GABA: The Neurotransmitter of Calm & Relaxation

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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By properly balancing your GABA level, you can reduce stress, feel less anxious, and reduce your risk for many physical and mental health disorders.

Modern life is stressful.

But you don’t necessarily need to look beyond yourself to find the antidote to stress.

Your body already produces a potent relaxing brain chemical called GABA.

If it’s been a while since you have felt truly relaxed and happy, you may have a low level of GABA, the neurotransmitter of calm and relaxation.

By bringing your GABA level into proper balance, you can reduce stress, feel less anxious, and reduce your risk for physical and mental health disorders of all kinds.

What Is GABA? What Does It Do?

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is one of the most important neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.

It the most prevalent inhibitory neurotransmitter. (1)

Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease the likelihood that a nerve impulse will fire.

Its main function as an inhibitory neurotransmitter is to slow down brain activity.

It’s also involved in vision, sleep, muscle tone, and motor control.

GABA is a naturally occurring byproduct of energy production in the brain. (2)

When glucose is metabolized for brain energy, one of the byproducts is glutamate, an important neurotransmitter in its own right.

Glutamate then gets converted into GABA as needed.

GABA is widely distributed both inside and outside of the central nervous system. (3)

It’s found in the intestines, stomach, bladder, lungs, liver, skin, spleen, muscles, kidneys, pancreas, and reproductive organs. (4, 5)

Diseases and disorders linked to GABA dysfunction include: (6)

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • autism
  • bipolar disorder
  • colorectal cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • diabetes (type 1)
  • dementia
  • depression
  • epilepsy
  • fibromyalgia
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Lewy body disease
  • meningitis
  • schizophrenia
  • ulcerative colitis

Diseases characterized by involuntary movements such as Parkinson’s, tardive dyskinesia, and Huntington’s chorea are associated with low GABA.

There’s some evidence that GABA regulates the synthesis of melatonin, your body’s natural sleep hormone. (7)

GABA is not unique to humans.

It’s found in the nervous systems of all mammals and is also found in insects and in plants. (8)

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Benefits of GABA for Stress and Anxiety

One of the most important features of GABA is its ability to minimize stress and anxiety.

GABA has been called “nature’s Valium” because it’s essential to bring about a state of relaxation.

When GABA is low, you’ll feel anxious, overwhelmed, and easily overstimulated.

Anti-anxiety benzodiazepine drugs like Xanax and prescription sleeping pills like Ambien work by enhancing the naturally calming effects of GABA, binding to GABA receptors, or increasing GABA receptor sensitivity. (9)

One of the most intriguing discoveries about GABA is that it can specifically diminish the unwanted thoughts that fuel stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders.

Research indicates that high concentrations of GABA in the brain’s hippocampus make it significantly easier to manage negative, intrusive thoughts. (10, 11)

How GABA Balances Brain Activity

It’s impossible to have a clear picture of how GABA works without mentioning its companion neurotransmitter, glutamate.

GABA and glutamate have a yin-yang or “complementary-opposite” relationship.

Glutamate, as the main excitatory neurotransmitter, balances GABA’s inhibitory effects.

Excitatory neurotransmitters increase the likelihood that a nerve impulse will fire. (12)

Whereas GABA slows brain activity, glutamate accelerates it.

These two neurotransmitters work together to control brain activity much as you use the gas and brake pedals in your car to control its speed.

GABA and glutamate not only work together to modulate brain activity, they can also be converted into one another. (13)

Glutamate is the precursor of GABA, and GABA, in turn, can be recycled into glutamate as needed. (1415)

Another way GABA affects brain activity is by altering brainwave patterns.

The presence of GABA increases brain waves associated with a relaxed state (alpha waves) and decreases those associated with stress and anxiety (beta waves). (16)

Symptoms of GABA Deficiency

Ideally, GABA and glutamate work together to keep brain activity in balance since too much or too little of either can cause problems for mental health.

Here are some of the typical symptoms of a low GABA level: (17)

  • Experiencing dread for no obvious reason
  • Being consumed by negative thoughts, especially at night
  • Feeling scattered and disorganized
  • Always finding new things to worry about
  • Relying on high carbohydrate foods, drugs, or alcohol to relax

Low GABA is also associated with numerous disorders with a strong stress component, including anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, and migraines.

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What It Means to Have a GABA Neurotransmitter Imbalance

Each neurotransmitter, including GABA, is part of an ecosystem that includes the neurotransmitter itself, its receptors, and neurons.

When you see a phrase like “GABA deficiency” or “GABA imbalance,” realize that these terms indicate that one or more of the following is taking place:

  • Too little GABA is being made.
  • There are too few GABA receptors or they aren’t working properly.
  • GABA is being broken down too soon or not being appropriately recirculated.

Additionally, terms like “too much” or “too little” GABA may give you the impression that GABA can easily be measured.

In fact, there is no reliable way to measure the level of GABA in the brain. (18)

Causes of GABA Imbalance

While it’s possible to have a genetic disorder of GABA metabolism, in most cases GABA dysfunction can be blamed squarely on lifestyle. (19)

According to Harvard Medical School researcher Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, the common underlying causes of GABA dysfunction are:

  • too much stress
  • poor diet
  • lack of sleep
  • too much caffeine
  • gluten intolerance

Surprisingly, your gut bacteria produce GABA, and so, dysbiosis, an imbalance between good and bad gut bacteria, can result in too little GABA being produced. (2021)

Autoimmune Reaction

Ideally, excess glutamate will be converted into GABA with the help of vitamin B6 and the enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD).

But a deficiency in B6 or an autoimmune reaction to GAD can interfere with GABA production. (2223)

Causes of this autoimmune reaction include:

  • autoimmune disorders
  • diabetes
  • gluten intolerance
  • celiac disease
  • Hashimoto’s disease

Mood-Altering Substances

Many mood-altering substances disrupt the glutamate-GABA balance.

Alcohol and tranquilizers increase GABA activity and decrease glutamate activity. (24)

Caffeine and stimulant drugs, on the other hand, increase glutamate activity and decrease GABA activity.

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GABA: Neurotransmitter and Brain Supplement

GABA is unique in that it is both a neurotransmitter and a fairly common supplement.

GABA supplements contain a synthetic form of GABA that is touted for its various calming properties.

Marketing claims often state that GABA promotes relaxation, reduces stress and tension, and promotes positive mood and better sleep.

And while the naturally occurring neurotransmitter certainly can do all of this and more, there’s doubt whether GABA supplements deliver similar results.

There is an ongoing controversy whether GABA supplements actually work since GABA is too large a molecule to cross into the brain.

Yet some people find GABA supplements very helpful.

There are several theories to explain this.

It’s suspected that certain areas of the brain allow small amounts of GABA to enter or that GABA binds with receptors outside of the brain. (2526, 2728)

Some experts believe that GABA supplements work only for those who have a compromised or leaky blood-brain barrier, a filter that exists to keep foreign substances out of the brain.

In fact, Dr. Kharrazian uses GABA supplementation as an easy test for blood-brain barrier permeability.

He contends that if GABA supplements make you feel better, it’s a sign that your blood-brain barrier has become too porous and is allowing circulating GABA into your brain.

And finally, it’s possible that any perceived benefits of GABA supplementation is due to the placebo effect.

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How to Increase GABA Levels Naturally

If you don’t want to try GABA supplements or know they don’t help you, there are many other ways to support a healthy level of GABA naturally.

Foods That Contain GABA

Researchers have analyzed the GABA content of a wide variety of foods and found the three best sources to be brown rice germ, spinach, and sprouted grains.

Other good sources include barley, beans, brown rice, chestnuts, corn, kale, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams. (29)

Probiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut contain the GABA-producing bacterial strains Lactobacillus brevis and Bifidobacterium dentium. (3031)

If increasing GABA is your goal, minimize your intake of caffeine since it inhibits GABA’s ability to bind with its receptors. (32)

Or consider switching mainly to tea.

It has less caffeine and contains the GABA-boosting amino acid l-theanine.

GABA Supplements

A wide variety of supplements work by increasing GABA or stimulating GABA receptors.

Here’s a list of herbs, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids known to enhance GABA:

  • bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
  • DHA omega-3 fatty acid (docosahexaenoic acid)
  • German chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
  • kava (Piper methysticum)
  • l-theanine
  • lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  • magnesium
  • magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis)
  • passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
  • probiotics
  • taurine
  • valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
  • vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • zinc
Read more —
Find in-depth information on supplements and foods that increase GABA in GABA Supplements for Stress and Anxiety (& which work best).

Increase GABA With Mind-Body Techniques

Yoga

Any kind of physical exercise increases GABA, but yoga is a standout.

GABA levels in the brain can increase by as much as 27% after a single one-hour yoga session. (33)

Another study found that yoga boosted GABA levels and mood even better than walking.

Meditation

Using PET scans, researchers found that meditation has similar GABA-boosting effects. (34)

Vagal Tone

And finally, keep your vagus nerve toned.

The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body and is a major facilitator of the mind-body connection.

The vagus nerve elicits the output of many important neurotransmitters, including GABA. (35)

You can strengthen your vagus nerve with mind-body activities (singing, meditation, yoga, prayer) and therapies (acupuncture, aromatherapy), and with the right supplements, especially probiotics, DHA, and zinc. (36, 3738, 39, 40)

The Neurotransmitter GABA: Take the Next Step

As the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA plays a very important role in your ability to relax and handle stress.

Numerous mental health disorders, especially anxiety disorders, are linked to low GABA levels.

GABA dysfunction is almost always caused by an unhealthy lifestyle.

The use of GABA supplements is controversial, but there are many other ways to enhance GABA activity with food, lifestyle, and supplements that support GABA function.

READ NEXT: GABA Supplements for Stress and Anxiety (& which work best)