What Is It?
Popularly referred to as the body’s natural tranquilizer, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid produced in the brain. It acts as a Neurotransmitter–a chemical that fosters communication between nerve cells–and helps to keep stress-related nerve impulses at bay.
Normally, the brain pumps out all the GABA we need. Unfortunately, due to a poor diet, exposure to environmental toxins, or other factors, levels of GABA may become depleted. Too little of this important compound may result in anxiety, irritability, and insomnia. A deficiency of GABA has also been linked to depression.
Because various safety issues have recently surfaced concerning the use of the popular tranquilizing Herb kava, nutritionally oriented physicians have begun recommending GABA more frequently. Basically, the clinical effect of both GABA and kava appears to be the same, namely they’re both gentle and nonsedating tranquilizers. GABA is now available as a supplement in pill and powder form.
GABA supplements appear to promote relaxation and sleep. They may also have a role to play in preventing seizures and allaying chronic pain.
While GABA has been tested for improving exercise tolerance, decreasing body Fat, and stabilizing blood pressure, research on the supplement’s effectiveness and safety for these purposes has been mixed at best. GABA supplements have also been proposed for improving concentration in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and promoting prostate health, although it remains untested for these purposes.
Specifically, GABA supplements may help to:
- Promote sound sleep. GABA participates in promoting relaxation, which explains why many well-known anxiety medications–Valium among them–target GABA receptors in the brain. But unlike many prescription tranquilizers, GABA is not habit-forming.
GABA itself does not cause drowsiness. Instead, by easing anxiety, it simply makes it easier to fall asleep. Some research indicates that the popular insomnia-fighting herb, valerian, boosts GABA levels too. When specifically treating sleep disorders, some people like to rotate GABA with valerian or melatonin, the popular Hormone-based sleep supplement.
- Allay stress. GABA may be taken to calm the mind and body. In this respect, it is much like better-known prescription tranquilizers, such as Xanax and Valium, but doesn’t carry the fear of addiction. Persistent stress may also contribute to depression, and some evidence suggests that GABA may have mood-elevating properties.
- Combat chronic pain. Stress can aggravate pain, making you feel worse. As a natural stress-reducer, GABA supplements can help to relieve the intensity of pain. They may also lessen pain-related nerve impulses.
- Treat epilepsy. While the specific cause of epilepsy often remains a mystery from individual to individual, a link has been made to naturally low GABA levels and seizures in some cases. Like a pistol lock, GABA appears to inhibit nerve cells in the brain from firing and setting off seizures. Interestingly, many standard epilepsy drugs, such as benzodiazepines and phenobarbital, serve to enhance GABA levels in the brain.
Clinical study findings have been mixed, however. In a 1994 pilot study, for example, GABA supplementation had no benefit in people with epilepsy whose seizures were set off by exposure to flashes of light. Still, in that study, only a single oral dose of GABA was used. The researchers speculate that GABA may have cumulative benefits when taken over the long term. Earlier studies had reported that GABA helped people with various types of epilepsy who did not respond to conventional medicines. Clearly, more research is needed.
So while GABA should never be used as a substitute for conventional epilepsy drugs, it could possibly compensate for nutritional deficiencies that are contributing to seizures and be a useful adjunct to standard treatments. It may also allow you to take lower doses of conventional medicines. Always check with your doctor before taking GABA, however, and never change your dose on your own.
–GABA is usually found in the amino acid section of the supplement aisle.
–For those who don’t like swallowing tablets, capsules can be opened and added to juice or water, as can powders. A Sublingual tablet, which is placed under the tongue until it slowly dissolves, is also available.
For insomnia: Take 500 to 1,000 mg an hour or so before bedtime. It will have a calming effect that can help you fall asleep. If anxiety is contributing to your sleep problems, combine GABA with other natural tranquilizers, such as the herb valerian.
For stress: Take 250 mg three times a day.
For chronic pain: Take 250 to 500 mg three times a day.
For epilepsy: Take 250 to 500 mg three times a day.
Guidelines for Use
- If the mood swings of PMS are causing you to lose sleep, try taking GABA for a week to 10 days before and during your period.
- Like other Amino acids, GABA may best be taken between meals for best absorption (one hour before or two hours after eating).
- Store in a cool, dry place, away from light, heat, and moisture.
* Many well-known prescription anxiety medications, including alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium), target GABA receptors in the brain. Using GABA with prescription anti-anxiety agents may produce a dangerous additive effect. Always let your doctor know if you are taking GABA or other supplements.
* GABA may produce excessive drowsiness when taken with other medications that have a tranquilizing effect, including codeine and other narcotic pain relievers, antidepressants, sedatives, and muscle relaxants. Combine with extreme caution.
Possible Side Effects
* GABA appears to be safe at recommended doses. In research studies, some mild gastric upset and nausea were reported, and some participants reported drowsiness.
* At high doses, GABA can actually increase anxiety and insomnia. It may also cause numbness around the mouth and tingling in the extremities.
* There is limited information on the safety of GABA supplements.
* Don’t drive or operative heavy machinery until you know how GABA affects you.
* When treating a serious condition such as epilepsy, never alter a prescription medication dosage or add GABA to your regimen without consulting your doctor first.
- Like many supplements, GABA has not been tested in pregnant or breast-feeding women, children, or people with liver or kidney disease. The proper dose in these groups is unknown.
Epilepsy – 250-500 mg 3 times a day
Fibromyalgia – 250-500 mg 3 times a day, as needed
Insomnia – 500-1,000 mg at bedtime
Stress – 250 mg 3 times a day or 750 mg once a day
Tobacco dependence – 250 mg 3 times a day, or 750 mg at bedtime
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD