Gamma-AminoButyric Acid (GABA)

Gamma-aminobutyric acid—often referred to as GABA—is an amino acid and neurotransmitter, a type of chemical responsible for carrying information from one cell to another.

Produced naturally in the body, GABA is also widely available in supplement form. Manufacturers claim that GABA supplements can help boost the brain’s GABA levels and treat anxiety, stress, depression,1 and sleep problems. In fact, some supplement manufacturers call GABA a “natural form of Valium”—presumably meaning that it reduces stress and improves relaxation and sleep.

Unlike many dietary supplements, GABA cannot be found in ordinary foods. Certain foods, however, including fruits, vegetables, teas, and red wine, can have a significant impact on GABA modulation. At present, it is not clearly understood whether certain foods increase or decrease the impact of GABA on the brain.

Health Benefits

Research shows that GABA might play a key role in protecting against depression and anxiety. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 2010 indicates that people with major depression may be more likely to have low levels of GABA. And a 2009 study that increasing GABA levels may be useful in the treatment of conditioned fear. These results are consistent with the fact that GABA is the primary calming (inhibitory) neurotransmitter in the brain

Relaxants such as alcohol stimulate GABA receptors, leading to feelings of relaxation and sleepiness. The same effect occurs as a result of taking sleep-inducing drugs such as Ambien. But these approaches are only effective for the short-term and, of course, have undesirable side effects.

Preliminary animal research suggests that certain herbal supplements (including valerian) may help elevate GABA levels in the brain (possibly by promoting the production of GABA or slowing its breakdown). Another study suggests that breathing in the scent of jasmine (a substance frequently used in aromatherapy) may help enhance the effects of GABA.

Certain mind-body practices may also help boost your brain’s levels of GABA. For example, a 2010 study from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that practicing yoga may lead to higher GABA levels (and, as a result, better mood, and less anxiety). This study compared people who exercised by walking to those who took regular yoga classes, thus suggesting that the yoga in particular—rather than exercise in general—made the difference. As yoga is a mind-body exercise, some have theorized that mindfulness and focus are somehow related to the rise in GABA levels.