Health Lifestyle Nutrients

GABA: How to Boost Your Brain’s Natural Antianxiety Defenses

16 min read

GABA is a neurotransmitter that tells your brain and nervous system to calm down. It’s a crucial chemical for health and well-being because of its ability to counter the “fight-or-flight” neurotransmitters that cause us to act to avoid danger. But not everyone has adequate supplies. Do you have enough GABA in your body to keep anxiety at bay? What are some strategies to achieve optimal GABA levels to protect your health and mood?

Your body contains 78 organs, about 600 muscles, and 28 trillion cells. All the parts have to work together in order to create a functional body. And what keeps everybody in sync is communication.

The principal messengers in your body are known as neurotransmitters, sending information back and forth between your brain and other parts of your nervous system. Your neurotransmitters have profound impacts on your mental health and overall well-being, influencing mood, sleep, and the ability to bounce back from perceived stressors.

For a long time, the thought was that the role of these messengers was to trigger actions and reactions in the body. But in 1957, researchers published an article that shook the world of neurobiology, reporting on a substance found in crayfish neurons that was inhibitory — that is, rather than causing stuff to happen, the role of this new neurotransmitter was to calm things down. (Our view on the use of animals in medical research is here.)

Nicknamed the “calm chemical,” GABA was found to have a profound link to sleep quality and mental health. And its magic powers are especially relevant these days.

Approximately 10% of the adult population globally suffers from an insomnia disorder, and another 20% have occasional bouts of insomnia. Chronic insomnia is often linked to both depression and anxiety in a vicious cycle: The more anxious or depressed a person becomes, the harder it is to fall asleep and stay asleep.

So what is GABA’s relationship to sleep and mental health (and other important health benefits)? What impacts GABA in the brain? Is it possible to increase your GABA levels? And if so, what are some of the best ways to do so?

What Is GABA?

Blackboard with the chemical formula of GABA

GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in your nervous system. By inhibitory, I mean that it slows down the rate of exchange of information between neurons to keep you from getting overwhelmed. If you were to eavesdrop on neuroscientists talking about GABA, you’d hear phrases like “reduces neuronal excitability by inhibiting nerve transmission.”

When your neuronal excitability is inhibited (wouldn’t it be great if neuroscientists started writing Valentine’s Day cards?), that produces a calming effect, and helps control anxiety, stress, and fear.

GABA exists throughout the brain, including in the hippocampus, basal ganglia, and brain stem. In fact, it’s so important to the health of your nervous system that 60–75% of all synapses in the brain may be part of the GABAergic system (that is, the neurons that release and take up GABA). As a result, there’s an association between decreased GABA levels and a bunch of physical and mental health disorders.

Its chief “rival” neurotransmitter is glutamate, which is excitatory in the nervous system, ramping up alertness to threat and opportunity, and preparing you to take immediate and decisive action when you perceive either. Both glutamate and GABA are required for optimal brain function — just as you wouldn’t want to jump with fear at every snap of a twig, you also wouldn’t want to be like, “Hey there, cute furry guy” when hearing the snarl of a saber-toothed tiger behind you.

In a wonderful example of either irony or complex interdependence, glutamate is a precursor for the formation of GABA. So without the excitatory neurotransmitter, you couldn’t make the inhibitory one. The key isn’t to eliminate one in favor of the other but to have a healthy balance so that you can respond appropriately to your environment.

GABA also works together with vitamin B6 as well as serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s connected to experiences of pain and emotion. When serotonin activity increases, more GABA releases into the nervous system.

How GABA Benefits Your Body

GABA plays a role in some of your body’s most important functions and processes, and an imbalance of this neurotransmitter can show up in many ways.

GABA Decreases Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Anxiety disorders occur when the brain gets stuck in loops of fear and worry. The two main parts of the brain involved in this process are the amygdala, which is always on the alert for potential threats, and the prefrontal cortex.

GABA plays a big role in managing these assessments of fear and response. When GABA’s action is out of balance, you might experience greater anxiety in response to past threats that are no longer present, or present situations that aren’t actually dangerous.

People with depression often have lower levels of GABA, and clinical studies with depressed individuals using brain imaging have identified abnormal patterns of GABA concentrations and activity. This has led researchers to suggest imbalances in excitatory and/or inhibitory neurotransmitter signaling may play a critical role in depression.

GABA and Sleep

Nothing soothes the soul like a deep sleep

A 2016 study gave a GABA supplement to people suspected of having a sleep disorder. The supplement helped the study participants fall asleep faster and increased their deep sleep. They also reported subjective improvements in the quality of their sleep.

GABA was quickly taken up into the bloodstream, reaching its highest level 30 minutes after being taken, and then decreased. This suggests that GABA’s positive effects on the early part of sleep could be related to how it’s absorbed and processed in the body.

When it comes to sleep, GABA might be especially helpful when taken alongside the amino acid L-theanine. A 2019 study explored the effects of GABA and L-theanine (a calming agent found in green tea) on sleep duration and quality in rodents. The research involved giving mice and rats caffeine to mess with their sleep, and then administering GABA, L-theanine, or a GABA/L-theanine combination, and measuring aspects of their sleep.

The mix of GABA and L-theanine helped the animals fall asleep faster and sleep longer compared to when they were given either substance alone. The animals also had more deep, restorative sleep and more REM sleep, even after being given the caffeine.

Does GABA Lower Blood Pressure?

A 2023 study explored the effects of drinking oolong tea enriched with GABA. The study found that drinking this GABA-enriched tea every day for 28 days lowered blood pressure in all participants. It was especially effective for those who started with slightly high blood pressure. Additionally, participants felt more relaxed and reported an improvement in their quality of life by the end of the study.

A 2018 study looked at whether GABA-enriched brown rice (GEBR), could help lower blood pressure and reduce stress on the bodies of rats that had a tendency towards hypertension. In a couple of experiments, the group of rats eating GEBR had lower average blood pressure readings than the rats given food not enriched with GABA. They also showed signs of less bodily stress, suggesting that GABA might help prevent high blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering stress in humans as well.

GABA and Brain Health

Home caregiver helping a senior woman standing in the bedroom Trade

A 2018 study explored if a fermented seaweed supplement (called FST) with a high concentration of GABA could help older adults by protecting their brain health and physical abilities. Forty seniors were split into two groups: One took the FST supplement, and the other took a placebo. The results showed that those who took FST did better on memory and thinking tests, walked more efficiently, and also had higher levels of antioxidants (which protect the body from damage).

GABA may also play a key role in preventing the development of some neurodegenerative diseases. One promising approach involves a drug called bumetanide, which has shown some potential to be helpful in treating Alzheimer’s disease by helping restore the normal calming action of GABA in the brain.

GABA and Hormones

As you age, your body produces fewer hormones, which can lead to problems in how cells in the brain communicate. The GABAergic system, which helps balance the activity of brain cells, can be especially affected by aspects of aging. When this system functions suboptimally, it can lead to disturbances in the balance of excitation and inhibition in the brain and throughout the body, affecting nearly every organ system.

Diabetes is a hormonally-based disease, caused by the body’s impaired ability to either make or use insulin (or both). In 2021, researchers tested a form of GABA branded as Remygen, to see if it could help people with type 1 diabetes (the kind in which the pancreas can no longer produce enough insulin). They gave different doses of this substance to six men with diabetes and found that GABA helped improve their bodies’ natural response to low blood sugar.

Is There Such Thing as a GABA Deficiency?

Nurse drawing blood from a female patient's arm vein in the medical clinic

Given how important GABA is for so many aspects of health, it’s reasonable to ask: “Can someone be deficient in GABA?” (Especially if the someone you’re wondering about is you or someone you love.)

True GABA deficiency is an extremely rare and deadly childhood disorder. But low GABA levels have been observed in people with certain mental health conditions and neurodegenerative disorders.

For people who struggle with mood and sleep disorders, there are many factors that could be involved. And suboptimal GABA levels might be one of those factors. It’s hard to tell, though — most GABA is in the brain, not the blood, so a blood test would not provide an accurate measure. To get a clearer picture, you’d need a lumbar puncture (aka spinal tap), which is about as uncomfortable and invasive as it sounds, so it’s not commonly done. Instead, it’s a last-resort kind of diagnostic.

Biomarker testing is available that can assess normal or elevated levels of GABA. But this is an indirect measurement because it’s not measuring GABA specifically, but rather the presence or absence of other biomarkers involved in the GABA pathway.

What Causes Low GABA?

So if low GABA levels may be a problem in psychiatric or sleep disorders as well as certain chronic diseases, how does GABA get low in the first place? Let’s take a look at a few possibilities.

A High-Fat Diet

Low-carb, high-fat diets have been around for decades (think Atkins, the ketogenic diet, or carnivore diets). And while they have many followers, research shows that diets high in fat contribute to chronic disease, especially when that fat comes from animal products.

It seems that high-fat diets aren’t doing your mood or sleep patterns any favors, either. When researchers at the Universidad de Guanajuato in Mexico tested a high-fat diet on rats, they found it decreased available GABA in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. It also caused the rats to gain weight and increased their blood glucose levels. The researchers concluded that too much fat actually disrupts GABA activity and can impact appetite and other eating behaviors.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Man and woman wearing doctor uniform having medical consultation prescribe pills at clinic

Low levels of certain nutrients involved in GABAergic pathways may also contribute to reduced GABA in the brain.

Vitamin B6 is essential for the formation of numerous neurotransmitters, including GABA. It also has an effect on the GABA system and may be able to regulate GABA and glutamate levels. Animal studies show that a B6 deficiency contributes to low levels of GABA and even potentially brain damage during infancy.

Both the amino acids glutamine and theanine are important for GABA synthesis as well.

Although glutamine is not an essential amino acid, it’s what’s known as “conditionally essential” since it’s important when dealing with certain conditions like illness or stress. As a result, diet is a major source of glutamine, and foods like whole grains, in addition to both plant and animal-based proteins, can contribute to its synthesis.

Theanine also has a dietary component, and is found in green tea and mushrooms. Interestingly, theanine can work with and contribute to glutamine production, helping to alleviate bodily stress. Low levels of theanine can also alter glutamate transport, affecting its conversion to GABA.

Prolonged Stress and Depression

While GABA can prove beneficial in dealing with stress, depression, and other mood disorders, it may be a bit of a “chicken or egg” scenario. Research shows that GABA transmission throughout the brain may become dysregulated when people are dealing with chronic stress or depression.

One study looked at GABA receptors in the amygdala — the place in the brain where emotion is attached to memories. When mice were subjected to prolonged stress, they experienced increased hypervigilance and the loss of GABA receptor currents, which decreased the effectiveness of GABA’s inhibitory abilities.

If you or your health care team suspect that you may have suboptimal GABA levels, don’t add to stress by worrying about it. There are things you can do to help increase GABA.

How to Increase GABA Naturally

While biomedical researchers are exploring pharmaceutical options to increase GABA in the nervous system (see the next section below), there are natural ways to balance GABA levels, too.


Two friends jogging up the trails in the forest to get fit.

In a 2018 study on the effects of high-intensity exercise on the human brain, researchers found that after a 20-minute session of intense cycling, the concentration of GABA increased by 20% in the sensorimotor cortex, a region involved in movement control.

Then in 2019, researchers investigated the effects of exercise on the GABAergic inhibitory system in the brain region involved in controlling blood pressure and heart rate in hypertensive rats. The results showed that exercise training increased GABA synthesis while also leading to a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure.

Complementary Approaches

In 2020, researchers investigated the impact of a 12-week yoga intervention on GABA levels and depressive symptoms in people with major depressive disorder. They found that doing yoga 2–3 times a week increased GABA levels and lowered self-reported depressive symptoms. The authors suggested that regular yoga sessions could help people alleviate their depression.

A 2021 study also explored the effects of a meditation technique called Integrated Amrita Meditation (IAM) on anxiety, depression, and certain chemicals in the blood, including GABA. The researchers divided participants into two groups: those new to IAM who practiced it for just a week, and those who had been practicing IAM for over four years. They also included a control group of people who did not practice meditation or yoga.

The findings showed that practicing IAM for just one week significantly reduced feelings of anxiety and depression, but didn’t lead to changes in heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, or levels of dopamine and GABA. However, long-term IAM practitioners did have higher levels of GABA in their blood, especially compared to those who didn’t practice meditation.

Drink Tea

Still-life of japanese healthy green tea in a small cups and teapot over dark background

Green tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine — which we encountered earlier — that enhances the activity of GABA. Some teas also have GABA added to them. A 2019 study found that drinking GABA-enriched oolong tea reduced stress levels and improved heart rate variability (HRV) compared to controls.

With certain methods for producing GABA-enriched teas, the beverages’ normal GABA levels increased by an impressive 1,000–2,000%, making them potential “neuro-nutraceuticals” that could improve mental and physical health in a meaningful way.

Eat GABA Foods

GABA is in many foods. As you might expect of a neurotransmitter used by mammals, some of the foods with the highest quantities are meat and other animal products. But GABA can also be found in abundance in some fermented or sprouted foods.

The main producers of GABA are pretty low on the food chain; it’s synthesized largely by lactic acid bacteria. But your brain can produce GABA endogenously; it requires glutamate, as we’ve seen, as well as vitamin B6. And magnesium also stimulates and modulates GABA receptors, increasing their activity.

So rather than eating animal foods for their GABA concentrations — foods that also come with a host of unwanted health and environmental effects — you can instead choose plant foods that have great potential to increase your own body’s ability to synthesize and utilize GABA.

1. Legumes

Colorful Bean seed in linen sack with wooden spoon

Several types of beans contain high GABA concentrations, which increase with germination of the beans prior to cooking. Some food scientists are busy looking for ways to increase GABA levels in legumes even more.

Even if beans didn’t do diddly for GABA, they’d still be great additions to most diets. Here’s our comprehensive article on the benefits of eating beans, including tips on how to prepare them and a bunch of delicious recipes.

2. Whole Grains

Whole grains can also deliver meaningful amounts of GABA. A 2023 study out of China found that GABA could be increased in certain strains of black rice through specific methods of germination under cold stress. (I can picture the rice plants shivering in the growing labs.)

The interventions have gotten increasingly creative. Another 2023 study explored how to increase GABA levels in quinoa by stressing the seeds with ultrasound prior to germination. (It’s only a matter of time before they start playing different genres of music to manipulate GABA levels; for rhyming purposes, I’m rooting for the music of ABBA for GABA.)

Like beans, whole grains come with so many benefits, they probably deserve pride of place in most diets. Here’s our take on why whole grains are good for you, along with more yummy recipes.

3. Nuts and Seeds

Top view of a rustic wood table filled with a large assortment of nuts like pistachios, hazelnut, pine nut, almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, cashew and walnuts. Some nuts are in brown bowls and wooden spoon and others directly on the table. Predominant color is brown. DSRL studio photo taken with Canon EOS 5D Mk II and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Pumpkin seeds, in particular, have been found to increase GABA in ways that appear to improve mood and cognitive function. And in general, nuts and seeds are nutritional powerhouses associated with neurological health.

For more on the wonders of nuts and seeds, check out our full article here.

4. Spinach

Spinach has one of the highest concentrations of GABA among foods. Agricultural researchers have found that putting the spinach plant under various stressors increases GABA levels.

For more on spinach, we’ve got a comprehensive article for you here.

5. Potatoes

Potatoes and potato sliced on wooden table. Selective focus.

GABA was identified in potatoes in 1949, just a year before scientists first found the neurotransmitter in humans. The relatively high GABA concentrations in the tuber don’t seem to be affected by cooking methods like boiling or baking (which is a good thing for anyone who isn’t into raw potatoes).

In 2008, researchers found that potato juice could reduce convulsions in mice in whom seizures had been chemically induced. They theorized that the potato juice (and, by extension, the rest of the potato) was affecting the GABAergic brain pathways to calm the brain.

And while potatoes are a controversial food (they’re white, and high in carbohydrates), for most people, they’re a huge net positive to the diet. In this article, we share the research and top it off with some delicious potato recipes.

6. Tomatoes

In 2023, a group of scientists with a truly admirable ability to focus tested 98 different varieties of tomatoes to assess their GABA content. They found a wide variability, along with some interesting tidbits — such as GABA is higher in unripe tomatoes, while glutamate increases with ripening. Rather than overwhelm you with the details, I’ll give you the punch line: Eating tomatoes can increase your GABA levels.

If you’re curious about how and why tomatoes are such a rich source of GABA, you might be interested in this technical article about a biochemical process called the “GABA shunt.” If you just want to know if tomatoes are healthy overall, and the best ways to prepare and serve them, we’ve got you covered in our comprehensive tomato article.

7. Bananas

Bananas and banana slices on a plate

Bananas and other large fruits protected by an inedible peel (such as cherimoya, pineapple, and guava) are also some of the top GABA foods. And what’s more, there’s evidence that bananas and other fruits in the plantain family can have a modulating effect on the development of neurodegenerative disease.

Are bananas good for you in other ways? Find out in our big article on bananas, which shares enough health benefits to more than outweigh the risks of slipping on the peel.

GABAergic Drugs

As our understanding of the role of GABA in the brain and nervous system grows, it’s natural that the pharmaceutical industry has been targeting the neurotransmitter and its receptors for drug development.

GABAergic drugs can increase or decrease the activity or concentration of GABA in the brain. Drugs that activate GABA receptors (called agonists) or increase the receptors’ sensitivity, work to reduce the neuronal signals in the brain. These drugs are prescribed to treat anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.

Benzodiazepines like Librium and Valium make use of GABA’s inhibitory properties to help reduce anxiety and promote sedation. Other GABA agonists include many common sedatives like barbital or quaaludes, tranquilizers like Xanax, and even alcohol.

There are also drugs that mimic the activity of GABA, such as Lyrica and gabapentin, which treat nerve pain and seizures.

Like most pharmaceuticals, however, GABA agonists and mimics come with a risk of unpleasant side effects.

What About GABA Supplements?

Many large white pill capsules close-up background

It was originally thought that ingested GABA could not cross the blood-brain barrier, but new research suggests that it may be able to, meaning that getting GABA into the bloodstream could affect GABA levels in the nervous system and brain.

Technically, the pathway suspected to allow GABA to transfer from food to the brain is known as the gut-brain axis. There’s a lot of fascinating research going on about the relationship between our gut microbiome and the neurotransmitters once thought to operate only in the nervous system. For example, 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, not the nervous system.

GABA supplements (which are not currently evaluated by the FDA) are available in tablets, capsules, powders, and liposomal sprays. The GABA in supplements may be combined with other ingredients like L-theanine, ashwagandha, B6, or lemon balm to enhance absorption and relaxation effects.

GABA supplement safety has been tested by the nonprofit United States Pharmacopeia. And the organization found no serious adverse events associated with GABA at intakes up to 18 grams per day for 4 days, and in longer studies at intakes of 120 milligrams per day for 12 weeks.

The manufacturer’s recommended intake on the labeling delivers GABA in the range of 1.5 micrograms to 3,000 milligrams per day. For the majority of products, the recommended intake is 100 milligrams (in divided doses) of GABA per day.

While outcome studies are few, there is evidence that daily supplementation of 80 milligrams of GABA may be effective in the reduction of blood pressure in adults with mild hypertension.

Side effects are generally mild, if they present at all, but may include diarrhea, a burning sensation in the throat, and hypotension.

Supplements may be beneficial for some people, especially those who suffer from some of the conditions that we looked at earlier. But dietary sources and lifestyle strategies are probably most people’s first line of defense for dealing with low GABA levels.

Recipes with GABA Foods

Support your well-being in the tastiest way possible! Dive into our trio of GABA-rich recipes, designed not just to delight your palate but also to enhance your body’s neurotransmitter production. It’s a win-win: savoring mouthwatering dishes while nourishing your mental and physical health. Ready to give your mood and meals an uplift?

1. Rainbow Smoothie

Rainbow Smoothie

Savor the taste of this Rainbow Smoothie, a delicious blend of bananas, apples, mixed berries, spinach, and chia seeds. A colorful smoothie like this one isn’t just a feast for the eyes; it contains tons of essential nutrients, including antioxidants and fiber. And it also features ingredients known to support GABA production, like vitamin B6 and magnesium, making it an ideal pick-me-up.

2. Misir Wot (Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew)

Misir Wot

Discover the rich flavors of Ethiopian cuisine with Misir Wot, a vibrant, plant-based, and GABA-rich Ethiopian stew. This dish takes lentils to another level with a medley of savory tomatoes, veggies, and a rich berbere spice mix. Paired with injera, a teff-based bread that also can boost GABA levels, this stew is a feast for not just your taste buds but your neurotransmitters, too.

3. Broccoli Potato Casserole With Cashew Cheese

Homemade delicious creamy broccoli cauliflower vegetable casserole close up in a pot on an old table. horizontal

Creamy Broccoli Potato Casserole not only delights the taste buds but also supports mood and sleep. Enriched with GABA-enhancing ingredients like potatoes, cashews, walnuts, and miso, magnesium from Cashew Cheese, and vitamin B6 from broccoli and potatoes, there is no shortage of feel-good plants to embrace in each wholesome bite. Ideal for an anytime meal, this plant-based, wholesomely cheesy delight promises a dining experience you’ll eagerly anticipate.

Increase Your Calm with GABA

GABA is the brain’s calming agent. While true GABA deficiency is rare, suboptimal levels of this neurotransmitter may cause mood and health problems, especially in regard to stress, depression, and sleep. Therefore, supporting your body’s ability to produce GABA can benefit overall well-being.

And while GABA pharmaceuticals and supplements can offer a direct boost to GABA levels, they should, if used at all, complement rather than replace the foundational practices of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Tell us in the comments:

  • Have you ever tried to raise your GABA levels, either naturally through food and lifestyle, or with supplements or pharmaceuticals?
  • What did you know or believe about GABA before reading this article? Did anything here surprise you?
  • Which GABA-boosting foods are already a part of your diet, and which ones might you add?

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