Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter in your brain responsible for helping you feel relaxed. GABA supplements are touted as having many health benefits, but research is mixed. Before you spend money on supplements that may not be effective, you may want to start with GABA foods.
If you're searching for GABA foods or supplements as a natural treatment for your anxiety, you should talk to your health care provider for guidance before self-treating or adding any supplements to your daily regimen.
GABA and Your Brain
Your brain serves as your body's computer-processing unit and is the most complex organ in your body, responsible for controlling your thoughts, movement, speech and behavior. The neurons, also known as nerve cells, play an important role in carrying out most of these functions, serving as communicators between your body and brain. For example, pulling your hand away quickly from a hot pot is an almost reflexive response that's controlled by your neurons.
The neurotransmitters in your brain act as a messaging system between your neurons, moving from one neuron to the other to relay the appropriate information. There are several neurotransmitters in your brain, and some induce activity while others inhibit activity.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it helps calm things down or stop movement. GABA helps you relax, balances your mood and puts you to sleep. GABA is also the neurotransmitter in your brain responsible for alleviating painful sensations.
Read more: The 9 Best Foods for Your Brain
GABA and the BBB
By inhibiting neuron activity, GABA offers many benefits, which may be why it's gained such popularity as a nutrition supplement. Do a quick search of the internet and you'll find that people take GABA supplements for many reasons: to relieve anxiety, improve sleep, fight stress and manage mood disorders such as depression.
But GABA benefits when it's taken as a supplement may be due more to a placebo effect, according to an October 2015 review published in Frontiers in Psychology. Researchers aren't sure if GABA taken by mouth is able to cross the blood brain barrier (BBB).
The BBB protects your brain from harmful substances. In order to get through the barrier and gain access to your brain, a substance needs to be transported in, which requires energy and special molecules, or a substance can move in through via diffusion (going from higher concentration to lower concentration).
When it comes to whether GABA from food or supplements can make it through the BBB, the studies have been mixed, note the authors of the Frontiers in Psychology review. Additionally, even if GABA can make it through the BBB, the amount that gets in may be minimal. For the record, most of the studies investigating whether GABA can cross the BBB have been conducted on animals, and human studies may have different results.
While GABA may not be able to cross the BBB, you may be able to alter GABA concentrations through your gut, also sometimes referred to as your second brain.
It turns out that certain bacterial strains found in your gut, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, produce GABA and may increase the neurotransmitter in your enteric nervous system, which may increase concentration of the neurotransmitter in the cerebrospinal fluid, report the authors of the review in Frontiers in Psychology.
While this avenue hasn't yet been researched, it offers promise for the use of GABA foods and supplements to increase GABA concentration in your body.
Research on GABA Benefits
Research on the purported GABA benefits is limited, making it difficult to determine if increasing your GABA from food or supplements will have the effect you're looking for.
If you suffer from insomnia, there's some evidence that GABA supplements may help. A July 2018 randomized, double-blind clinical trial published in the Journal of Clinical Neurology found that GABA supplements (GABA dosage = 300 milligrams) helped participants fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply than a placebo. However, this study was small, with only 40 participants, and larger studies are needed before claims can be made.
In addition to possibly helping you get a better night's rest, GABA supplements may also improve cognitive function, according to a February 2018 study published in Brain and Cognition.
This randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment found that supplementing with 800 milligrams of GABA improved attention and cognitive performance. But before you go out and stock up on GABA supplements to help you perform better at school or work, it's important to note that this study included only four male participants.
An earlier study published in 2011 in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology found that supplementing with 50 milligrams of GABA helped lift psychological and physical fatigue in a group of 30 healthy subjects, nine of which were diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Again, this is a small study and more research is needed to further evaluate the benefits of GABA supplementation on health and function.
Depression is often linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin, but low GABA levels in the cerebrospinal fluid are also present in those suffering from depression. While it seems that supplementing with GABA may help improve mood, it does not appear as though studies have been conducted investigating the use of GABA foods or supplements as a treatment for alleviating the symptoms of depression.
If you're suffering from insomnia, anxiety, fatigue or depression, and you're looking for a more natural treatment, talk to your doctor before adding various supplements to your regimen. Supplements may seem harmless, but manufacturers don't have to prove the safety of their products before they hit the shelves, according to the FDA.
The GABA Foods
While the jury is still out about whether you can benefit from GABA supplements, adding more GABA foods to your diet may be just as beneficial, if not more so, than a supplement. Many of the GABA foods are also rich in other health-promoting nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and found on many nutrition superfood lists.
Foods with the highest GABA, according to a May 2018 review published in Nutrients, include:
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts)
- Soy beans
- Adzuki beans
- Sweet potatoes
- Sprouted grains
- Rice (specifically brown rice)
- White tea
As noted above, certain bacteria also produce GABA, which means fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir and tempeh, can also help you get more GABA from the food you eat. The amount of GABA in food generally ranges from 1 to 40 milligrams per 100 gram serving, according to the study from the Journal of Clinical Neurology.
The highest GABA foods, according to an analysis published in the March 2003 issue of Preventive Nutrition and Food Science, include brown rice germ, sprouted grains and spinach.
Diet for Gabapentin
Gabapentin is a prescription medication used to treat seizures and nerve pain. It modulates the enzymes responsible for making GABA, increasing the amounts of the neurotransmitter in your brain. According to MedlinePlus, there are no foods to avoid with gabapentin, and it can be taken with or without food. It is, however, recommended that you drink an 8-ounce glass of water with each dose.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Brain Basics: Know Your Brain"
- University of Queensland: "What Are Neurotransmitters?"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Neurotransmitters as Food Supplements: The Effects of GABA on Brain and Behavior"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Gut-Brain Connection"
- Journal of Clinical Neurology: "Safety and Efficacy of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid From Fermented Rice Germ in Patients With Insomnia Symptoms: A Randomized, Double-Blind Trial"
- Brain and Cognition: "Supplementation of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Affects Temporal, But Not Spatial Visual Attention"
- Journal of Nutrition Science and Vitaminology: "Relieving Occupational Fatigue by Consumption of a Beverage Containing γ-Amino Butyric Acid"
- Neurobiological Basis of Suicide: Chapter 4: "Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid Involvement in Depressive Illness Interactions With Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone and Serotonin"
- Food and Drug Administration: "FDA 101: Dietary Supplements"
- Nutrients: "Dietary Neurotransmitters: A Narrative Review on Current Knowledge"
- Preventive Nutrition and Food Science: "γ -Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Content of Selected Uncooked Foods"
- MedlinePlus: "Gabapentin"
- Pub Facts: Probiotic Bacteria in Fermented Foods: Product Characteristics and Starter Organisms
- Research in Human Ecology: Ecology of Fermented Foods
- Alternative Medicine Review: Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA)