Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays a central role in reducing excitability throughout the nervous system. In humans, GABA is also directly responsible for the regulation of muscle tone.
Technically speaking, it is an amino acid, but it is rarely referred to as such in the scientific or medical communities as it’s not incorporated into proteins. It is produced naturally in brain cells from glutamic acid and vitamin B6, and then binds to nerve receptor cells to stop them from ‘firing’.
It is one of the neurotransmitters that caffeine blocks from binding to receptor cells, which is what gives your morning cup of java its jolt.
Without sufficient GABA these nerve cells fire too often and too easily, which can lead to anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, seizures, and numerous other conditions, including addiction, headaches, Parkinson’s syndrome, and cognitive impairment.
GABA also helps to balance out the effects of other stimulatory chemicals such as adrenalin and noradrenalin which, if left unchecked, would otherwise lead to feelings of restlessness, irritability, and insomnia. Accordingly, low levels of GABA are also linked to irregular sleep patterns.
For these reasons, GABA, in the form of a dietary supplement, has often been touted as a ‘natural’ means to combat anxiety and depression, but these claims have come under fire due to a lack of credible scientific evidence to support them. Much of the criticism is levelled against scientists who use very small sample sizes, or poor controls or methodologies in their experiments.
However, that’s not to say that there isn’t any evidence to support the claims. For instance, a study published in the Journal Biofactors, in 2006, by Abdou et al, looked at the relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of orally administrated GABA in humans. Two studies were conducted. The first evaluated the effect of GABA intake by 13 subjects on their brain waves, which found that “GABA significantly increases alpha waves and decreases beta waves compared to water or L-theanine. These findings denote that GABA not only induces relaxation but also reduces anxiety.”
The second study looked at the role of GABA as a relaxant and its anxiolytic effects on immunity in stressed volunteers. Eight acrophobic subjects (people with a fear of heights) were divided into a placebo group and a GABA group. Crossing a suspended bridge was used as the stressful stimulus. Immunoglobulin A levels in the subjects’ saliva were monitored, with the placebo group showing a marked decrease of their levels, while the GABA group showed significantly higher levels. Researchers therefore concluded that “GABA could work effectively as a natural relaxant and its effects could be seen within 1 hour of its administration to induce relaxation and diminish anxiety. Moreover, GABA administration could enhance immunity under stress conditions.”
While the reasoning behind the use of GABA to deliver these benefits is sound, as this is what the substance does naturally in the body, the issue with regard to its efficacy lies in the ability to get the ingested contents of the supplement into the brain where it elicits its action. When administered as an oral supplement it seems that circulating GABA is unable to cross the blood–brain barrier, at least at any therapeutically significant levels. Research shows that the only way to get a depression-fighting, anxiety-quashing effect is to administer GABA directly into the brain with a direct injection, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is too invasive, even for the most hardened supplement users among us.
So, is GABA an ineffective product that shouldn’t be considered in your healthy lifestyle? Well, it depends on what you plan to use it for. As a means to relieve anxiety, improving mood and reduce stress you may not get full value for your money, but when it comes to building lean muscle mass and decreasing body fat the science paints somewhat of a different picture.