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GABA: The Neurotransmitter That Dissolves Anxiety and Improves Sleep

By: Spencer Brooks
September 7, 2018

GABA: The Neurotransmitter That Dissolves Anxiety and Improves Sleep
  • GABA is your brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter. It keeps your brain from becoming overactive and promotes calm relaxation.
  • GABA is great for anxiety, muscle tension, sleep, stress, and improved mood
  • There are a lot of different ways to increase GABA levels in your brain. This article includes a list of GABA-boosting supplements, as well as lifestyle changes that increase GABA.

If you’re looking to sleep better, ease anxiety, decrease muscle tension, or boost your mood, you may want to try increasing your GABA levels.

GABA is your brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter — it calms your neurons (brain cells) and keeps your brain from getting overexcited.

You make GABA naturally and use it across almost all of your brain. You have GABA receptors in your gut, too: your gut bacteria use GABA to talk to your brain and influence your emotions.[1] GABA is a powerful tool if you’re looking to gain control over your sleep, stress, or mood. You can boost it with lifestyle hacks, or you can take supplements that increase GABA.

Here’s a complete guide to GABA’s benefits, how it works in your brain, and the best supplements and habits to balance your GABA levels for a happier, calmer life.

What are GABA receptors and what are GABA’s benefits?

gaba benefitsYour brain runs on neurotransmitters, chemicals that let your neurons (brain cells) communicate with one another. Neurotransmitters bind to receptors on your neurons, much like a key fits into a lock. This key-in-the-lock process runs pretty much everything you do. Movement, thoughts, emotions, senses, breathing, heartbeat — they all rely on neurotransmitters binding to receptors.

There are two major types of GABA receptors: GABAA and GABAB

GABAA receptors generally promote relaxation, sedation/sleep, and anti-anxiety effects when something activates them.[2] The relaxed, buzzy, social feeling you get when you drink? That happens because alcohol binds very strongly to GABAA receptors.[3] Anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax and Valium are also strong GABAA activators.[4] In fact, the reason it’s so dangerous to drink and take anti-anxiety pills together is because they activate GABAA in slightly different ways, so instead of competing with each other (like two keys trying to fit into the same lock), their effects stack, which can be fatal.

Alcohol and Xanax are both strong enough to be addictive, and neither one is Bulletproof-approved. But gentler GABAA activation can help you relax and give you a wonderful sense of calm, without the side effects of more intense activation.

GABAB receptors are the other major GABA receptor type. Activating GABAB promotes mental relaxation and feelings of happiness.[5][6] GABAB activation also eases muscle tension.[7] In general, GABAB receptors have a more subtle effect on your brain than GABAA receptors do.[8] Activating both can be useful for improving your performance.

GABA for anxiety and muscle tension

gaba for anxietyStudy after study has found that both GABAA and GABAB activation rapidly and reliably decrease anxiety.[9][10][11][12][13]  — so much so that benzodiazepines, strong GABA activators, have become the most common drug for treating anxiety.[14]

But if you’re feeling anxious or tense, you don’t want to rely on a benzodiazepine like Xanax or Valium to relax. Because they’re so strong, benzodiazepines are very addictive, and you build tolerance to them quickly.[15] There are a lot of sustainable options that have similar relaxing effects without the risk of abuse,[16] including lifestyle changes that don’t require you to take anything. Keep reading for a full list

Note: this article should not replace medical advice. If you’re currently on benzodiazepines or any other anti-anxiety medication, absolutely talk to your doctor before making any changes.

GABA for sleep

gaba for sleepGABAA activation can help you fall asleep and stay asleep. But, as with anxiety, there’s a sweet spot with GABA and sleep. Too little GABA and you won’t fall asleep at all;[17] too much GABA and you’ll go out like a light, but you won’t reach the deeper stages of sleep that are essential for rest and recovery. Benzodiazepines, for example, cause people to fall asleep faster and wake up less, but keep them from reaching deep sleep.[18]

Again, the key here is gentle GABA activation. Finding a balance will help you get a good night’s rest.

GABA for depression and mood

gaba for depressionGABA activation also improves mood, although it seems to be indirect and likely comes from easing anxiety and stress.[19]  doesn’t seem to affect pure depression.[20] In other words, if you’re feeling down but you aren’t anxious or stressed, GABA may not help you.

Of course, depression, stress, and anxiety often go hand-in-hand, so GABA indirectly improves mood for a lot of people, and doctors often prescribe GABA-enhancing drugs alongside antidepressants.

If you’re feeling blue and stress or anxiety is a part of it, boosting GABA may help lift your mood and bring a little more relaxed happiness to your life.

The best GABA supplements, dosages, and side effects

Here are a few good ways to increase your GABA with natural remedies and supplements:

Kava

gaba and kavaKava is a root native to the Pacific Islands that contains GABA-activating compounds called kavalactones.[21] A Cochrane Review (the gold standard for research reviews) found that kava significantly decreases anxiety with mild-to-no side effects.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12535473 Two other studies found that kava is comparable to benzodiazepines at relieving anxiety, without the side effects or risk of addiction.[22][23]  Kava activates GABAA receptors, which makes it great for sleep,[24] and kava tea is a good alternative to alcohol if you want to loosen up without the hangover and damage that drinking incurs.

Kava dose and source: Here’s a guide to kava dosage and the best kava sources.

Magnesium

gaba and magnesiumMagnesium is an amazing supplement for stress and sleep. It’s an essential mineral that regulates GABA activation across most of your brain.[25] It’s also involved in hundreds of other biological processes, and more than half of Americans are deficient in it. Magnesium is a good supplement to take every night.[26]

Magnesium dose: 400 mg, an hour before bed

Magnesium source: Magnesium citrate or magnesium glycinate. Citrate is more bioavailable, but it may upset your stomach; glycinate is slightly less bioavailable and won’t upset your stomach.

Ashwagandha

gaba and ashwagandhaAshwagandha’s name is Sanskrit for “smell of horse,” and if you’ve ever tried this Indian herb, you can likely attest that the name is accurate. You’ll want to get ashwagandha in capsule form to avoid the smell and taste. As long as you do that, ashwagandha is a great way to relieve stress and promote sleep. It’s a gentle GABAA receptor activator.[27]

Ashwagandha dose: 500-1000 mg, taken anytime

Ashwagandha source: Zen Mode or pure ashwagandha root

L-theanine

l-theanine and gabaThis amino acid is a natural component of green tea and is also available in supplement form. L-theanine increases your brain’s natural GABA production.[28] It’s great for easing stress and boosting mood, and it also becomes a nootropic (aka cognitive enhancer) when you pair it with caffeine.[29]

L-theanine dose: 200-400 mg

L-theanine source: Zen Mode, green tea, or L-theanine capsules

Phenibut

phenibut and gabaPhenibut is a strong GABAB activator that Soviet Union scientists developed for their space program, to ease astronauts’ anxiety. Phenibut is a more bioavailable form of pure GABA, which makes it especially powerful. It also improves focus and memory,[30] and is a prescription drug in Russia for tension and anxiety. Phenibut is technically legal in the U.S. (it’s in a bit of a gray area), but it has a high risk of dependency and withdrawal if you don’t take it carefully.[31][32] Phenibut stays in your system for about 48 hours, and people who assume they can take it daily often experience tolerance and withdrawal within a week or two. If you’re going to try phenibut, take it at most twice a week, with at least 3 days between each dose.

Phenibut dose: 600 mg, at most twice a week

How to raise your GABA naturally

how to increase gaba naturallyYou can also raise GABA without supplements or drugs. Stress-relieving lifestyle habits increase GABA as well. A few good options to boost your GABA:

  • Meditation: Sitting in silent reflection increases brain GABA levels,[33] as well as sensitivity to GABA signaling.[34] Don’t know where to start? Check out this beginner’s guide to meditation.
  • Yoga: The world’s favorite stretching and mindfulness exercise also increases GABA signaling.[35]
  • Exercise: In fact, exercise in general increases GABA signaling and relieves anxiety, stress, and depression.[36] Try one of these great workouts to include in your daily life.

Whether you take a supplement or start meditating (or both), your brain will thank you for bringing your GABA levels into balance.