If you live with anxiety or insomnia, a supplement like GABA may be more appealing than a prescription drug. But it may be a good idea to learn more about it first.

The chemicals your body produces do some amazing things. In addition to keeping your internal systems functioning, they can play a role in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Some supplements may mimic these chemicals. So, when you aren’t feeling your best mentally or physically, they may seem like an appealing option.

However, the process may not be as straightforward, and it may be a good idea to discuss implications with a health professional first.

When it comes to substances like GABA supplements, you may have a variety of questions:

  • can supplements really take the place of what your body makes naturally?
  • does GABA increase serotonin?
  • does GABA help you sleep?

A health professional may be the best source of information to answer these questions. It may also be a good idea to learn more about what GABA neurons do in your brain.

GABA is a naturally occurring amino acid that results from your body metabolizing glucose, an important energy supply for the brain.

GABA works as both a neurotransmitter and a postbiotic.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals produced and released by neurons and other cells that transmit or block important messages that help your body function. Postbiotics are what’s left after probiotic bacteria digest and break down food in the gut.

GABA blocks specific signals between neurons, which leads to a calming overall effect.

As a neurotransmitter, GABA works as the primary inhibitory chemical in your brain. Inhibitory means that it slows down or prevents a reaction or function from happening.

GABA blocks signals between neurons and encourages brain function to slow down. This process can create a calming effect and is why GABA is often associated with:

  • anxiety and stress reduction
  • improved sleep
  • brain health

GABA isn’t just about creating a sense of calm, however. It’s also the counterpart to your excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate.

Excitatory means that it causes excitation or excitement. In this case, glutamate excites nerve cells so they’re alert and are able to receive critical signals.

GABA neurons work with glutamate neurons to help maintain your body’s state of equilibrium, known as homeostasis. Together, they balance overall neuron activity and optimal neurological function.

Neurological function means all the things your neurons do that are essential to your body. From sending and receiving signals that make movement possible, to your memory, planning, and other cognitive functions.

If you have too much or too little GABA activity, you may start to experience both physical and mental health challenges. But this also depends on many other factors.

Low levels of GABA activity, for example, have been linked to:

  • feelings of anxiousness
  • seizures
  • epilepsy
  • sleep disturbances
  • language impairment
  • inattention
  • hyperactivity
  • decreased muscle tone

Serotonin is another important neurotransmitter released by neurons in your brain.

Research suggests it not only helps regulate neural activity, but it also influences almost all major organ systems in the body.

When it comes to GABA, serotonin plays the role of a modulator. This means it works to enhance and improve the effects of GABA.

Without serotonin, GABA loses its full effect on your neural pathways. In other words, you might have plenty of GABA available, but your body won’t be able to utilize it without adequate levels of serotonin.

Because GABA needs serotonin to do its job, symptoms of low GABA activity may actually be related to low levels of serotonin.

As the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, GABA plays an important role in optimal functioning.

Low activity in GABA neurons has been linked to symptoms of mental health conditions like:

Overactivity of GABA neurons has been linked to:

Generalized anxiety disorder

Research suggests low levels of GABA activity create an imbalance of signals in the brain that result in feelings of unease.

Without enough GABA reactivity, your excitatory neurotransmitters can take over, putting your neurons into a state of hyperexcitement.

This state of alertness, often associated with the body’s response to danger or stress, can then create lingering feelings of anxiety.

Schizophrenia

The exact link between GABA and schizophrenia is unclear, according to systemic review and meta-analysis data.

In a 2018 review, however, experts noted multiple brain regions may be affected by GABA dysfunction, including the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for cognitive functions.

The prefrontal cortex is one of the primary areas of the brain associated with symptoms of schizophrenia.

Major depressive disorder

The role GABA plays in the stress response in the brain may be associated with symptoms of depression.

According to research, low levels of GABA allow the body to remain in an excitatory stress response. Over time, prolonged stress experiences can start to cause other changes in the brain linked to depression.

Seizures and epilepsy

Low activity of GABA neurons may cause cells to become depolarized, which may lead to seizure activity in some cases.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Changes in what’s known as the brain’s Cortico-Striato-Thalamo-Cortical circuit (CSTC) have been linked to symptoms of OCD.

Research shows people living with OCD often have low levels of GABA in the CSTC, the area of the brain responsible for motions, perception, sensation, and memory.

Sleep disturbance

Without enough GABA, the brain can remain in an excited state, which may delay or prevent restful sleep.

So, GABA may help you sleep better.

A small, cross-sectional study found GABA levels may be up to 30% lower in people who experience insomnia, compared to those who don’t.

Succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase deficiency (SSADH)

SSADH is a genetic disorder that causes an accumulation of GABA in the brain. This can lead to psychiatric symptoms, such as episodes of psychosis, intellectual disability, and behavioral disorders.

GABA-transaminase deficiency

A type of genetic disease that appears in infancy, GABA-transaminase deficiency causes an accumulation of GABA in the brain.

Homocarnosinosis

Another genetic condition that results in an excess of GABA in the brain, homocarnosinosis often leads to intellectual disability or developmental delay.

GABA is what’s known as a nonessential amino acid. This means your body produces it naturally.

You don’t usually have to worry about “getting enough GABA” because it’s not necessary to ingest any for your body to have a ready supply.

If you’re experiencing symptoms that may be due to a lower than optimal activity of GABA neurons, you might be wondering if dietary supplements can help.

Research does suggest your body’s optimal GABA activity levels may have protective properties against:

  • type 1 diabetes
  • cancer
  • neurological diseases
  • immunological disorders
  • asthma

However, review data indicates that little is yet known about the bioavailability of neurotransmitters in dietary supplement form.

Bioavailability means how efficiently a substance is absorbed and arrives at its intended destination in your body.

In other words, there’s no evidence that what you take in a supplement form will reach your brain or those cells that need it.

Though experts are still learning about nutrients and their bioavailability, research suggests nutrients from natural food sources may be more readily absorbed by the body compared to those from supplements.

If you’re looking to increase your intake of foods that naturally contain GABA, fermented products, such as kimchi or kefir, are among the main options.

You can increase your natural GABA intake by eating:

  • dairy products
  • green, black, or oolong tea
  • beans

It’s always highly advisable to discuss any dietary changes as well as supplementation with a health professional.

GABA supplementation is still an emerging form of dietary therapy.

Few studies are available on the benefits of GABA supplements, but limited results have been seen in the areas of:

  • cognitive performance
  • physical recovery
  • anxiety levels
  • blood pressure

Cognitive performance

In 2015, a small study demonstrated that taking GABA supplements helped enhance cognitive function related to critical thinking.

Physical recovery

A small study of 21 healthy men found that combining GABA supplements with whey protein resulted in increased levels of growth hormone, which could help build muscle and aid in muscle recovery.

Anxiety

In 2006, researchers noted GABA supplementation helped improve levels of relaxation and reduce stress in a small study of 13 participants.

Blood pressure

An investigation into GABA supplements by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) found that GABA supplements may result in a decrease in blood pressure numbers.

Prior to 2020, small studies hinted at possible benefits for sleep and stress through GABA oral supplements.

A recent systematic review of 14 of those studies, however, found limited evidence for GABA supplement use in stress management, and even less evidence for its use as a sleep aid.

Overall, research suggests GABA supplements are safe when used as directed; however, there may be a mild risk for hypotension, according to the safety investigation.

Other potential side effects may include:

  • burning sensation in the throat
  • shortness of breath

You may also experience side effects common with any form of dietary supplement, including:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • medication interactions
  • headache
  • fatigue

GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in your body and an important amino acid.

Few studies support GABA dietary supplements as a way to treat physical or mental health symptoms, though.

If you’re experiencing symptoms that may be linked to low activity of GABA neurons, your healthcare team can help determine the best course of action.