Discussions about our biology and mental well-being have long been dominated by terms like “serotonin” and “dopamine.” Although these brain chemicals still hold significant weight, there’s a new term taking up space in the conversation: GABA.
Here’s what experts want you to know about the buzzy neurotransmitter—and its link to our mood.
What Is GABA, Exactly?
“GABA is a neurotransmitter that blocks certain signals and decreases nervous system stimulation, giving it a calming effect,” explains Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe. Basically, GABA lowers nerve cell activity, which may keep stress and anxiety at bay.
Our growing interest in GABA is no coincidence, given the increasingly demanding nature of today’s “always-on” culture. “Many people in today’s society feel overworked, overstressed, and overstimulated,” says Blakely.
Read More: 5 Ways Stress Can Impact Your Health
As a result, many people have begun to seek out a better understanding of their physiology—and how to support it naturally.
“Supplemental GABA is an appealing option as it seems to have a natural calming effect by decreasing neuronal excitability,” say the The Nutrition Twins, Tammy Lakatos Shames, R.D.N., C.D.N., C.F.T., and Lyssie Lakatos, R.D.N., C.D.N., C.F.T. co-founders of the 21-Day Body RebootTM.
Who’s Not Getting Enough?
People with depression, anxiety, and insomnia may have GABA deficiencies or imbalances, according to Lakatos and Lakatos Shames.
Scientists are still unraveling the connection between the neurotransmitter and mood disorders. However, a growing body of research has identified GABA dysfunction in people with these issues.
People low in magnesium or vitamin B6 may also struggle to maintain adequate GABA levels, they add. (Both of these nutrients are required for GABA production.)
Who Should Supplement?
Unsurprisingly, people looking to support mental well-being may want to consider supplementing with GABA.
Some research suggests supplementation may support mental health and well-being. One Biofactors study, for example, found that supplementing with GABA could support relaxation (and immunity!) during times of stress. Additionally, “Certain anxiety medications actually act to enhance its effects,” notes Blakely.
Read More: 8 Foods That Can Boost Your Mood
People who have trouble falling and/or staying asleep may also want to consider adding a supplement to their routines, says Blakely. (One 2008 Sleep study found that people with sleep issues had 30 percent lower GABA levels than others.)
Plus, one 2012 study published in Archives of Generalized Psychiatry even suggests that GABA may play a role in supporting focus.
How To Supplement With GABA
Currently, there’s no standard recommendation for supplementation. That said, supplements typically contain between 100 and 750 milligrams per serving. (You’ll find them in capsule, powder, and tincture form.)
Blakely recommends starting with 100 to 200 milligrams per day—and not exceeding 800 milligrams per day. “Taking too much might result in side effects such as headache, sleepiness, fatigue, or nausea,” she cautions.
If you’re supplementing to support your sleep, Blakely recommends taking it an hour or two before bedtime. However, if you’re taking it to support overall mental health and well-being, split it up throughout the day.
Unlike many other supplements (like multivitamins), GABA is best absorbed on an empty stomach, says Blakely.
As always, “check ingredients carefully and steer clear of products that contain additives, fillers and preservatives,” says Rachael Link, M.S., R.D., a dietitian with Ancient Nutrition. Also look for brands that put their products through third-party testing for quality, like The Vitamin Shoppe brand.
References & Further Reading
- Molecular Psychiatry: The GABAergic Deficit Hypothesis of Major Depressive Disorder
- Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: The role of GABA in anxiety disorders
- Neuroscience: GABA Mechanisms and sleep
- Biofactors: Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans
- Archives of Generalized Psychiatry: Reduced GABA Concentration in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
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