What is GABA?
GABA is short for Gamma-aminobutyric acid. It is a neurotransmitter, which means it's a messenger chemical in your brain and nerves. There are a number of different neurotransmitters. Some help with improving your mood or motivation, some help you to feel alert and responsive. GABAs role is to calm you down. It is the main chemical in the brain that can pump the brakes on stress, anxiety, and over stimulation.
GABA for sleep
The sleep centers in your brain release GABA (1). As part of the process of falling asleep, GABA helps to quiet down the active, awake parts of your mind (3). It counters the excitable, stimulating brain chemicals. It is helpful for sedation, relaxation, and calm. GABA helps you achieve deep, restorative sleep and helps keep your muscles from flailing around while you are dreaming (4).
Lower GABA levels in the brain have been linked to shorter sleep, more interrupted sleep and insomnia. Some research, involving women with insomnia, has shown that those with insomnia have an average of 30% less GABA in their brains than women who sleep well (7).
Signs you might need a GABA boost
- Racing thoughts
- Sleep disruptions
- Panic attacks
- Trouble calming down and relaxing
Most of us can use some help with boosting GABA. There are many things that can mess up your GABA levels, including stress, which we all experience to various degrees. Poor nutrition can deplete GABA in your body. Lack of nutrients including magnesium and vitamin B6 are a problem, since they are involved in the recipe for making GABA. Certain genetics also predispose people to having lower levels of GABA.
Even if your body is making enough GABA, it might not be sufficient to properly balance out all of the stimulants and stress chemicals that increase your mental activity and keep you from sleeping.
GABA is one of the most important brain chemicals for relaxing and sleep. We can all use a bit of help chilling out sometimes – especially when we are working hard on our careers and at the gym, and maybe haven’t been prioritizing sleep.
I bet you thought this would be as simple as “take a GABA pill before bed.”
Turns out, nothing in life is as simple as we want it to be.
You can buy GABA pills. The trouble is that the research is a bit all over the place as to how they work. There is a ton of conflicting advice among internet ‘experts.’ Some say GABA supplements are a waste of money. Some say it’s the best thing since sliced bread.
The trouble isn’t what we know about GABA. The trouble is what we don’t know about getting GABA from supplements to where it needs to go in your body to ‘work.’ Scientists used to think GABA was too big to get absorbed when you took it in pills or food, and that even if you did absorb some of it, it couldn’t get into your brain (5).
Researchers have discovered transporters that can move GABA into the brain. But how much and how quickly is still unknown(5). There is a big hole in the research world when it comes to understanding the ‘how’ of GABA supplements.
That being said, there is an abundance of research that shows benefits. Improved sleep quantity and quality, improved mood, lower stress response (lower cortisol, better heart rate variability), improved immune function, and an increase in alpha waves (signifying mental calmness) have all been observed in various studies with people using GABA supplements (5).
Even if GABA does not get directly to your brain, it affects the nervous system in your gut which has major effects on behaviour, mood, and production of brain chemicals (5).
It has been found that some probiotics in the gut produce GABA(5). There are also receptors for GABA throughout the nervous system in the gut (5). A huge amount of information and chemical exchange happens between the gut and the brain. So even if the GABA you are taking only reaches the gut, it still has tons of potential for doing good and improving your body and brain function as well as sleep.
While the jury is still out on how GABA supplements help us, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it does help with sleep. Our own experience using and recommending GABA has found it very helpful. This is why we include 300mg of GABA per serving of Thirdzy's PM Recovery Collagen.
300 mg is in the mid range of doses used in studies that have shown positive results. Research has shown that GABA works well with L-theanine (also in our PM Recovery Collagen) to support relaxation, falling asleep faster, and having deep restful sleep (8).
Subscribe to our mailing list to get our best sleep science takeaways and Thirdzy promotions in your inbox.
*** The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They are the opinions of the expert and do not necessarily represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
- Ono, Daisuke et al. “Role of GABA in the regulation of the central circadian clock of the suprachiasmatic nucleus.” The journal of physiological sciences : JPS vol. 68,4 (2018): 333-343. doi:10.1007/s12576-018-0604-x
- Szymusiak, Ronald, Irma Gvilia, and Dennis McGinty. "Hypothalamic control of sleep." Sleep medicine 8.4 (2007): 291-301.
- Brown, Ritchie E., and James T. McKenna. "Turning a negative into a positive: ascending GABAergic control of cortical activation and arousal." Frontiers in neurology 6 (2015): 135.
- Brooks, Patricia L, and John H Peever. “Unraveling the mechanisms of REM sleep atonia.” Sleep vol. 31,11 (2008): 1492-7. doi:10.1093/sleep/31.11.1492
- Boonstra, Evert, et al. "Neurotransmitters as food supplements: the effects of GABA on brain and behavior." Frontiers in psychology 6 (2015): 1520.
- Holst, Sebastian C, and Hans-Peter Landolt. “Sleep-Wake Neurochemistry.” Sleep medicine clinics vol. 13,2 (2018): 137-146. doi:10.1016/j.jsmc.2018.03.002
- Winkelman, John W et al. “Reduced brain GABA in primary insomnia: preliminary data from 4T proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS).” Sleep vol. 31,11 (2008): 1499-506. doi:10.1093/sleep/31.11.1499
- Kim, Suhyeon, et al. "GABA and l-theanine mixture decreases sleep latency and improves NREM sleep." Pharmaceutical biology 57.1 (2019): 64-72.