Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, in the brain. Potential GABA benefits include lowering blood pressure, reducing muscle spasms, and managing mood.

The brain contains many neurotransmitters that trigger or inhibit specific reactions in the body. GABA calms the nervous system by preventing the transmission of certain signals.

GABA is present in plants, animals, and microorganisms. The human body produces it, and it is present in some foods. Medicines and supplements aim to boost it.

In this article, we examine how increased levels of GABA may impact the brain and body and whether taking GABA supplements could have the same benefits.

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In 2020, some researchers described GABA as a bioactive agent that may have the following properties:

  • antidepressant
  • sedative
  • antihypertensive, which means it can reduce blood pressure
  • antidiabetic
  • anticancer
  • immune system enhancer

A 2019 review said that GABA has antimicrobial, antiseizure, and antioxidant properties and may help treat and prevent conditions such as:

Boosting GABA may have a range of effects, but precisely what it can do is not yet clear.

Some drugs contain substances that boost the action of GABA. Gabapentin and valproate, for example, indirectly enhance the action of GABA in the body.

Here are some examples:

  • valproate can stabilize moods and prevent seizures
  • gabapentin helps manage nerve pain
  • baclofen can reduce muscle spasms and treat narcolepsy, a sleep disorder
  • benzodiazepines — such as Valium and Xanax — help treat anxiety, agitation, seizures, and muscle spasms

According to one study, people who have depression may have reduced GABA levels in the brain. Using benzodiazepines may be beneficial in those instances.

Read about which drugs act as a muscle relaxer here.

GABA is present in some fermented foods, such as:

  • kimchi
  • fermented fish
  • tempeh
  • fermented buffalo milk
  • fermented cassava
  • fermented durian
  • Zlatar cheese
  • sourdough
  • mulberry beer
  • sake
  • yogurt-sake

Other foods where scientists have found at least traces of GABA include:

  • germinating adzuki and soybeans
  • peas
  • wheat and barley
  • brown and red rice
  • mature green tomatoes
  • cruciferous vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and broccoli
  • sweet potato
  • shiitake mushrooms
  • chestnuts
  • white Chinese tea

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classes GABA as “generally recognized as safe” to use as a supplement and food additive.

Manufacturers may add GABA to sports drinks and other foods.

Another option for boosting GABA is to take supplements.

Manufacturers produce GABA supplements by fermenting a form of lactic acid bacteria.

People take them to:

  • relieve stress and anxiety
  • improve sleep
  • reduce high blood pressure

There is not enough evidence to show that GABA supplements will produce all the expected benefits. Research is ongoing.

Some people may take a supplement in pill form, while others may add it to foods, such as protein drinks.

Manufacturers make different recommendations about how much to take. Anyone considering taking GABA supplements should talk to their doctor first.

If a person experiences side effects after starting to take GABA supplements, they should stop using the supplement and contact their doctor.

Research into GABA supplements is ongoing and has not yet confirmed if they are helpful or not.

Some experts say the positive effects people report may be a placebo response. Others do not believe that GABA supplements cross the blood-brain barrier. This means they are unlikely to have any effect on the body.

However, some studies report positive effects from taking GABA supplements. These include:

Enhanced thinking and task performance abilities

A study from 2015 found that a person enhanced their ability to prioritize and plan actions by taking 800 milligrams (mg) of GABA supplementation per day. Although the study was small, involving just 30 healthy volunteers, it showed how GABA supplementation might promote enhanced thinking.

Stress reduction

An older study from 2012 found that taking 100 mg of GABA daily helped reduce stress due to mental tasks. Like many other studies related to GABA, the study was small and involved just 63 participants.

Workout recovery and muscle building

A 2019 research study asked 21 healthy males to take a supplement with whey protein or whey protein plus GABA once a day for 12 weeks.

The participants performed the same resistance training exercises twice a week, and the researchers measured the results. The researchers found that the combination of whey protein and GABA increased levels of growth hormone compared to whey protein alone.

Although this was another small study, the researchers concluded that GABA supplements might help build muscle and assist in workout recovery. They recommended that researchers conduct more studies.

It is essential to follow any instructions, whether using supplements or taking medications that mimic or aim to boost GABA.

Medications side effects

People who use medications that mimic or aim to boost GABA should follow the instructions from their doctor or pharmacist carefully.

Taking too much or combining them with alcohol or opioids can lead to central nervous system (CNS) depression. This can cause the body to slow down so that the person can no longer breathe. It can be life threatening.

Learn more about the adverse effects of gabapentin here.

Supplements side effects

Clinical studies suggest that taking up to 120 milligrams (mg) of GABA per day as supplements for 12 weeks is unlikely to cause adverse effects.

People should take care when using them with other drugs.

Using them with medications for high blood pressure or epilepsy may increase the impact of those drugs.

People should always check with a doctor before taking any supplements and ensure they know which drugs the person is already taking.

The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements in the same way as medications. People should take care only to buy from reputable vendors and companies.

The body naturally produces GABA, and it helps promote sleep, relieve anxiety, and protect the brain.

Medications that mimic its effect have important uses in the treatment of epilepsy and pain management.

Some people take supplements, but scientists are still looking into the benefits they may provide.

Before using GABA supplements for any condition, it is best to talk with a doctor. They may recommend trying a medically proven treatment first. If they support using GABA supplements, they will advise the person on how to do so safely.