ADHD
Children with ADHD might be GABA-deficient. Low brain GABA causes too much uncontrolled activity in the brain, which can reduce attention and affect behavior. In one study of 42 children, those with ADHD had lower brain GABA levels [R].
13) GABA Increases Exercise Performance
In a clinical trial of 11 resistance-trained men, GABA (3g/day) increased 2 specific GH after exercise: immunoreactive and immunofunctional GH. These hormones improve muscle adaptation to resistance training and may boost muscle mass [R].
Some athletes use GABA supplements to increase sleep quality since lack of sleep harms performance. Some use valerian to improve sleep, which increases GABA and can, in turn, raise growth hormone levels [R].
In rats, GABA increased GH by acting directly on the pituitary where GH is produced [R].
Prolonged exercise reduced glutamate in the brain in rats. GABA levels dropped in some brain regions as well, since GABA is made from glutamate [R].
14) GABA Reduces Seizure Risk
GABA calms the brain and reduces its activity, normally helping to prevent seizures. When GABA levels drop, the brain becomes over-excited and the risk of seizures increases [R].
Animals with acquired or inherited epilepsy have abnormal GABA brain activity [R].
15) GABA May Boost Energy Levels
Chronic fatigue can also be caused by glutamate overactivation and low GABA. In 2 studies of 66 people, those with fibromyalgia had lower GABA and higher brain glutamate, which can worsen pain and fatigue [R, R].
A beverage with GABA reduced work-related physical and psychological fatigue in a study of 30 men. It improved energy levels and problem-solving abilities [R].
16) GABA Relaxes the Muscles
As GABA reduces all over-activation, it also relaxes tense muscles [R].
17) GABA Reduces Brain Inflammation
Inflammation reduces GABA brain cells, while that boost GABA activity can combat brain inflammation. Increasing brain GABA could reduce brain inflammation, which is linked to many brain and mental health diseases [R].
18) GABA and Libido
GABA may possibly enhance libido or sexual function mostly in people who have anxiety or low mood, as a secondary effect.
Just GABA, for example, reduced sexual behavior in female rats [R].
Plus, glutamate may be more important when it comes to sexual attraction. In mice, sexual attraction increases glutamate in the brain while GABA blocks it [R].
19) GABA and Headaches
20) GABA Protects the Heart
21) GABA and the Immune System
GABA has a profound effect on immunity. It reduces an overactive immune response by lowering inflammatory cytokines and pathways. Increasing GABA may fight inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and IBS [R].
22) GABA and Heat Resistance
GABA increases heat resistance in plants and reduces heat damage in cells. But it may have the same protective effects in humans [R].
Only the GABA-enhancing drug phenibut has been studied for these effects. Phenibut reduced exertion from physical labor in extreme heat. In one trial, it increased heat resistance, protecting the body from high temperatures [R].
In physically exhausted people, a single dose of phenibut (250 mg) prevented overheating, increased tolerance to heat, improved oxygen supply, and helped maintain high working capacity [R].
23) GABA and Healthy Aging
A balance of GABA and glutamate promotes healthy aging. Aging leads to declines in balance, fine motor skills, and motor coordination. GABA activity maintains optimal brain function and motor performance in older adults. GABA levels decline with aging, which leads to poor motor and cognitive performance [R].
GABA maintains brain plasticity, enabling the brain to continue learning and adapting. Increasing GABA in older adults may promote lifelong plasticity, but it’s still uncertain [R].
Symptoms of Low Brain GABA
GABA deficiency in the brain can cause many health problems. These are some of the symptoms GABA-deficient people may experience:
- General anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Social anxiety
- Inability to wind down and relax
- Poor stress resilience
- Low mood or depression
- Inability to sense other people’s emotions
- Attention problems or ADHD
- Cognitive problems, especially if already suffering from schizophrenia
- Chronic pain and inflammation
- Low resistance to extreme heat
There is no way to precisely measure GABA levels in the body. This is because GABA is concentrated in specific regions in the brain, inside the cells. Only brain imaging studies can estimate GABA levels in the brain, but these methods are not available to the public.
The best way to assess if you may be low in brain GABA is based on your symptoms and overall health. If it’s likely that you’re GABA deficient, look into ways to naturally increase GABA in the brain.
Note: Many of these symptoms are often not caused only by low GABA. Sometimes they can be a result of imbalances in other neurotransmitters, hormones, and nutrients. But they may also point to low brain GABA, especially if there is an overlap between several of the symptoms listed.
Benefits of Increasing GABA
GABA will have benefits if you suspect that you are deficient in it or would just like to relax more. GABA increases stress resilience and helps to balance emotions and cognition. There are various approaches to naturally increasing GABA. We’ve summarized some of them here, but we suggest you also read through this post in detail.
Supplements & Diet to Increase GABA
- Magnolia Bark [R, R, R]
- Valerian [R, R, R]
- Skullcap [R]
- Lemon Balm [R, R, R]
- Black seed oil [R]
- Ashwagandha [R, R]
- Lavender [R]
- Theanine from green tea [R]
- Apigenin from feverfew and chamomile (possibly) [R]
- Taurine [R]
- Magnesium [R]
- Kava tea, but with caution since kava can have side effects [R]
- Eating more fermented foods rich in good bacteria [R]
- Vitamin B6 [R]
- Normal zinc levels (deficiency or excess will reduce GABA) [R]
- Red sage [R]
- GABA from fermented rice (possibly) [R]
What About Pharma-GABA?
Many people are claiming to have used Pharma-GABA and experienced beneficial effects. The Asian manufacturers claim that this form of GABA, produced through a fermentation process using a strain of lactic acid bacteria, is superior to other GABA supplements. They state that pharma-GABA is “pure” and that it can cross the blood-brain barrier. Pharma-GABA has been approved by the FDA as a food ingredient and is quite expensive [R].
We at SelfHacked are more suspicious, though, as there are no studies that show Pharma-GABA (or any other GABA) can cross into the brain. Studies using brain imaging would need to determine this, and none have been carried out to this date. Still, the beneficial results achieved with PharmaGABA could be indirect – it may act to calm the brain through its effects on the gut and nerves along the gut-brain axis [R, R].
Synthetic GABA Drugs
A couple of synthetic drugs have been made by modifying GABA an enabling it to cross the blood-brain barrier. Many of them have stronger effects than natural GABA. Be sure to read about all their side effects and risks before considering them.
- Phenibut is made by modifying GABA with a phenyl group (beta-phenyl-GABA). In the US it’s classified as a supplement.
- Picamilon is made of GABA and vitamin B3 (niacin). It’s not approved in the US but some companies still sell it.
- GHB (Gamma hydroxybutyrate), an illegal and dangerous drug of abuse.
Lifestyle to Increase GABA
- Vagus nerve stimulation [R, R]
- Meditation and yoga [R, R]
- Breathing exercises [R]
- Exercise, in the long run [R]
Experimental Ways to Increase GABA
- Neurofeedback [R]
- Binaural beats, possibly by listening to alpha or gamma wave beats; alpha and gamma brainwaves are linked to relaxation and meditative states of mind [R, R]
- Ketosis [R]
- CBT [R]
GABA Supplements and the Blood-Brain Barrier
GABA supplements are widely available and found in large health and grocery stores. However, GABA supplementation probably does not affect GABA levels in the brain because GABA can’t cross the blood-brain barrier [R].
These supplements may be able to boost GABA in the gut, circulation, and nerves, but little is known about how fast GABA is metabolized.
Limitations and Caveats
New brain imaging technology recently made it possible to measure neurotransmitter levels in the brain. However, this technology is still new and more studies need to clarify all the scenarios in which GABA levels are low and the brain regions involved.
This article focused on natural GABA fluctuations in the brain in various diseases and states. Some supplement studies also help shed light on the importance of GABA, but these are often limited to animal studies. Clinical trials with GABA supplements are rare and the benefits uncertain.
To get a comprehensive guide on how to get a great night’s sleep every night check out our ebook Biohacking Insomnia.