Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is a neurotransmitter in the human body that helps control the firing of your nervous system. It mainly helps to inhibit how often your nervous system sends signals to your brain, producing a calming effect on the body. Many fitness supplement companies market GABA as being beneficial for muscle growth, but some of these claims are unsubstantiated by independent scientific research.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
GABA and Growth Hormone
One of the primary reasons bodybuilders and athletes take GABA supplements is that some research indicates it may increase growth hormone levels in your body. According to the guide “Nutritional Concerns in Recreation, Exercise and Sports,” one study into GABA supplementation found that growth hormone levels increased within three hours of consuming a 5 g dose 3. Two follow up studies confirmed the results, however one study did show that taking an 18 g dose for four consecutive days inhibited the growth hormone response.
GABA and Stress
Gaba Supplements & Anxiety
Stress can reduce how effective your body is at fighting off disease and how well your muscles repair after a hard workout. According to nutrition supplement expert Ray Sahelian, M.D., a 2006 study on GABA supplementation showed that subjects had a significant increase in alpha brain waves and a decrease in beta brain waves, indicating reduced stress levels and anxiety 4. Lowered stress levels may have some benefit to your sleep, so you are better rested for exercise.
One of the main issues with GABA supplementation is that the neurotransmitter must enter your brain to influence growth hormone or stress levels. Registered dietician Dr. Debra Goodwin of Jacksonville State University notes that GABA supplements do not readily transport from your bloodstream to your brain, and therefore heavy dosing of GABA would not guarantee an increase of it in your brain 2. The Langone Medical Center at New York University states that doses up to 1 g per day may be taken safely in the hopes that some of it makes it into your brain 1.
L-Glutamine for Anxiety
Because of the blood-brain barrier issue with GABA supplements, you may be able to increase how much GABA your body produces more effectively by consuming the essential amino acid L-Glutamine. A 2004 review of amino acid supplements published in the “Journal of Addictive Disorders” indicates that L-Glutamine readily passes through the blood-brain barrier. Once it enters your brain, it is converted to glutamic acid, which helps brain function, and also naturally increases your GABA levels.
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- New York University Langone Medical Center: GABA
- Jacksonville State University: The Diet Made Me Do It
- "Nutritional Concerns in Recreation, Exercise, and Sport"; Judy Anne Driskell and Ira Wolinsky; 2009
- RaySahelian.com: GABA Supplement Research for Anxiety and Sleep; Ray Sahelian, M.D.
- Anisman H, Merali Z, Poulte MO. Chapter 4: Gamma-aminobutyric acid involvement in depressive illness interactions with corticotropin-releasing hormone and serotonin. In: Dwivedi Y, editor. The Neurobiological Basis of Suicide. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2012.
- Sergeeva OA, Kletke O, Kragler A, et al. Fragrant dioxane derivatives identify beta1-subunit-containing GABAA receptors. J Biol Chem. 2010;285(31):23985‐23993. doi:10.1074/jbc.M110.103309
- Yuan CS, Mehendale S, Xiao Y, Aung HH, Xie JT, Ang-lee MK. The gamma-aminobutyric acidergic effects of valerian and valerenic acid on rat brainstem neuronal activity. Anesth Analg. 2004;98(2):353-8. doi:10.1213/01.ane.0000096189.70405.a5
- Wang ZJ, Heinbockel T. Essential oils and their constituents targeting the GABAergic system and sodium channels as treatment of neurological diseases. Molecules. 2018;23(5):1061. doi:10.3390/molecules23051061
- Streeter CC, Whitfield TH, Owen L, et al. Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(11):1145-52. doi:10.1089/acm.2010.0007
- Levinson AJ, Fitzgerald PB, Favalli G, Blumberger DM, Daigle M, Daskalakis ZJ. "Evidence of cortical inhibitory deficits in major depressive disorder." Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Mar 1;67(5):458-64. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.09.025
- Lin HC, Mao SC, Gean PW. "Block of gamma-aminobutyric acid-A receptor insertion in the amygdala impairs extinction of conditioned fear." Biol Psychiatry. 2009 Oct 1;66(7):665-73. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.04.003
- Weeks BS. "Formulations of dietary supplements and herbal extracts for relaxation and anxiolytic action: Relarian." Med Sci Monit. 2009 Nov;15(11):RA256-62. PMID: 19865069
Writing professionally since 2005, Ryan Haas specializes in sports, politics and music. His work has appeared in "The Journal-Standard," SKNVibes and trackalerts. Haas holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and creative writing from the University of Illinois.