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.
Table of Contents
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 slows brain activity.
If you are easily overstimulated and often overwhelmed and stressed out, you might be deficient in this important neurotransmitter.
You can remedy this deficiency with the right supplements — supplements that contain synthesized GABA or other substances that support the formation of GABA.
Symptoms of a GABA Deficiency
First, let’s take a look at the signs of a low GABA level so that you can tell if you might be deficient and whether GABA supplementation makes sense for you.
When all your different 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 make appointments on time.
- You’re often doing many things 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.
- 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.
Deficiency is also linked to autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and epilepsy. (1)
Some people have genetic disorders of GABA metabolism, but usually your lifestyle is the reason for GABA deficiency. (2)
Harvard Medical School researcher Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, states 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.
GABA Supplements for Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia
Anti-anxiety drugs (Valium, Xanax) and sleeping pills (Ambien, Lunesta) work by helping GABA bind to receptors in the brain. (3)
Julia Ross, MA, is the author of The Mood Cure and a pioneer in the field of biochemical rebalancing.
She finds that:
“GABA acts like a sponge, soaking up excess adrenaline and other by-products of stress and leaving us relaxed.”
If you are looking to increase your GABA levels with supplements instead of drugs, you have two choices.
You can take a supplement that contains synthetic GABA.
Or you can take a supplement that supports GABA function.
Here’s a look at both options.
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The GABA Supplement Controversy
You might be surprised to learn that taking a synthetic GABA supplement is usually not the best option.
Many users swear that synthetic GABA 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.
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. (5)
This barrier acts as the brain’s gatekeeper to keep out foreign substances.
There are several theories that may explain why GABA supplements seem to 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.
Taking a synthetic GABA supplement may or may not work for you.
The only way to know for sure is to give it a try.
GABA Supplements: Dosage, Side Effects, and Interactions
One additional concern about the use of synthetic 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.
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. (10)
Synthesized GABA should be used carefully with high blood pressure medications since it can cause blood pressure to drop too low. (11)
It should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women since its safety in these situations has not been determined.
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Supplements That Support GABA Function Naturally
So, we see that taking supplemental GABA is not ideal for everyone.
Fortunately, there are a number of 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.
Taurine is an amino acid found in high concentrations in the brain where it acts much like a neurotransmitter by activating GABA receptors. (12)
Additionally, taurine encourages the formation and release of GABA. (13)
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. (14)
Magnesium-depleted soils, stress, age, medications, and underlying health conditions all contribute to widespread magnesium deficiency. (15)
One way magnesium helps with stress relief is by binding to and stimulating GABA receptors in the brain. (16)
If you feel “tired but wired,” have chronic insomnia, or often have nocturnal leg cramps, magnesium supplementation may be the answer.
L-Theanine — Change Your Brain Waves
L-theanine is a uniquely relaxing amino acid found in black and green teas. (17)
It increases the level of GABA and also that of two other major neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. (18)
It’s considered an adaptogen, a stress-relieving substance that makes you more resilient to whatever life throws your way. (19)
One of the more fascinating attributes of l-theanine is that it alters 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. (23)
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Kava — An Ancient Stress Reliever
Kava (Piper methysticum), 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. (24)
It’s been found to be as effective for anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as the prescription anti-anxiety drugs Buspirone and Opipramol. (25)
It also shows promise for treating ADHD by providing cognitive enhancement and relaxing effects. (26)
You can take kava as a supplement, or consume it the traditional way — as a tea.
Psychobiotics — Probiotics for the Brain
Probiotic supplements that provide mental health benefits are called psychobiotics.
One way psychobiotics enhance mental well-being is by creating neurotransmitters, including GABA. (27)
Research has found over two dozen strains of bacteria, mostly strains of Lactobacillus, that produce GABA. (28)
So far, Lactobacillus brevis has been found to be the best GABA synthesizer.
Other top GABA producers include Lactobacillus paracasei and Lactobacillus buchneri. (29)
These bacteria naturally reside in your intestines, but you can aid their formation, and their production of GABA, by taking a probiotic supplement.
Note that L. brevis and L. rhamnosus are readily found in many probiotic supplements, while L. paracasei and L. buchneri will be harder to find.
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PharmaGABA — Made from Good Bacteria
Virtually all GABA supplements are synthetic, but PharmaGABA, produced by Lactobacillus hilgardii, is a natural form.
This beneficial bacteria naturally occurs in fermented dairy, wine, and kimchi. (31)
According to Pharma Foods International’s website, clinical studies have proven the health benefits of their product. (32)
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 we could not find them elsewhere online either.
We’ve contacted the company asking for links to the studies but have not heard back.
A few brands of GABA supplements that contain PharmaGABA are Swanson, Natural Factors, Thorne, and Designs for Health.
Traditional Herbal Remedies
Naturally relaxing herbs such as hops, valerian, skullcap, lemon balm, chamomile, and passionflower have been used for centuries to induce a state of calm and help users sleep.
It’s no coincidence that these traditional herbal remedies have been found to work on GABA mechanisms in the brain. (33)
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 awful.)
Two other traditional herbs that have support GABA function include Ginkgo biloba, a popular memory supplement, and noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), a remedy traditionally used to treat depression and anxiety. (34, 35)
Magnolia Bark — Traditional Chinese Remedy
Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) is a versatile herbal remedy.
In traditional Chinese medicine, it is consumed as a tea known as Saiboku-To to treat nervous tension, anxiety, and insomnia. (36)
Now it’s sold for cognitive enhancement, for stress relief, and as a sleep aid.
One of the ways it works is by binding with GABA receptors. (37)
Vitamin B6 — A Needed Cofactor
In the body, the neurotransmitter GABA is synthesized from the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), an essential cofactor. (38)
Inadequate levels of B6 contributes to stress in two ways.
First, it can lead to diminished GABA synthesis. (39)
The recommended RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for vitamin B6 is 1.3 mg/day for most adults. (42)
Picamilon — The “Smart Drug” GABA Supplement
Picamilon is a highly 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. (43)
In Russia, it’s available as a prescription drug for treating stroke, depression, migraine headaches, and other neurological conditions.
Picamilon is used as a smart drug by college students who use it to boost memory, focus, and mental performance.
Others take it for anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and migraine relief.
Here in the US, it was available as a nutritional supplement.
But a few years ago, picamilon was pulled from store shelves by the US Food and Drug Administration.
This was not because picamilon is unsafe, but because it does not meet the official definition of a dietary supplement. (44)
So, you won’t find picamilon at your local health food store or typical online vitamin stores, but you can still buy it from online specialty nootropics sites based outside of the US.
We don’t recommend doing this.
But if you do decide to try it, choose your vendor carefully.
Foods That Contain GABA
To increase GABA, 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. (45)
Other foods that naturally contain GABA include:
- brown rice
- shiitake mushrooms
- sprouted barley, beans, or brown rice
- sweet potatoes
- tomatoes (46)
One important group of foods we 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. (47)
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 these active ingredients. (48)
Definitely not enough to change your neurotransmitter levels.
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.
It contains the relaxing compound l-theanine and is lower in caffeine than most caffeinated drinks with only 25 mg per cup.
This is important since caffeine inhibits the release of GABA. (49)
The Best Exercise to Increase GABA
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.
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%. (50)
Yoga is a popular remedy for stress reduction and now, in at least one way, we understand why it works.
GABA Supplements: Take the Next Step
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 synthetic GABA supplements do not readily cross the blood-brain barrier, bringing their efficacy into question.
However, there are other mechanisms that could explain why these 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.