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GABA

Health Benefits, Uses, Side Effects & More

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Updated August 02, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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, in turn, treat anxiety, stress, depression, and sleep problems.

The Science Behind GABA's 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 Biological Psychiatry in 2010 indicates that people with major depression may be more likely to have low levels of GABA. And in a 2009 study from the same journal, researchers found that increasing GABA levels may be useful in treatment of anxiety.

However, there is lack of research on the health effects of GABA supplements. What's more, scientists have yet to determine if orally ingested GABA can actually reach the brain and trigger any beneficial changes.

Natural Approaches to Boosting GABA Levels

Preliminary research suggests that certain herbal supplements (including kava and valerian) may help elevate GABA levels in the brain (possibly by promoting the production of GABA or slowing its breakdown). Additionally, a 2010 study from the Journal of Biological Chemistry 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).

Should You Use Supplements to Increase GABA Levels?

Due to the lack of supporting research, it's too soon to recommend GABA supplements (or herbal supplements said to increase GABA levels) for any condition. If you're considering the use of GABA supplements for prevention or treatment of a specific health problem, consult your physician before starting your supplement regimen.

Sources:

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Lin HC, Mao SC, Gean PW. "Block of gamma-aminobutyric acid-A receptor insertion in the amygdala impairs extinction of conditioned fear." Biol Psychiatry. 2009 Oct 1;66(7):665-73.

Sergeeva OA, Kletke O, Kragler A, Poppek A, Fleischer W, Schubring SR, Görg B, Haas HL, Zhu XR, Lübbert H, Gisselmann G, Hatt H. "Fragrant dioxane derivatives identify beta1-subunit-containing GABAA receptors." J Biol Chem. 2010 Jul 30;285(31):23985-93.

Singh YN, Singh NN. "Therapeutic potential of kava in the treatment of anxiety disorders." CNS Drugs. 2002;16(11):731-43.

Streeter CC, Whitfield TH, Owen L, Rein T, Karri SK, Yakhkind A, Perlmutter R, Prescot A, Renshaw PF, Ciraulo DA, Jensen JE. "Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study." J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Nov;16(11):1145-52.

Weeks BS. "Formulations of dietary supplements and herbal extracts for relaxation and anxiolytic action: Relarian." Med Sci Monit. 2009 Nov;15(11):RA256-62.

Yuan CS, Mehendale S, Xiao Y, Aung HH, Xie JT, Ang-Lee MK. "The gamma-aminobutyric acidergic effects of valerian and valerenic acid on rat brainstem neuronal activity." Anesth Analg. 2004 Feb;98(2):353-8.

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