GABA performs an irreplaceable function in the brain and the nervous system, and good GABA health is essential for mood, memory, learning, and overall healthy cognitive function.
While you can find numerous synthetic GABA supplements, many of them won’t effectively cross the blood brain barrier and may even lead to dependence.
Here are some of the best natural ways to boost GABA for sunny mood support and superior mental performance.
What is GABA?
GABA was relatively unheard of in popular culture until a few years ago, but scientists discovered the integral role it plays for the central nervous system in 1950.<1> Today, researchers have conducted more than 2900 human studies investigating GABA mechanisms and roles. The knowledge gleaned from those studies has spotlighted GABA as a primary communication regulator in the brain.
Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid and inhibitory neurotransmitter naturally produced in the brain. Its primary function monitors neuronal activity to interrupt over-stimulation of neurons in the brain and central nervous system.
GABA is formed from the conversion of the enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD), and it is crucial to almost every region of brain.
GABA is important for healthy brain function and mood support, and healthy GABA levels promote a wide range of mental benefits, including:
- Increased relaxation
- Reduced stress
- Positive mood
- Better sleep
- Less pain
But low GABA levels can cause negative effects on mental health, including poor mood, anxiety, insomnia, or drug and alcohol dependence.<2>
Low GABA allows the brain to remain in an overly excited state, sending false alarms and flooding the brain with toxic amounts of chemicals and free radicals that can cause rapid and extensive inflammation, neural pathway blockage, and brain cell death.
There are many ways to protect GABA levels in the brain, but how does it work? Could your GABA supply need a boost?
How GABA Works
Whenever any molecule binds to a receptor, it stimulates that receptors action. The molecule that binds to the receptor is called the agonist. An agonist can be any substance produced inside or outside the body that binds to a receptor.
When a GABA agonist binds to its receptor, it stimulates GABA activity – usually promoting relaxation while reducing anxiety.<3>
Neurons that produce GABA are called GABAergic neurons.
GABA is the brain’s most important inhibitory neurotransmitter, preventing neurons from firing too frequently due to overstimulation. Like a good couples counselor, GABA stops communication from getting too loud and out of control. Instead, it facilitates calm, clear intraneural communication.
By inhibiting neural activity, GABA supports restful sleep, lowers mental and physical stress, reduces anxiety, and promotes a calm mood.
Glutamate and GABA are important contributors to the brain’s overall mental balance. To work effectively, both must be in balance themselves.
GABA and Glutamate
The brain uses neurotransmitters to communicate between neurons. Besides GABA, neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are involved in cell signal transmission.
While GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamate supports learning, attention, and focus. But too much glutamate stimulates overactivity in nerve cells and other neurons, causing them to burn out like a light bulb left on too long.
Too much glutamate props open sodium channels in nerve cells and other neurons, preventing them from closing. The neurons keep firing, allowing inflammatory compounds and free radicals to rapidly accumulate and attack mitochondria – the energy-generating core of neurons.
When mitochondria are exhausted, the neuron withers and dies.<4>
GABA opposes glutamate, helping calm nerve cells by interrupting neuronal firing, blocking inflammatory compounds and preventing free radical damage. Normally, glutamate should be able to convert into GABA.
Glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) is a non-essential amino acid and the parent enzyme to both glutamate and GABA. Essentially, it can turn into either one, and GABA and glutamate can turn into each other.
But various factors can interfere with this conversion process, resulting in overproduction of glutamate and inadequate GABA conversion.
L- Glutamine is a frequently recommended supplement, and though it can convert to GABA in the body, glutamine actually increases glutamate levels – especially in people with high glutamate levels.
Avoid food and other substances that contain excitotoxins which may lead to excessive glutamate. including:
- MSG (and these alternate names)
- Domoic Acid (common in farm-raised seafood)
Calcium is another cofactor in the GABA-glutamate drama. Glutamate sets the stage for excitotoxicity to happen, but calcium is the agent that actually destroys the nerve cell. Excessive glutamate combined with too much calcium is a disastrous combination.
Vitamin D and Vitamin K are fat-soluble vitamins important for calcium balance. Vitamin D can be stored by the body but vitamin K cannot, so daily supplementation may be required.
You can also reverse the flow of excess into neurons and back into bones and teeth by:
- Increasing magnesium
- Taking zinc to limit glutamate damage
- Monitoring lithium, iodine, and boron levels
Nootropics for neurotransmitters promote optimal brain chemical levels for peak mental performance.
Symptoms of Low GABA
Abnormally low GABA levels can lead to slew of life-altering symptoms. GABA is mostly known for its impact on mood and stress response, but it affects more cognitive areas than you may think.
GABA is highly involved with neuronal connections that control language. If you forget the word for something or the name of a person or place, GABA provides the gap that helps your brain retrieve it.
GABA quiets neurons that start chattering nonsense in an overly excited attempt to solve the puzzle with sheer vastness of information. This allows the accurate information to surface without having to sift through an overload of irrelevant information.
Low GABA activity in the body can result in:
- Chronic stress
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory problems
- Poor social interactions
- Muscle pain
- Insomnia and other sleep problems
- Mood disorders
- Self-stimulating behaviors
Low GABA activity is linked to substance abuse.
Benefits of GABA
GABA helps mind and body relax, fall asleep, and stay asleep throughout the night. Low GABA activity is associated with insomnia and sleep disruption.
- In one study, GABA levels in people with insomniawere nearly 30 percent lower than in people who slept well. Low GABA levels also corresponded to more non-external sleep interruptions.<5>
Delta is the lowest brain wave state in which cognitive function is still active, though at rest. This is where the brain regenerates neurons, repairs neural pathways, and mends tattered DNA. The delta state is vital for preserving cognitive function and waking peak performance.
Delta brain waves work by coating neurons throughout the entire brain with GABA during stage 3 and 4 sleep.
GABA’s primary role is to diminish neuronal activity throughout the brain and central nervous system in order to promote greater relaxation and alleviate stress and anxiety.
To do this, GABA covers neurons throughout the limbic system, inhibiting signals from the fear response, what we often call “fight or flight.” The limbic system calms down, the amygdala mellows out, and the central nervous system never gets the memo that warns of impending doom.
In an actual life-threatening situation, GABA will only impede neural communication a little bit. It allows the warning to get through while preserving enough cognitive control to deal with the situation in a manner that most ensures the best outcome.
High Blood Pressure
Some evidence suggests GABA may help reduce high blood pressure.
Healthy blood pressure naturally drops at night as part of the body’s sleep mechanisms. High blood pressure can signal hyper-arousal, a state of vigilance that can make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult.
Perennial sleep disruption and sleep disorders like sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure and hypertension. Maintaining healthy blood pressure can help you sleep better.
A healthy GABA system assists developing neurons by enhancing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
BDNF is a protein that promotes the growth and survival of new neurons in the brain. Maintaining normal levels of BDNF is crucial for overall brain development and cognitive function, and low BDNF levels have been linked to low brain plasticity and mental illness.<6>
On the other hand, studies show that higher levels of BDNF benefit learning, memory, cognitive function, and overall brain health. Consistent BDNF levels could even reduce age-associated cognitive decline.
Healthy nutrition is one of the most effective preservers of cognitive function, and what we eat has a huge impact on brain function and mental performance.
Food sources that contain GABA or boost GABA production include:
- Whole grains
- Organic soy, fava, lentils, and other beans
- Nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds
- Wild-caught seafood, including shrimp, mackerel, and halibut
- Citrus fruits
- Leafy greens like spinach and broccoli
- Cacao and cocoa
GABA supplements often claim to provide the same benefits as internally-produced GABA, but their mechanisms vary and may differ from the body’s.
But scientists have not reached consensus about how GABA supplements work in the body or how effectively supplemental GABA crosses the blood-brain barrier.<7>
In addition, some GABA supplements may lead to dependence, higher levels of glutamate, and other unwanted side effects. More research is needed to determine how supplemental GABA works, including how GABA influences the nervous system.
Nootropics for GABA
Some herbs, vitamins, and minerals increase GABA levels by enhancing the frequency and duration of GABA channel activity, rather than directly binding to GABA receptors like a traditional agonist.
These natural supplements improve GABA activity to help reduce stress and anxiety, promote a balanced mood, and improve sleep.
L-theanine protects GABA levels by inhibiting glutamate uptake.<8>
L-theanine can reduce glutamate concentrations by acting as a glutamate antagonist and binding to glutamate receptors.
It is found in green, black, and oolong tea and some medicinal mushrooms, but it is difficult to consume large enough quantities to produce significant benefits through herbal supplementation alone.
- Studies show that theanine supplementation can mildly increase serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels in the brain by about 20%.<9>
Theanine also reduced psychological and physiological stress responses while improving mood and relaxation and improved sleep quality in human studies.
Bacopa may increase the number of GABA receptor sites with consistent, long-term use.
Bacopa supports GABA, serotonin, and dopamine production – all involved with focus, memory, and mood.
Evidence shows it can improve cognition by reducing anxiety and promoting neuronal communication to improve learning and memory retention.
- Research suggests Bacopa can “upregulate expression of a certain type of presynaptic glutamate receptor, mGluR 8, which are thought to protect neurons from excitotoxicity, and their downregulation is concurrent with hyperexcitation.”<10>
But Bacopa works over time, and in clinical trials improvements are significantly better at 8-12 weeks than 4-6 weeks.
Vitamin B6 is necessary for GABA synthesis.
Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is important for serotonin and GABA production, and though it is found in a wide variety of foods, growing evidence suggests that systemic inflammation may impair vitamin B6 metabolism.
B6 helps with the conversion of glutamic acid (GAD) into GABA. GAD requires B6 in order to catalyze the formation of GABA from glutamic acid and regulate GABA levels.
- One animal study showed that B6 supplementation increases GABA content and GAD activity in mouse brains.<11>
- Boeree CG. Neurotransmitters. Shippensburg University. 2009.
- Prescot AP, Renshaw PF, Yurgelun-Todd DA. γ-Amino butyric acid and glutamate abnormalities in adolescent chronic marijuana smokers. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2013 May 1;129(3):232-9. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2013.02.028
- Ator NA. Contributions of GABAA Receptor Subtype Selectivity to Abuse Liability and Dependence Potential of Pharmacological Treatments for Anxiety and Sleep Disorders. CNS Spectrums. Volume 10, Issue 1 January 2005 , pp. 31-39. doi: 10.1017/S1092852900009883
- Seidman MD. Glutamate Antagonists, Steroids, and Antioxidants as Therapeutic Options for Hearing Loss and Tinnitus and the Use of an Inner Ear Drug Delivery System. International Tinnitus Journal, 1998. Volume 4, No.2, 148-154.
- Winkelman JW, et al. Reduced brain GABA in primary insomnia: preliminary data from 4T proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS). Sleep. Nov 2008. 31(11):1499-506.
- Castrén E, Rantamäki T. The role of BDNF and its receptors in depression and antidepressant drug action: Reactivation of developmental plasticity. Developmental Neurobiology. Vol 70, Issue 5. April 2010. pp. 289-297. doi: 10.1002/dneu.20758
- Boonstra, E, et al. Neurotransmitters as food supplements: the effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Front Psychol. 2015; 6: 1520. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01520
- Lardner AL. Neurobiological effects of the green tea constituent theanine and its potential role in the treatment of psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Nutritional Neuroscience: An International Journal on Nutrition, Diet and Nervous System. 2014. Volume 17, Issue 4. doi: 10.1179/1476830513Y.0000000079
- Nathan PJ, Lu K, Gray M, Oliver C. The neuropharmacology of L-theanine(N-ethyl-L-glutamine): a possible neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing agent. J Herb Pharmacother. 2006;6(2):21-30.
- Foran E, Trotti D. Glutamate Transporters and the Excitotoxic Path to Motor Neuron Degeneration in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2009 Jul; 11(7): 1587–1602. doi: 10.1089/ars.2009.2444
- Abe M, Matsuda M. Effect of antivitamin B6 on regional GABA metabolism in mouse brain and its relation to convulsions. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 1979. 25(6):459-68.