photo of a bottle of 500mg gaba supplement

If you search for over the counter remedies for insomnia or anxiety, you might discover at least one with GABA listed as an ingredient.

You can find it on its own, or mixed with other relaxation-inducing ingredients, such as melatonin, chamomile, and valerian.

When I first took a sleep aid containing GABA, it was mixed with no less than 7 other ingredients. The sleep aid seemed to work, but there was no way to know if it was the GABA, another ingredient or even the placebo effect that did the trick.

So I decided to do some research into GABA and what evidence there is that it works as a sleep aid in modern supplement form, rather than in food.

And it appears that scientists are still unsure as to how effective it is. Some studies point to it helping with sleep, while others show only a marginal difference at best.

Let’s take a closer look at what I unearthed in my attempt to find out why it’s being added to more and more sleep aids.

What is GABA?

GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) is a neurotransmitter produced naturally in the body, and it sends messages between the brain and the nervous system.

As the main ‘inhibitory neurotransmitter’ in the brain, its principal role is to reduce the activity of nerve cells in the nervous system.

By reducing the excitability of those nerve cells, GABA has a calming effect on the brain and body. So it helps reduce anxiety, stress, and promotes sleep. But that’s in its natural form, produced by your own body and not bought online!

gaba mini infographic

Conditions associated with GABA

Scientists are still working to fully understand the role of GABA. However, it’s clear that it’s an important neurotransmitter, and scientists say it’s associated with several aspects of both physical and mental health, such as:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Fear
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • ADHD
  • Inflammation
  • Premenstrual syndrome
  • Human growth hormone levels

Lower GABA levels in people with primary insomnia

How is GABA related to your sleep exactly? Research into the GABA levels people with insomnia naturally have in their brain might provide some clues.

In 2004, researchers at the Harvard Medical School scanned the brains of 16 non-medicated people to measure their GABA levels.

They found those with primary insomnia had nearly 30% lower GABA levels in their brain. They also found lower levels were associated with waking sooner after first falling asleep.

Medications that work by increasing GABA activity

Researchers point out that there is a known connection between GABA receptors and sleep: 

It is well established that activation of GABA(A) receptors favors sleep

And on that principle, several medications for anxiety and insomnia work by increasing GABA activity in the brain, including:

  • Benzodiazepines (e.g. diazepam, temazepam, and lorazepam)
  • Ambien
  • Lunesta

So if well-established sleeping pills work by targeting GABA in the brain, what else might do the same?

Can your body use the GABA in supplements?

Some scientists argue that GABA in supplement form just doesn’t work as a sleep aid. The reason being that several animal studies have shown that GABA taken orally can’t cross the blood-brain barrier.

The blood-brain barrier serves a critical role, preventing harmful substances from reaching the brain. It’s like your brain’s biological firewall.

However, researchers in 2015 challenged this long-held view in their paper on GABA supplementation, saying:

It has long been thought that GABA is unable to cross the blood–brain barrier (BBB), but the studies that have assessed this issue are often contradictory and range widely in their employed methods. There is some evidence in favor of a calming effect of GABA food supplements, but most of this evidence was reported by researchers with a potential conflict of interest. We conclude that the mechanism of action of GABA food supplements is far from clear, and that further work is needed to establish the behavioral effects of GABA.

Can GABA cross the blood-brain barrier?

The team of researchers also pointed out that some studies have found that GABA can cross the barrier in small quantities.

Other studies have shown that GABA supplements can help with relaxation and anxiety. For example, in 2006, researchers showed GABA supplements helped people with a fear of heights experience less anxiety when crossing a bridge.

So why do some studies show it can, while others that it can’t? Perhaps a few reasons:

  • Only rats and dogs were tested for changes in GABA levels in most of the earlier studies – not humans.
  • Not all research studies used the same GABA compounds.
  • Studies used different methods of administration (oral and injection).

Making the barrier more permeable

Could it be that even if the blood-brain barrier is resistant to ingested GABA, it can be made more permeable?

A study in 2002 found that by giving rats both GABA and L-Arginine, the amount of GABA in the brain increased by 4 times more than just GABA alone.

The researchers suggested that the L-Arginine increases nitric oxide levels in the brain. And that makes the barrier more open to GABA.

And a study in 2001 found evidence that a GABA transporter might exist in the brain, which can help it cross the blood-brain barrier.

So there does appear to be hope for the manufacturers of GABA supplements. Perhaps one day they might be proved in more rigorous experiments to be more than a placebo.

GABA in food form helps people fall asleep faster

In 2015, researchers from Pharma Foods International Co. Ltd. tested the effects of GABA on sleep. The GABA they used was produced by natural fermentation of a strain of lactic acid bacteria.

Using an EEG to monitor sleep, they found it shortened the time it took the participants to fall asleep by 5.3 minutes on average.

It should be noted there were a small number of participants in the study, but the results are still encouraging.

They also note that it would be safe to take it daily, as it’s a well-known food. And that’s good news for lovers of fermented vegetables, popular in some Asian countries, such as Kimchi.

kimchi - a natural source of GABA

Supplements or food form?

The above study raises an interesting question. Would it be better to try to increase GABA activity with supplements or normal food?

Increasing levels of GABA by eating food is arguably the safer option – assuming it’s possible and effective. It’s an area of research some scientists are actively exploring, with promising results.

Marina Diana and colleagues in Spain published a review of GABA-enriched foods in 2014. Like the study above, they focused on fermented food products, saying:

Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are the main GABA-producers and therefore there are a wide range of GABA-enriched fermented food products, in which GABA is natural, safe and eco-friendly.

And in another study, they also looked at the GABA levels in Spanish artisan cheeses. Again, there were positive findings:

Ten Lactobacillus strains isolated from artisan Spanish cheeses showed high capacity of gamma-aminobutyric acid production.

On a personal level, I’ve taken a lot of interest in the human microbiome recently – it’s a developing area of science which is fascinating once you start reading about the connections scientists are finding between our brain and our ‘second brain’, i.e. the gut. And it doesn’t surprise me that our gut might have a role to play in how well we sleep. Fermented food to the rescue once again!

Side effects and safety of GABA supplements

There isn’t enough research into the possible side effects of taking GABA in supplements.

There don’t appear to be serious safety fears occurring in research studies. However, because it’s still a developing area, most medical sources advise the following:

  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid taking it.
  • If already taking medication for anxiety, depression or insomnia, speak to your doctor first.
  • If you experience any possible side effects, for example, skin tingling, flushing, breathing difficulties or changes in mood, speak to a doctor.

Have you taken GABA supplements?

If you’ve tried GABA supplements, I’d love to hear from you. What health condition did you take them for, and did you notice any effect?

8 thoughts on “GABA, Sleep And Anxiety: Can GABA Supplements Help?”

  1. I have taken Gaba for the last month. I take it two hours before bed and sleep like a baby. I have just come off Mirtazapine and was finding it difficult to sleep as Mirtazapine helps with this. The Gaba tablets work a treat. I feel better in myself as well. So win , win for me.

    1. Hi Anne
      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s interesting to hear the GABA seems to help when you’ve stopped taking Mirtazapine. Did you decide to try it yourself, or was it recommended by a doctor?
      Regards
      Ethan

  2. I consulted my naturopath regarding my sleeping pattern. I never have problem falling a sleep. I however wake up 4 hrs later and am unable to fall asleep. I was recommended Gaba. It did not help me, quite the contrary it made me feel anxious. I thought it was supposed to make someone relax. Very disappointed!

    1. Hi Nicole
      Thanks for your comment. No sleep aid will work the same way for everyone, so I guess GABA just isn’t for you. Sounds like you might benefit from reading my article about waking in the night – you can read it here.
      Regards
      Ethan

  3. If I take GABA and/or Eden supplements and had blood work done, could I possibly test positive for ambien if it was being tested for?

  4. hi Ethan. my chiropractor recommended gaba for stress. i’ve been taking it off and on for a little over a year. reco dosage is no more than 4 per day. i usually take 2 in am, and sometimes 1 in pm. maybe it’s psychological, but it seems to really help. if taken when i’m not active, it tends to make me a bit sleepy, so sometimes i’ll swtich dosage and take 2 before bed. my chiro said to watch for mood changes like depression and not to take it every day for long periods, advice which i heed.
    with my last purchase, supplier sent 2 sample pills of Eden (which contains gaba) for sleep, which is supposed to cross blood brain barrier (sounds scary). i tried it and it works great for sleeping. 1 pill 30 min before bed and i slept all night and woke up feeling great. 1 pill works better than 2 gaba because it’s supposed to be formulated for sleep as opposed to gaba for stress.
    i’ve taken melatonin and its ok, but the Eden may be for me when i have trouble sleeping, and no, i don’t work for the manufacturer :-). lots of people who review gaba say they take it every day for years, but i dont like that idea. i’m with you on lowest dose of anything and not playing doctor by increasing beyond reco dose. i just found your site and agree with the advice you give. very rational and thoughtful.
    thank you!

    1. Hi Kathy
      Thanks for your comment, and kind words about the site!
      It’s interesting to hear your experience of GABA. I haven’t heard of Eden before (at least not the sleep aid!). To be honest, I’m not sure how they work out the different formulas for stress or sleep though.
      It sounds like you’re using it sensibly, and have a good attitude about not becoming dependent on it.
      Regards
      Ethan

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