Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA): What It Is, Uses, and Benefits

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a chemical messenger in the brain that blocks certain signals in the central nervous system and results in a soothing effect. GABA is believed to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, and improve sleep. Research into the effects of GABA is available. However, more research is needed to prove that supplements and food containing GABA can prevent or treat disease.

Key takeaways:
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    Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that blocks chemical signals in the central nervous system. GABA is known for its calming effect.
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    Lower levels of GABA are associated with anxiety, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, depression, epilepsy, and seizures.
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    GABA has the potential to treat insomnia, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
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    GABA supplements are available. Make sure to purchase from a reputable source but always talk to a healthcare provider before taking any form of GABA.
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    More research is needed to prove the benefits of eating GABA-containing foods or taking GABA supplements.

What is GABA?

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a chemical messenger in the brain (neurotransmitter). GABA blocks (inhibits) chemical signals in the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) to decrease stimulation.

GABA is the most common neurotransmitter inhibitor in the central nervous system. When GABA blocks stimulation signals in the nervous system, what results is a soothing or calming effect. A balance in the levels of GABA is necessary for healthy brain function. Lower levels of GABA are caused when GABA signaling isn’t working properly.

Lower levels of GABA are associated with:

  • Anxiety
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Depression
  • Epilepsy and seizures

GABA is produced naturally in the human body and in some foods. GABA also occurs in plants, animals, and microorganisms. There are prescription medications and supplements designed to increase GABA levels.

Increasing GABA levels may help improve these conditions and others. Research is ongoing into the health benefits of GABA.

Potential health benefits of GABA

In 2019, a review of research on the medicinal properties of GABA was performed.

"GABA has been investigated for its effects on reducing stress and enhancing sleep in human studies and for its other biological activities, which include anti-hypertension, anti-diabetes, anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammation, anti-microbial, and anti-allergy effects."

Dai-Hung Ngo and Thanh Sang Vo

The results of this review showed that increasing GABA levels had the following effects to varying degrees:

  • Protection of the brain, kidneys, liver, and intestines against toxins.
  • Improving or preventing neurological disorders, including improving depression, sleeplessness, cognitive impairment, and memory loss.
  • May help treat or prevent high blood pressure, insomnia, and diabetes.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid in food

One 2020 study suggests “GABA-enriched fermented foods and beverages can be potentially developed as functional foods.” Functional foods are developed for specific health purposes. The researchers also state that more studies on GABA are needed to fully understand the benefits of eating GABA-containing foods.

GABA is found in some fermented foods such as:

  • Kimchi
  • Fermented durian
  • Fermented cassava
  • Sake
  • Mulberry beer
  • Fermented soybean (tempeh)
  • Fermented buffalo milk (dadih)
  • Fermented fish
  • Sourdough
  • Zlatar cheese (a Serbian cheese)

Another study in 2018 reviewed the existing knowledge about different neurotransmitters in food. Some non-fermented foods that contain GABA are:

Adzuki beanBarleyTea (green, black, and oolong)
ChestnutKaleSt John's wort
OatPeaSweet potato
PokerootPotatoSoy bean
Brown riceShitake mushroomsSpinach

While boosting GABA levels has been shown to improve or prevent certain conditions, it is not clear if eating GABA-containing foods will produce results. It is unknown if the GABA in food can actually reach the brain by bypassing the blood-brain barrier.

The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a network of blood vessels and tissue that only allow certain elements into the brain. For example, the BBB allows oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water in, but prevents bacteria from entering the brain. For any substance (food, medicine, supplements) to affect the brain, it must be able to cross the BBB.

More research studies should be conducted with large numbers of participants to find out the effects of consuming GABA-containing foods and beverages on human health.

Medications targeting GABA must be created in a way that crosses the BBB.

Medications targeting GABA

There are several medications that target GABA prescribed by physicians to treat neurologic and medical conditions. These medications increase the amount of GABA in the brain by crossing the BBB. Examples include:

  • Valproic acid. Treats seizures and mood instability.
  • Gabapentin. Treats nerve pain.
  • Baclofen. Muscle relaxer.
  • Benzodiazepines. Treat anxiety, agitation, seizures, and muscle spasms.

These medications require a prescription and regular follow up with a healthcare provider.

GABA supplements are available without a prescription and widely distributed in the U.S.

GABA supplements

GABA supplements are “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. Recommended dosages vary by product. Research shows that taking up to 120 mg/day of GABA for 12 weeks had no adverse effects. GABA supplements are not regulated and should be purchased only from reputable sources.

Potential risks of taking GABA

No studies of the effects of GABA in pregnancy and lactation were found by researchers performing a 2021 USP Safety Review.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, use GABA with caution. If you are considering taking GABA supplements, check with your healthcare provider.

GABA may cause a drop in blood pressure and may interact with antihypertensive (blood pressure) medicines, such as propranolol, metoprolol, and others. Check with a healthcare provider before taking GABA in any form.

Taking GABA supplements with medication for epilepsy might increase the effect of the medication.

Before starting any new medication or supplements, it is best to see a healthcare provider for guidance. Make sure a healthcare provider reviews an updated list of all medications and supplements at every visit.


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