Nootropics expert Alex Whybrow takes a deeper look in to GABA, the impact it can have on the brain and body, and whether you might want to consider taking GABA supplements.
About a third of us experience extreme stress, according to the American Institute of Stress. 77% of people experience stress that is bad enough to affect their physical health, and 73% experience stress that impacts their mental health. It’s a huge issue.
Stress is rampant in the modern world, with the constant demands for attention from every angle – work, social life, phones, relationships, family, the news. It can feel impossible to escape, impossible to switch off.
Is there anything that we can do about it?
Well, there is, but it requires a bit of effort. We can try to limit the things that stress us by trying to get more sleep, doing a little more exercise. Maybe a little less screen time, maybe spending more time outdoors. Making the effort to spend some time switching off, away from the relentlessness of our everyday lives. Just sitting down with a book, or listening to some music.
Another thing we can all do to help us manage our stress levels is making sure our bodies have the right tools to combat stress. Our bodies can help us here:
Our brains produce something called GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, which is there to help keep us calm.
To give you a bit of the science behind it – GABA is an amino acid which acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means that it blocks certain brain signals. When it attaches itself to proteins in your brain that are GABA receptors, it helps to lessen the ‘excitability’ of neurons. The end result is that we feel less anxious, stressed and tense, and much more calm and relaxed.
The short version is that GABA is great for us, particularly in the light of the stresses associated with the modern world. But we thought it would be a good idea to find out a bit more about GABA, given how important it is to our mental wellbeing and whether supplementing with GABA is worth it or even possible.
How does GABA work?
Following on from the brief introduction that we have given GABA, let’s take a deeper look at it to ascertain exactly what it does for you, and why it’s so important. It will be present in half of the neurons across your central nervous system and your peripheral nervous system.
To get to the bottom of GABA, and what it can do for you, we need to take a closer look at the neurons and what they do.
Neurons are specialized cells that roam around the nervous system with the responsibility of transporting information around our body. Think of them like the building blocks of our nervous system and brain – coordinating essential functions within our body.
They use chemical and electrical signals to communicate with each other and other cells within the body.
When it is activated, a neuron generates an electrical signal which is sent through a cell in order to release a ‘chemical messenger’ called a neurotransmitter. This passes along a synapse (the small gap between a neuron and a cell) and transmits the signal to the next cell.
They can be excitatory neurons, or inhibitor neurons – which basically means they can block or pass on information – this is where GABA comes in. GABA is an inhibitor, and so it has the effect of dulling the flow of information.
It’s probably important to clear something up here, because restricting the flow of information can easily be misconceived as a bad thing, but when we’re dealing with external stresses, it’s very much a good thing.
Being able to dull the ‘information’ that could cause us to feel stressed and anxious is imperative to living a healthy life. We need GABA.
The benefits of having the right amount of GABA in our bodies are numerous: we can sleep better, our memory improves, our blood pressure is lower, we are less anxious and stressed, we are happier – even our breathing is better. It can also help us deter cancer cells, and prevent epilepsy.
This isn’t new science – we’ve known about the benefits of GABA for a very long time. So much of modern medication is based around the stimulation of GABA production in our brains – valium, diazepam and Xanax to name just a few of the more well-known ones.
You know that feeling when you drink alcohol, when you feel slightly relaxed and you loosen your inhibitions a little? That comes from increased GABA in your brain.
How does GABA affect your body?
It’s not just your brain that is impacted by GABA – as we have seen, GABA receptors are present in our central nervous systems and peripheral nervous systems which impact every part of our body.
Let’s now take a look at the other areas of our bodies that can benefit from GABA:
GABA in the digestive system
Your gastrointestinal system has plenty of GABA receptors in it, and as such it is thought that it can have an impact on your thinking. The bacteria found in your gut, microbiome, interacts with the GABA receptors that are present and that in turn can impact our mood and behavior – even how clearly we are thinking.
Low levels of GABA have been linked to eating disorders such as anorexia and binge eating. It’s thought that GABA plays a role in regulating our appetite and taste, which directly affects our desire to eat.
The good news is that you can easily test your levels of GABA, if you are worried that you might be low and it is affecting your eating habits. It’s a simple mail-order kit which you can send off and get your results.
GABA and your immune system
GABA has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects all over your body, and as GABA receptors are found on immune cells, having more GABA in your body can help to fight off more viruses and infections.
A GABA deficiency can leave you more vulnerable to illness.
GABA and your hormones
Progesterone, another metabolite but this one is released from ovaries, is a GABA receptor. The two can work together to lift your mood and sense of well-being. The more progesterone you have in your body, the better the GABA can function.
GABA also plays a role in human growth hormone production, which is essential for growing muscles and keeping them healthy. This is closely linked to good sleep, so it’s a chain reaction – if you have more GABA in your body, you sleep better, and if you sleep better, you produce more human growth hormones.
So, I hope you have seen now that GABA is very important to living a happy and healthy life. Every part of your body is impacted by your GABA levels, so it is so important that we make sure that we have enough – but how do we do that?
Fortunately, we can take GABA supplements. These can come in all different shapes and sizes – oil, pills, capsules or powder – as long as your stomach can ingest it and break it down to its base form, you’re all good. That’s when your body can start to reap the benefits.
Exactly how much of a benefit you will see is open to debate though.
It is thought that GABA cannot pass through the blood brain barrier, which some people have suggested limits its impact. However, many people have reported a benefit from taking these supplements, enough for us to believe that the best GABA supplements can make a difference, it’s just difficult to measure exactly how much of a difference.
It may be that the GABA works in a different way to what has been believed, and that it doesn’t need to pass the blood brain barrier in order to be effective. As ever, more independent research is required to draw concrete conclusions.
The Best GABA Supplements
It’s one thing to decide that GABA supplements are right for you, but it is another to decide which ones to try. Fortunately, that’s where we can help. We have compiled a list of the best GABA supplements for you to look through – have a read and pick out the one you think would be best.
NOW GABA Capsules
Let’s kick things off with these fantastic, and cost effective, capsules from NOW. Founded in 1968, NOW has built up an excellent reputation in the health food industry over the last 50 years or so.
They have received countless awards and accreditations, which has reaffirmed the fact that this is a company that consumers can trust.
In 2021 they received the ISO/IEC 17025:2017 accreditation from the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) for both analytical and microbiological laboratories, which certifies that their quality management and testing is up to scratch. They know what they are doing.
Anyway, on to the capsules themselves. You get a decent dose of 500 mg of GABA in each capsule, which is pretty big compared to most of the competition. This makes it great for people that want a big intake, but if you are looking for a lower dose there isn’t a way to reduce it.
You also get 2 mg of vitamin B6 in each capsule. Usually found in foods like fish, chickpeas, bananas and potatoes, vitamin B6 is essential for brain development and a healthy immune system, so makes it the perfect vitamin to include in a GABA supplement.
It’s been linked to improving memory as well as helping to prevent brain degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease. It has also been found to help combat anxiety.
There are a few other ingredients that are included in this supplement that don’t really do anything for you, they’re just there as part of the makeup of the capsule. You’ll find rice flour, silicon dioxide and stearic acid in each capsule, which won’t do you any harm, but it’s important to be aware of exactly what you are putting into your body.
One of the best things about the NOW Gaba capsules, though, is the price. For individually portioned supplements, these are one of the cheapest around, coming in at just over 10 cents a day. You can buy in bottles of 100 or 200, so you might only need a couple of bottles a year.
Pros of NOW GABA Capsules
- Excellent value at around 10 cents a dose
- Vitamin B6 to give you extra support
- Generous bottle sizes
- A trusted company
Cons of NOW GABA Capsules
- Capsules include additional substances that don’t do anything to benefit your body
- Inflexibility of dose – 500 mg is a large dose and no way to reduce it
Capsules aren’t for everyone – some people experience nausea when they have them, but the great thing about the GABA supplement industry is that there are plenty of other options – take these chewable tabs from Frunutta.
Frunutta is a specialist vitamin company that was co-founded by Dr Ali Alavi, who wanted to make chewable vitamins and nutrients for his autistic son, who was unable to swallow pills.
Faced with the prospect of injecting his son with vital vitamins, he came up with an alternative solution – vitamins that you didn’t need to swallow – they would just dissolve on your tongue. Frunutta was born.
The great thing about taking supplements in this way is that the only thing that needs to be included is the vitamin – no need for anything to make up a capsule that does nothing for your body. Plus, when it dissolves in your mouth, the vitamin gets into your bloodstream quicker than if you swallow a capsule and have to wait for the capsule to dissolve.
The best way to take these Frunutta GABA supplements is to place them under your tongue and just let them dissolve. You can swallow them as well if you want, and sometimes your mouth will just go into auto-pilot and munch away! But these have a delicious cherry flavor to them, so you’ll probably find that you want to keep them in your mouth for as long as possible!
They come in doses of 100 mg, which may sound a bit small compared to the NOW capsules above, but this actually gives you a bit more control over your dose. With larger doses, you are stuck with that amount, but with Frunutta, you can have any amount of 100 mg to get the perfect dose for you.
If you want large doses, this may make this option one of the more expensive, but you can save 10% by subscribing, which helps. You’ll probably be looking at around $25 a month for a reasonable daily dose.
Pros of Frunutta GABA
- Easy, and delicious, to take
- Can manage the dose much easier
- Subscription offers to bring the price down
- Free shipping on orders over $25
Cons of Frunutta GABA
- If you want a larger dose, there are better options out there
- Can work out quite expensive per serving
Pure Encapsulations GABA
We’ll step things up a notch now, with this powerful product from Pure Encapsulations.
Everything about Pure Encapsulations, as a company, is quite impressive. When you are putting something into your body, particularly when it can impact on your mental wellbeing, then I think it’s very important that you can trust the people that make it. Well the people at Pure Encapsulations go out of their way to build that trust.
There are pages and pages on their website dedicated to their standards, their research, their commitment to the environment and other charitable causes and their general attitude about transparency.
They publish their research so you know the exact theory behind their products, and there are countless other sources there for you if you want to do any further reading.
In short – they know what they are doing.
Their GABA supplements certainly pack a punch with a high dose of 700 mg – the highest that we will look at today. It’s always a good idea to check with a health professional before you start taking any supplement, and that is certainly the case with a GABA dose this high – it may be deemed too much for you. However, if it is recommended that you take a high dose, this could be perfect for you.
As an added bonus, you’ll also find vitamin C in every capsule. I’m sure you’re well aware of the benefits of vitamin C, particularly when it comes to your immune system.
We also know that stress can cause us to pick up more bugs and illnesses, so if you are suffering from stress, it’s likely that you might need a boost of vitamin C – it makes sense to have some included in these GABA supplements, however, if you are worried about your vitamin C levels, it’s best to get supplements that include more than you’ll get in these.
In terms of price, these are pretty much average. With a dose this size, you’ll never need to take more than one a day, so it will probably work out at around thirty cents a day. You can order in quantities of 60 or 120.
Pros of Pure Encapsulation GABA
- Huge dose so you will only need one a day
- Has vitamin C included as well
- Decent value
- Trusted company
Cons of Pure Encapsulation GABA
- Might be too high a dose for some people
Nutricost GABA Powder
As we mentioned at the top of this list, one of the great things about GABA supplements is the huge variety of forms that they can take. To illustrate that, here we have the Nurticost GABA Powder – one of the only products of its kind, which will likely make it very appealing to certain consumers.
Nutricost is basically your one-stop shop for everything to do with nutrient and vitamin supplements. They have a vast range of products that can help you with any ailment or issue you can imagine – whether you want a post-workout boost or you’re struggling with a UTI. They’ve got it all.
Their GABA Powder is perfect for people that regularly take shakes or smoothies, perhaps with other powders. This powder is just something else that you can add in, at no real extra effort.
Powders are also perfect for people that want to measure out an exact dose. When you take pills or capsules, you don’t get much flexibility with how much GABA you get – it has to be in multiples of one capsule or pill. With the powder, you get much more control over the amount you take in.
A quick note here though – while you get more flexibility with the dose, you need to take a bit more care in order to be accurate. You’ll find you get the best results with a consistent dose, which isn’t as easy with a powder. Get a good set of scales so that you can measure out your dose with sufficient accuracy.
Another huge benefit of the Nutricost GABA Powder is the price – it is incredibly cheap compared to pretty much every other product on the market. With a tub costing around $20, you can get about 1,000 (one thousand!) servings out of each one. This means the average dose will cost you around two cents. It also means that one tub could last you years!
If you already take a protein shake, or similar, then I would wholeheartedly recommend the Nutricost GABA Powder. It’s the most cost-effective way of taking GABA supplements.
Pros of Nutricost GABA Powder
- Incredible value compared to the competition
- More control over your dose
- Creative way to get GABA supplements
Cons of Nutricost GABA Powder
- Can be fiddly to get an accurate and consistent dose
- A more prolonged process than just taking a pill – more work is required from you
Source Naturals GABA Calm
Next up we have these lozenges from Source Naturals – arguably the most convenient way to take your GABA supplements.
Source Natural is a company that was founded in 1982, and one that was at the forefront of a lot of nutrition that we take for granted today – they were leaders in what they call the ‘Wellness Revolution’. They now have a catalog of over 600 products, all produced to their strict quality standards.
I’m a huge fan of lozenges as a means of taking supplements. I have an entire arsenal of various supplements and nootropics that I regularly take, and to be honest, it’s nice to have a bit of a change from swallowing pills and capsules with water.
Sucking on a lozenge is a great way to give your body what it needs, and it’s made all the better that these come in two great flavors (orange and peppermint). They are genuinely enjoyable to take, which is rarely the case with supplements.
Another great thing about the Source Naturals GABA Calm lozenges is that they have other ingredients other than just the GABA. You’ll find magnesium, glycine, L-Tyrosine and Taurine present, and each of these is there to complement the impact that the GABA has on your mind. They all have calming and soothing effects, which helps to balance you out.
This is great, and the fact that you have these ‘extra’ ingredients helps to justify the relatively small dose of GABA that you get, which is 125 mg. Not the smallest that I have included in this list, but the issue here is that it is slightly more difficult to up your dose of these, unless you want multiple lozenges in your mouth…!
What the extra ingredients do is lessen the need for an increased dose – before you look at the 125 mg, and think “I’m going to need more than that”, give them a try and see what effect they have on you. You may find that the impact that the lozenges have, on the whole, is equal to a higher dose of just GABA.
The price is very fair too, working out at around 20 cents per lozenge. As we said, you probably won’t want to take more than one a day, so this is pretty good for a daily cost.
Pros of Source Naturals GABA Calm
- Delicious flavors – a real pleasure to take
- Supporting ingredients give you an added benefit
- Decent price
Cons of Source Naturals GABA Calm
- Relatively low GABA content and difficult to scale up
Finally, we come to Thorne PharmaGABA – have we saved the best for last? We’ll let you be the judge of that…
First off, I should disclose that I am a huge fan of Thorne as a company. They take supplements and nutrition to the next level, with personalized tests to help you find out exactly what you need to be able to live a more fulfilled, healthier, happier life. They use cutting edge technology and rigorous scientific testing in everything that they do – it’s all very impressive.
So with that in mind, I was predisposed to like Thorne PharmaGABA. This is backed up by the fact that this tends to be the main supplement used by researchers when they look at the benefits of GABA supplements – it is generally recognized as one of the leading products in the industry, which should offer us, as consumers, a fair amount of reassurance.
Part of the reason for this is that they are so pure. Other than 100 mg of GABA, there is only a little magnesium citrate and calcium laurate (for texture and anti-clumping) in each capsule – nothing else. All you get is what you need.
The suggested dosage is 1-3 capsules a day, but at just 100 mg, you may find that you require a bit more than this. The good news is that it is easy to scale it up in 100 mg increments.
On their website they also emphasize the impact these GABA supplements can have on your physicality – suggesting that a test of 39-year-old males showed that muscle mass was increased significantly in the group that was taking PharmaGABA compared to the group that was taking whey protein. Another potential benefit there.
In terms of price, this is one of the more expensive products that we’ve looked at today, but there is an option to subscribe and save around 20% on each order, which could be worth considering.
Being a Thorne customer is a bit different. There are so many resources available to you on their website, which are well worth looking over whether you decide to go with this supplement or not.
Pros of Thorne PharmaGABA
- Industry leading quality
- No additives or filler ingredients
- Extremely trustworthy company
Cons of Thorne PharmaGABA
- Expensive compared to some of the competition
If you are interested in taking GABA supplements, have a look through the list above and select the one that you feel will suit your needs the best. In my opinion, you can’t really go wrong with any of them, it’s just a case of finding the one that ticks more of your boxes.
Personally, I think that the Thorne PharmaGABA is the most impressive product, but you may want one with a larger dose, so the NOW GABA capsules might be better, or the Pure Encapsulation GABA if you want a really big dose.
Then there are the various ways in which you can take them. The Frunutta GABA and Source Naturals GABA Calm are probably the most enjoyable products to take, while the Nutricost Powder is perfect for people that already have shakes as part of their daily routine.
In terms of price, then the Nutricost Powder again comes out on top – it is far and away the cheapest GABA supplement per dose on this list. However, one thing I will say is that if you find that taking GABA supplements has a positive impact on you in terms of reducing stress, then any of these products will represent great value.
Are GABA Supplements safe to take?
As a general rule – yes – GABA supplements are perfectly safe to take. Both the FDA and the USP (the United States Pharmacopeia) have deemed GABA to be safe, which should tell you everything you need to know.
However, it is worth noting here that more research is required to fully determine both the effectiveness of taking GABA supplements and what the ideal dose size is. The guidelines on this are a bit haphazard to say the least, with the FDA recommending doses of up to 750 mg, while the USP recommends a limit of 125 mg a day.
My advice is to start on a lower dose and slowly build up from there, but you should always consult a medical professional before taking on any new supplements or medications.
Who shouldn’t take GABA Supplements?
More research is also needed to determine the impact of GABA supplements on people that are pregnant, so before we know more about this, you shouldn’t take GABA supplements if you are pregnant.
As we have seen earlier in this article, recreational drugs and alcohol can impact your GABA levels, so if you regularly use recreational drugs you shouldn’t try GABA supplements as well – the two mixed together can create serious health issues. Similarly, if you are on any medication that impacts your GABA output, you should avoid taking these supplements.
While we wait for more research to be conducted on GABA supplements, it is always better to err on the side of caution. If you have any concerns at all, speak to a medical professional who will be able to advise you on the best course of action to take.
Can I get GABA from food?
If you would like to up the levels of GABA in your body without taking supplements, then there are certain foods that can help you, although you should note that generally the levels of GABA in foods is quite low – you will struggle to get a significant boost through diet alone.
The good news is that foods that can help raise the levels of GABA in your body have plenty of other health benefits, so even though you may struggle to get all the GABA you need from these foods, you will experience other benefits.
GABA is produced by lactobacillus acidophilus – a probiotic bacteria that will be found in your intestines. It’s a good example of ‘good’ bacteria which helps us break down food and fight off ‘bad’ bacteria that can make us ill.
We can get lactobacillus acidophilus from fermented foods like yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut and kimchi, so if we eat more of these sorts of foods, we should increase the amount of GABA in our bodies.
We can also increase the GABA in our system when we eat foods that are rich in glutamic acid; foods like spinach, broccoli, brown rice, potatoes and lentils.
The flip side of this is that junk food and foods with lots of sugar can have a negative effect on our GABA levels – we get a surge of blood sugar when we eat these foods, before a crash which can knock the GABA in our brains out of kilter. Cutting out junk food and sugary foods can be a good way to help improve our mood and general health.
While all of this is good advice, and eating well is generally just a good idea, the best way to make a significant impact on your GABA levels is to take supplements. I hope you have found your perfect GABA supplement in this article.