GABA is a major inhibitory neurotransmitter. A GABA deficiency can be a big factor contributing to stress and anxiety. Learn how to increase GABA naturally.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is one of the major neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.
It is the primary inhibitory brain chemical that calms the mind and puts the brakes on brain activity when needed.
If you are easily overstimulated and often overwhelmed and stressed out, you might be deficient in this important neurotransmitter.
Commercially available GABA supplements may contain synthesized GABA or other substances that support the formation of GABA.
First, let’s take a look at the signs of a low GABA level so that you can determine whether you might be deficient.
Then we’ll cover the best ways to increase GABA with supplements and beneficial lifestyle habits.
These are some of the best ways to relieve stress and anxiety naturally.
GABA Deficiency: Anxious and Overwhelmed
When your brain chemicals are in balance, they help you feel appropriately motivated, productive and energetic, or calm and relaxed as circumstances dictate.
However, when your brain gets stuck in the “on” position (possibly low in GABA), it leaves you anxious and overwhelmed and makes it nearly impossible to relax.
GABA is so essential for feeling happy and relaxed, it’s been called “nature’s Valium.”
Here are some of the typical signs of GABA deficiency:
- You’re filled with dread and have a knot in your stomach for no obvious reason.
- You’re frequently late because you’re too disorganized to get going in time.
- You’re often doing many thing at once, but at the end of the day have little to show for your efforts.
- Even when things are going well, you find new things to worry about.
- You can’t relax and racing thoughts keep you up at night.
- Sometimes your heart pounds or beats erratically for no reason.
- You rely on high carbohydrate foods, drugs, or alcohol to relax.
Low GABA is associated with numerous disorders with a stress component including anxiety disorders, depression, insomnia, migraines, and fibromyalgia. (1)
Deficiency is also linked to autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and epilepsy. (2)
Some people have genetic disorders of GABA metabolism, but usually lifestyle is to blame for GABA deficiency. (3)
Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Datis Kharrazian reports in his book Why Isn’t My Brain Working? that stress, poor diet, lack of sleep, too much caffeine, and gluten intolerance are common culprits.
How to Reduce Cortisol, the Stress Hormone
GABA Supplements for Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia
Anti-anxiety drugs like Valium and Xanax and sleeping pills such as Ambien and Lunesta work by helping GABA bind to receptors in the brain. (4)
Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure and pioneer in the field of biochemical rebalancing, proclaims that “GABA acts like a sponge, soaking up excess adrenaline and other by-products of stress and leaving us relaxed.” (5)
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If you are looking to increase your GABA levels with supplements instead of drugs, you have two main choices.
You can take a GABA supplement that contains synthetic GABA.
Or you can take a supplement that supports GABA function instead.
Here’s a look at both — but especially why taking GABA supplements may not be your best option.
The GABA Supplement Controversy
Many users swear that synthetic GABA supplement helps their stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, while others find them useless.
There’s an ongoing controversy among the experts as to whether these GABA supplements work at all.
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The scientific community generally concurs that synthesized GABA supplements should NOT work since GABA molecules are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain. (6)
This barrier acts as the brain’s gatekeeper to keep out foreign substances.
There are several theories that may explain why GABA supplements may work some of the time in spite of this limitation.
A long-standing explanation is that GABA supplements work only for those who have a compromised or leaky blood-brain barrier.
But new theories are coming to light.
Thus, at this time, the only way to know for sure if GABA supplementation will work for you is to give it a try.
GABA Supplements: Dosage, Side Effects, and Interactions
One additional concern about using GABA supplements is that little research has been done on them.
A standard dosage has yet to be determined, but most supplements come in 500-750 mg doses. (11)
The most common side effects are tingling or numbness in your hands or feet and shortness of breath.
GABA supplements should not be mixed with drugs for manic depression, including gabapentin and Depakote, since they affect GABA usage in the body. (12)
GABA should be mixed carefully with high blood pressure medications since it can cause blood pressure to drop too low. (13)
It should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women since its safety in those situations has not been determined.
Supplements That Increase GABA
Taking supplemental GABA is not ideal for everyone.
But fortunately there are several other supplements that can increase GABA levels by supporting GABA function.
Most of them have a long history of safe and effective use for stress relief, anxiety, and insomnia.
These are the most effective GABA boosting supplements:
Taurine — A Good Place to Start
As a GABA booster, taurine is an excellent place to start.
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Taurine is an amino acid found in high concentrations in the brain where it acts much like a neurotransmitter by activating GABA receptors. (14)
Additionally, taurine encourages the release of and formation of GABA. (15)
Magnesium — A Missing Mineral
Magnesium is an essential dietary mineral that is so good for stress and anxiety that it’s been called “the original chill pill.”
Unfortunately, it is the second most common nutritional deficiency in developed countries. (16)
Magnesium-depleted soils, stress, age, medications, and underlying health conditions all contribute to widespread magnesium deficiency. (17)
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One way magnesium helps with stress relief is by binding to and stimulating GABA receptors in the brain. (18)
If you feel “tired but wired,” have chronic insomnia, or often have nocturnal leg cramps, supplementation with the proper type of magnesium may be the answer.
8 Ways Magnesium Relieves Anxiety and Stress
L-Theanine — Change Your Brain Waves
L-theanine, or theanine, is a uniquely relaxing amino acid found in black and green teas. (19)
It increases the level of GABA and also that of two other major neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. (20)
It’s considered an adaptogen, a stress-relieving substance that makes you more resilient to whatever life throws your way. (21)
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One of the more fascinating attributes of l-theanine is that it changes your brainwave state.
The alpha brainwave state is associated with relaxation and the beta state with stress and anxiety.
To increase your intake of l-theanine, you can take theanine supplements or drink tea.
Three small cups of green tea per day will not only produce a relaxing effect, but also provide many additional health benefits. (25)
EGCG and L-Theanine: Unique Brain Boosters in Green Tea
SUBJECT: Optimized mental performance
Nootropic brain supplements are growing ever more popular.
Nootropics are substances that can make you more focused, motivated, and productive.
That sounds good, but many of the products containing these substances are neither helpful nor harmless.
We've looked closely at the market and found a supplement that combines many of the most proven, effective, and natural brain enhancers we know.
These enhancers work with your brain's own neurotransmitters to really improve your mental energy, focus and overall performance. Read more about it below.
Deane & Dr. Pat
Kava — An Ancient Stress Reliever
Kava, also called kava kava, was originally used in a ceremonial, relaxing tea by people in the South Pacific.
But it is now also a well-documented herbal remedy for serious stress relief.
Kava works in part by increasing GABA levels. (26)
It’s been found to be as effective for anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as prescription drugs. (27)
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It also shows promise for treating ADHD. (28)
You can take kava as a supplement, or consume it the traditional way — as a tea.
Get more details in our article about the availability, safety and effectiveness of kava.
Psychobiotics — Probiotics for the Brain
Probiotic supplements that provide mental health benefits are now called psychobiotics.
One way psychobiotics do this is by creating neurotransmitters, including GABA. (29)
Research has found over two dozen strains of bacteria that produce GABA, mostly strains of Lactobacillus. (30)
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These bacteria naturally reside in your intestines, but you can aid the formation of GABA by taking a probiotic supplement.
Lactobacillus facilitates direct communication between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve to reduce stress and anxiety. (31)
Look for probiotics that contain Lactobacillus brevis and Bifidobacterium dentium which so far have been found to be the best GABA producers. (32)
Psychobiotics: Probiotics for Better Mental Health
PharmaGABA — Made from Good Bacteria
Virtually all GABA supplements are synthetic but PharmaGABA, produced by Lactobacillus hilgardii and made by Pharma Foods International, is a natural form.
This beneficial bacteria naturally occurs in fermented dairy, wine, and kimchi. (33)
According to the company’s website, clinical studies have proven the health benefits of their product. (34)
Once ingested, it supposedly binds to GABA receptors in the peripheral nervous system, where the “relaxation response” is elicited within 5 to 30 minutes after ingestion.
Frustratingly, the studies are not referenced on the company website and I could not find them elsewhere online either.
I’ve contacted the company asking for links to the studies but so far I haven’t heard back.
A few brands of GABA supplements that contain PharmaGABA are Natural Factors, Thorne, and Designs for Health.
Traditional Relaxing Herbal Remedies
Naturally relaxing herbs such as valerian, lemon balm, chamomile, and passionflower have been used for centuries to induce a state of calm and help users sleep.
You can take these herbs either individually or together.
They are available as pills, capsules, extracts, powders, and teas.
You can also use these herbs’ essential oils to soothe stress and relax.
(However, I’d take a pass on valerian essential oil. It smells pretty awful.)
25 Proven Natural Remedies for Anxiety Relief
Magnolia Bark — Traditional Chinese Remedy
Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) is a versatile herbal remedy.
In traditional Chinese medicine, it was consumed as a tea known as Saiboku-to to treat nervous tension, anxiety, and insomnia. (40)
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Now it’s sold as a nootropic (for cognitive enhancement), for stress relief, and as a sleep aid.
One of the ways it works is by binding with GABA receptors. (41)
Vitamin B6 — A Needed Cofactor
In the body, the neurotransmitter GABA is synthesized from the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and the essential vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) as a needed cofactor. (42)
When you don’t have adequate B6 available, it contributes to stress in two ways.
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First, it can lead to diminished GABA synthesis. (43)
The recommended RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for vitamin B6 is 1.3 mg/day for most adults. (46)
Picamilon — The “Smart Drug” GABA Supplement
Picamilon is a funny-sounding name for a more bioavailable version of GABA supplementation.
Developed in the former Soviet Union, it combines GABA with niacin to create a substance that can enter the brain. (47)
In Russia, it’s available as a prescription drug for treating stroke, depression, and migraine headaches.
✓Mind Lab Pro Brain Supplement Upgrade your mental performance
Here in the US, it is considered a nutritional supplement.
Picamilon is used as a smart drug by college students who use it to boost memory, focus and mental performance. (48)
Others take it for anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and migraine relief.
Recently, picamilon was pulled from the shelves by the US Food and Drug Administration not because it is unsafe, but because it does not meet the official definition of a dietary supplement ingredient. (49)
So you currently won’t find picamilon at your local health food store or typical online vitamin stores, but you may still be able to find it from online specialty nootropics sites.
How Adaptogenic Herbs Reduce Cortisol and Stress
Increase GABA with Food
To increase GABA, however, you don’t need to rely solely on supplements.
You can include GABA-rich foods in your diet.
You can get the most stress relief by taking GABA supplements and emphasizing healthy foods that support or contain GABA.
Researchers have found GABA in a surprising number of plant foods.
The top food sources are brown rice germ, sprouted grains, and spinach. (50)
Other foods that naturally contain GABA include:
- brown rice
- shiitake mushrooms
- sprouted barley, beans, or brown rice
- sweet potatoes
- tomatoes (51)
One important group of foods I would add to this list is fermented foods like unpasteurized sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt.
You’ve already seen how probiotic supplements can positively impact your GABA levels, and fermented foods can do the same. (52)
12 Brain Foods That Supercharge Your Memory, Focus & Mood
A Word About GABA in Canned Drinks
Soda sales have been going down as energy drink sales have been going through the roof.
It was only a matter of time before the pendulum swung the other way.
Now there is an emerging market of designer relaxation drinks like Just Chill, Zenify, and Marley’s Mellow Mood.
They contain ingredients known for their calming effects including GABA, theanine, kava, passionflower, and valerian.
But a Consumer Reports analysis found that these drinks contain only trace amounts of active ingredients. (53)
Definitely not enough to change your neurotransmitter levels.
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If you are looking for a brain enhancing drink that will increase GABA, consider brewing your own green tea.
It’s a more affordable and reliable way to reduce stress and improve brain function.
Plus it’s lower in caffeine than most caffeinated drinks with only 25 mg per cup.
This is important since caffeine inhibits the release of GABA. (54)
Increase GABA with Exercise
There’s one more way you can increase GABA naturally — with exercise.
Physical exercise is one of the best things you can do to promote happiness, relieve anxiety, and become more resilient to stress.
All kinds of exercise can increase your feel-good neurotransmitters, including GABA. (55)
But yoga in particular stands out as a proven GABA booster.
One study found that just a single one-hour session of yoga increased GABA levels by 27%. (56)
It’s no surprise that yoga is a popular remedy for stress reduction.
And now we understand at least one way it works.
GABA Supplements: The Bottom Line
GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter.
It is also synthesized and sold as a supplement.
GABA deficiency manifests as a specific kind of stress best described as being overstimulated and overwhelmed.
Research shows that GABA supplements do not readily cross the blood-brain barrier bringing their efficacy into question.
However, there are other mechanisms that could explain why GABA supplements work for some people.
If you are leery of taking GABA supplements or find them unhelpful, you can experience similar benefits by taking GABA-supporting supplements and include GABA-rich foods in your diet instead.