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What is GABA? How It Supports Brain Function, Sleep, Mood, & More

Published on May 29, 2023


By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

https://www.holisticwritingconcepts.com

If you’ve researched mental health, cognitive function, or sleep, you’ve probably come across information and products relating to GABA.

So, what exactly is GABA?

GABA is a neurotransmitter: a type of chemical messenger in the brain that carries information between nerve cells. 

GABA is involved in various aspects of brain function relating to mental and emotional health and sleep. 

GABA is also present in foods and is marketed as a dietary supplement, which can make things confusing.

However, having a clear understanding of what GABA is, how it works in the body, and how it may be influenced can help you make informed decisions about your health.

In this article, you’ll get the facts on GABA, GABA-containing supplements, and which herbs and lifestyle practices may help support healthy GABA and brain function.

What is GABA? Why it Matters

GABA stands for Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid and is the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain and central nervous system. REF#1772 

GABA is found in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), the gut, and various microorganisms, plants, and vertebrates. 

It’s also a non-essential amino acid, meaning your body produces it.

As you learned in the introduction, neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that shuttle messages between nerve cells and other target cells.

A target cell could be a skin cell, brain cell, nerve cell, or gland. 

Every part of your body, down the cellular level, depends on neurotransmitters to function.

For example, neurotransmitter messages allow you to move your limbs and feel sensations.

There are three types of neurotransmitters:

  • Inhibitory: These neurotransmitters, such as GABA, glycine, and serotonin, block specific signals that help slow down the brain and calm the nervous system. 
  • Excitatory: These neurotransmitters, such as epinephrine, glutamate, and norepinephrine, ignite neurons to fire off messages. This creates an excitatory or stimulating effect.
  • Modulatory: These neurotransmitters influence and adjust the effects of other chemical messengers and can send messages to a large number of nerve cells at a time.

Neurotransmitters affect various bodily functions, including: REF#1773 

  • Aging
  • The heart and cardiovascular system
  • Cognitive function
  • The sleep cycle
  • Digestion
  • Muscle movements
  • Breathing
  • Healing
  • The senses
  • Hormonal function
  • Stress response

GABA specifically has been shown to affect: REF#1772 

  • Various aspects of cognitive function, including memory
  • Heart health
  • Metabolic function
  • Cell health
  • Liver and kidney function
  • Mood
  • Gut function
  • Stress response
  • Sleep

As you can see, optimal neurotransmitter function and balance are critical to physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

The GABA-Gut Connection

New evidence about the gut-brain connection, also known as the enteric nervous system, has changed the scientific consensus about neurotransmitters and brain function. REF#1774 

For example, it was once believed that all neurotransmitters were stored in the brain.

However, new evidence shows that the gut microbiome is a central neurotransmitter production and storage hub.

For example, an extensive body of literature confirmed GABA is a mediator within the enteric nervous system that plays a crucial role in controlling gastrointestinal function. REF#1775

Emerging research suggests certain probiotic bacteria residing in the gut, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus, contain GABA, which may help regulate brain activity and promotes feelings of calm. REF#1776 

This has led to research on how modulating gut bacteria through lifestyle changes, supplements, and other methods, may improve certain neurotransmitter levels and function (including GABA).

More research is needed. However, initial studies have shown promising outcomes. REF#1777 

What Are GABA Supplements?

Neurotransmitter supplements, including GABA, have become popular in integrative medicine. 

They claim to help promote the balance of neurotransmitters, thereby supporting things like sleep, a feeling of calm, brain function, and more.

Some supplements contain pure GABA, while others combine GABA with other nutrients, antioxidants, or herbs, such as melatonin or Passionflower.

Although some small human studies and anecdotal evidence suggest a potential benefit, whether these supplements cross the blood-brain barrier is not known. REF#1778 REF#1779 

Therefore, their efficacy has yet to be established.

Some experts may also recommend specific probiotics and/or probiotic-rich foods to encourage the normal function of GABA receptors in the gut microbiome, based on the research shared previously.

Although there is potential in this use, more evidence is needed to determine the effectiveness of specific probiotic supplementation.

Check with your doctor or healthcare practitioner before taking supplements that may influence GABA levels.

Food Sources Of GABA

GABA is found in plants and other foods, including: REF#1772 

  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Brown Rice
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Chestnuts
  • Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, and kimchi
  • Green, Black, and Oolong teas
  • Mushrooms
  • Soybeans
  • Spinach
  • Sprouted grains
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes

However, since GABA is a non-essential amino acid (one that the body produces itself), it is unclear whether eating more GABA-rich foods translates to more GABA in the brain.

Herbs That May Support GABA Function

According to a 2021 review published in the Journal Nutrients, there is some evidence that certain herbs may support normal GABA function and production, thereby promoting normal sleep. REF#1780

Herbs that may support various aspects of GABA function according to the review include:

Although their mechanism of action is not fully understood, they may work through interactions with GABA receptors and support GABA signaling in the brain.

This review focused on the potential effects of herbs for sleep. More evidence is needed to make recommendations.

Other animal and test tube studies have shown Ashwagandha, also known as “Indian Ginseng” or “Withania somnifera,” may support sleep and other aspects of neurological function via its potential effects on modulating GABA/histamine Receptors and signaling. REF#1781 REF#1782 

Another study showed a mixture of Panax Ginseng with GABA had a beneficial effect on specific aspects of allergic, histamine, and immune response in mice. REF#1783 

Although more evidence is needed to draw conclusions, these studies show a potential benefit of specific herbs for supporting normal GABA function.

Always check with your doctor or healthcare professional before taking any supplements that may influence GABA levels.

Interested In Learning More About Herbs For Brain Health, Mood, And Sleep?

To learn more about herbs that support brain health, mood, memory, relaxation, sleep, and more, check out the following articles:

REFERENCES:

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  • 4. Michelangelo Auteri, Maria Grazia Zizzo, Rosa Serio, "GABA and GABA receptors in the gastrointestinal tract: from motility to inflammation", Pharmacological Research Volume 93, March 2015, Pages 11-21. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S104366181400187X
  • 5. National Institutes of Health, "4 Fast Facts about the Gut-Brain Connection", . https://www.nccih.nih.gov/news/events/4-fast-facts-about-the-gutbrain-connection
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