What does GABA do in the brain?

  What does GABA do in the brain?

Amino acids are the building blocks that make up all proteins and human cells. However, there are some amino acids that are used by cells only for the purposes of communication between each other and not to build structures. One of those amino acids that is gaining recognition is gamma amino butyric acid or better known as GABA.

GABA is a naturally occurring non-protein amino acid made from glutamate, itself another non-essential amino acid derived from foods such as bone broth, soy, or meat. Glutamate is an important neurotransmitter in the brain — it has excitatory effects, meaning it makes neurons more likely to fire, but it also as mentioned before serves as a precursor for the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, meaning it has a calming effect on the brain.


So far, we have learned that GABA is an amino acid, and it is used for communication in the body between cell especially in the brain. However, we still do not know why we should take it and how does it help our bodies? Scientists summarize that GABA’s role in the body is to reduce overall neuronal excitation in the brain and central nervous system, so your body and mind get some needed R&R.


 GABA is believed to have the following effects on your body when taken:

  • Possibly increase relaxation. *
  • Possibly reduce excitation of the nervous system*
  • Possibly improve mood. *
  • Possibly boost sleep. *
  • Possibly stabilizes blood pressure. *

According to a 2006 article, two very small studies found that participants who took a GABA supplement had increased feelings of relaxation during a stressful event than those who took a placebo or L-theanine, another popular supplement.

The article also notes that the relaxing effects were felt within an hour of taking the supplement.

Some small, older studies have evaluated the use of GABA-containing products for lowering blood pressure.

In one study from 2003, daily consumption of a fermented milk product that contained GABA reduced blood pressure in people with slighted elevated blood pressure after two to four weeks. This was compared with a placebo.

A 2009 study found that taking a GABA supplement twice a day reduced blood pressure in those with borderline hypertension.


 Some call GABA the “brakes of the brain”. Some believe that it is the body’s most important inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it lowers the activity of neural cells in the brain and central nervous system, having the effect of moving the brain and the body into lower gear. By inhibiting neural activity, GABA facilitates sleep, reduces mental and physical stress, lowers anxiety, and creates a calmness of mood. It may even lower blood pressure by decreasing heart rate and muscle tone in the vasculature. All that is great but how does GABA do all that?

The benefits of GABA observed by the nutrition industry and the public have been overall given the term of ‘lowered excitation’  as a general term to explain GABA’s apparent health benefits. However, this fails to make any scientific explanation of GABA’s presumed benefits.

As an inhibitory neurotransmitter a recent study in mice may possibly have provided a breakthrough and possibly given a glimpse of GABA’s action at the cellular level. The study in mice shows that the SCN of fetal mice lacking the ability to produce GABA show burst firings associated with large activity spikes throughout 24 hours. “These findings indicate that GABA … is necessary for refinement of the circadian firing rhythm and, possibly, for stabilizing the output signals, but not for circadian integration of multiple cellular oscillations.”

In layman terms it means that GABA does not change the timing of the circadian signals but lowers their intensity allowing the body and the brain to shut down, like the ‘lowered excitation’ that has been observed. The mice lacking GABA were more active and slept much less in comparison to their normal counterparts. This study is a strong step in understanding GABA’s suppressive activity in the brain and the body, hence allowing for rest and peace to set in.


As we already discussed above one way to improve GABA levels is to intake more GABA in your diet. Foods’s rich in GABA were already discussed. However, what other options do you have to improve your GABA levels. Here are a few suggestions and the reasons why:

  • L-Theanine – working by way of increasing release of GABA from the receptors on nerve cells.
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) – a member of the mint family that has been used as a medicinal herb for over 2000 years, lemon balm appears to increase release of GABA from the neuronal cells.
  • Magnesium– sometimes called the relaxation mineral, magnesium plays important roles in mind and body relaxation, it appears to do so by increasing the release of GABA from neuronal cells.
  • Vitamin B6 – also known as Pyridoxine is a cofactor for both glutamic acid decarboxylase and GABA transaminase, both enzymes required for the synthesis and metabolism of GABA in the brain.

However, if you are still feeling that you need more GABA and you are unable to get it from your diet or other means then the best way is to use supplements to boost your levels and possibly feel better. So, what is there to know about how GABA is produced in the nutrition industry.


Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is as stated earlier is a non-protein amino acid widely distributed in nature. It is produced through irreversible α-decarboxylation of glutamate by enzyme glutamate decarboxylase (GAD). GABA can be found in plants, animals, and microorganisms. Foods that are rich in GABA are the following cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other foods containing large amounts of GABA are soy beans, adzuki beans, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, buckwheat, peas, chestnuts, sweet potatoes, sprouted grains and rice-specifically brown rice.

Although researchers had produced GABA by chemical method earlier it became less acceptable as it pollutes the environment due to production of by-products and other toxic chemicals. Researchers now use a more promising microbial method to produce GABA. In the drug and food industry, demand for GABA is immense as the population is becoming more aware of the benefits of GABA. So, large scale conversion of GABA by microbial method as a more natural organic and biological method has gotten more attention. Microbial method is used today to produce a variety of vitamins and supplements for the nutrition industries’ more responsible companies. These companies are leading the way in pushing the industry in safe and responsible use of natural bacteria in production of vitamins and supplements. Using bacteria that are naturally found in nature (also see below) to help them in large scale production of GABA along with other products.


The brain is protected against infections and other foreign attacks by a barrier that does not allow most chemicals, bacteria, or viruses to pass through, this barrier is known by the medical community as the blood-brain barrier(BBB). There is a debate in the medical community regarding GABA’s ability to penetrate across the blood-brain barrier. You can understand that the underpinning of GABA intake is that it can help the brain lower its excitation and this can only be done if it can get to the brain in the first place. A large study investigated the effects of 100 milligrams of GABA among a individuals who’d been given a stressful mental task. Scientists observed a slowing down of the brain wave activity in the group who had been given GABA vs the controls, pointing to an alleviation of mental stress. Such studies hint at GABA’s ability to overcome the blood-brain barrier and have central nervous system calming effects. Other interesting factors that point to GABA’s ability to absorb through the BBB is the unusual fact that many gut bacteria can produce GABA for the gut to absorb into the blood stream. These bacteria have the specific genetic material to produce GABA from other byproducts that they absorb. However, these bacteria do not appear to use the GABA and hence the reason for their production of GABA must be a symbiotic relationship between the human host and the gut bacteria. This would indicate the bacteria have adopted this ability only to produce the GABA for the human host’s consumption, which again goes along with GABA’s ability to somehow be beneficial to the host.

Another interesting fact is that even though we do not know if oral or under the tongue GABA gets absorbed to the brain, but we have seen that taking GABA along with medications that lower blood pressure might cause blood pressure to go too low. Which again indicates that GABA some how has an overall ability to control the excitation of the body and lower it.


The medical community is not really sure what the side effects of GABA are and hence only recommends not to take the supplement if you are pregnant. Some anecdotal observations

Some commonly reported side effects include:

  • upset stomach
  • headache
  • sleepiness
  • muscle weakness

Overall GABA appears to be safe for consumption and may also be beneficial in many ways for your overall wellbeing. Still research is needed to completely understand the actions and benefits of this amazing amino acid. 

This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.


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