What is GABA? The secret to a healthy mood

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What is GABA? The secret to a healthy mood

Healthylife Pharmacy7 December 2017|3 min read

Our body naturally produces a neurotransmitter called GABA which promotes relaxation. Reduced GABA levels, or impaired GABA function in the brain has been linked to psychiatric and neurological disorders including anxiety, depression, insomnia and PMS. Some medications that are prescribed for insomnia and anxiety work by enhancing the activity of GABA, resulting in a sedative effect. Fortunately, there are other ways to naturally increase your levels of GABA— by either taking it as a supplement or increasing the levels of other natural compounds that affect its synthesis.

How does the body manufacture GABA?

Otherwise known as Gamma-aminobutyric acid, GABA is a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain.

GABA is synthesised in tissues from glutamic acid via the enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD), with the active form of vitamin B6, pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P) acting as a cofactor.

Outside of the Central nervous system, GABA is synthesised by beneficial microbes in the gut. As the major inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA counteracts over excitation in the brain, and has been described as slowing down neuronal circuitry during times of increased stress.

The benefits of GABA

A good amount of emerging research has found that GABA could play a role in many conditions including premenstrual syndrome, depression, anxiety, ADHD and insomnia. Here’s a breakdown of the many benefits and uses of GABA.

Reduce anxiety and boost mood

One of the main functions of GABA is to reduce neuronal excitability which is linked to feelings of anxiety and fear. A study from the Columbian University College of Physicians and Surgeons’ Department of Psychiatry showed that those with panic disorder and a family history of anxiety and mood disorders had lowered brain concentrations of GABA. Clinical studies utilising GABA in supplemental form show that it increases alpha brain waves, promotes relaxation, boosts mood, reduces markers of stress and provides anxiolytic activity in both stressed and healthy subjects.  

GABA supplementation works quickly—beneficial effects are noticeable within 60 minutes.

Improve sleep

Insomnia is a common problem – characterised by a difficulty in falling asleep. 

Due to GABA’s calming and sedative effects it can be used for the treatment of sleep disorders such as insomnia. GABA receptors are concentrated in the thalamus, an area of the brain involved in sleep regulation.

Relief from PMS

Premenstrual syndrome refers to a group of symptoms that affect women before menstruation. Typical symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, mood swings and food cravings. Researchers have found that GABA levels are disrupted by menstruation and this neurotransmitter may help to alleviate some of the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.

Decrease inflammation

It has been noted that GABA plays a critical role in pain transmission and inflammation. Research suggests that lower concentrations of GABA resulting in decreased inhibitory transmission may play a role in the disordered physiological processes associated with fibromyalgia and other central pain syndromes. A clinical study revealed that patients with fibromyalgia were found to have significantly lower GABA levels when compared with healthy controls.

GABA has also been found to reduce the activity of a pathway that triggers joint inflammation.


ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is characterised by symptoms such as impulsivity, hyperactivity and problems concentrating. Reduced levels of GABA have been found in individuals with ADHD and another study showed that lowered levels of GABA were associated with more impulsivity and less inhibition. GABA may therefore be helpful to improve focus and decrease symptoms in people who have ADHD.

Ways to naturally increase GABA levels

Pure GABA supplements are available through your naturopath or doctor. Otherwise there are lots of other herbs and nutrients that increase GABA activity in the brain.

Herbal medicine

Valerian, hops, chamomile, passionflower, St John’s wort, magnolia and kava are all herbs that have been found to increase GABA levels. They are also traditionally used to reduce anxiety, pain levels, insomnia and restlessness.


An amino acid called theanine derived from green tea, has a calming effect in humans as evidenced by increased alpha wave activity. Theanine has been shown to increase brain GABA levels, improve memory and cognitive function. Theanine is exclusively found in teas from camellia sinensis.


Having anxiety, depression, irritability, muscle pain and insomnia are all signs of magnesium deficiency. Magnesium binds to and activates GABA receptors—which is just one of many essential functions of magnesium in the body. Magnesium is found in wholegrains, green leafy veggies and bananas but taking a supplement may help you to achieve stronger results.

Vitamin B6

The active form of vitamin B6, P5P, is essential in the production of GABA. Zinc on the other hand has been shown to enhance the release of GABA from its receptors. Both these nutrients are also essential to produce other brain chemicals including serotonin and dopamine— which contribute to a healthy mood.

Fermented foods made from milk, vegetables and fruit, naturally contain GABA and may help to increase levels. Other foods that contain GABA include fava beans, tomatoes, sunflower seeds and reishi mushrooms.

GABA precautions

If you are considering supplementing with GABA, there are some things you need to be aware of.

  • It is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • GABA may interact with other medications, especially those taken for depression, anxiety and insomnia
  • Taking a high dose may trigger anxiety or depressive episodes


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