Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)

While some complementary and alternative techniques have been studied scientifically, high-quality data regarding safety, effectiveness, and mechanism of action are limited or controversial for most therapies. Whenever possible, it is recommended that practitioners be licensed by a recognized professional organization that adheres to clearly published standards. In addition, before starting a new technique or engaging a practitioner, it is recommended that patients speak with their primary healthcare provider(s). Potential benefits, risks (including financial costs), and alternatives should be carefully considered. The below monograph is designed to provide historical background and an overview of clinically-oriented research, and neither advocates for or against the use of a particular therapy.

Related Terms

  • 4-Amino butyric acid, aminalon, FMG, GABA, GABA transporter (GAT), GABA(A) receptors, GABA(B) receptors, Gabadone™, GABA-enriched defatted rice germ, GABA-enriched fermented milk product (FMG), GABA-enriched soybean, GABA-enriched tempeh-like fermented soybean (GABA-tempeh), GABA-transaminase (GABA-T), gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), gammalon, glutamate, glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD), Lactobacillus brevis GABA100, Pharma-GABA™, picamilon (nicotinyl-g-aminobutyric acid), pikamilon, pikamilone, pycamilon, succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase (SSADH).

  • Note: Not to be confused with gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), an analog of GABA that also functions as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Also not to be confused with picamilon (nicotinoyl-GABA), a combination of niacin and GABA that is considered a prodrug of GABA.

Background

  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a molecule that is the main chemical in the mammalian (warm-blooded vertebrate) central nervous system that helps balance mood. Most of the immediate effects of GABA related to the nervous system are controlled by the GABA(A) class of receptors, which function as a gate to let certain electrolytes pass only when GABA is attached to the receptor (GABA is like a key).

  • Much research has focused on the effects of naturally occurring GABA in the body and agents (including drugs and herbs) that increase the effects of this chemical. Many dietary supplements that are used to improve memory and sleep, including 5-HTP, hop, kava, lemon balm, passionflower, skullcap, and valerian, influence GABA already present in the body.

  • Synthetic GABA has been examined to treat nerve-, heart-, and brain-related disorders. Reports state that GABA is likely safe to use for short-term, low-dose treatments. Many mood disorders have been associated with low levels of GABA in the blood, which can be increased with supplementation. GABA is commonly taken to relax or sleep, and it may help improve mood disorders, although experts do not support the use of GABA for this purpose.

  • GABA has also been shown to increase growth hormone (GH) secretion in humans when taken orally; thus, GABA is popularly used as a bodybuilding supplement. However, there is a lack of evidence to support the anabolic effects of GABA supplementation.

Scientific Evidence

Uses

These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.

Atherosclerosis

There is limited evidence that gamma-aminobutyric acid is effective for treating atherosclerosis (disease due to plaque deposits in the arteries). Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

There is limited evidence that GABA may be used to treat children with ADHD or “minimal psychoorganic syndromes.” Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Autonomic dysfunction

There is limited evidence that GABA may reduce the symptoms associated with dysadaptation syndrome or traumatic brain injury. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Brain injury

There is limited evidence that GABA may reduce the symptoms associated with injuries to the hypothalamus portion of the brain. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Bronchitis

There is limited evidence that GABA may reduce the symptoms associated with bronchitis when used in addition to conventional therapy. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Cerebral palsy

There is limited evidence that gamma-aminobutyric acid may be effective at improving the prognosis of infants with cerebral palsy. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Endocrine disorders (Cushing’s disease)

There is limited evidence that GABA may be effective at increasing the amount of GABA in the blood for patients with Itsenko-Cushing’s disease who normally have low levels of GABA. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Epilepsy

In general, GABA supplements are not considered to be effective treatments for epilepsy, since they do not cross the blood-brain barrier. However, phosphatidylserine (PS) may be able to increase the uptake of GABA into nerve endings. Although it has not been well studied in humans, combining GABA and PS may reduce convulsions associated with epilepsy. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Growth hormone stimulation

There is limited evidence that GABA supplements taken by mouth may cause growth hormone (GH) secretion in humans, although it is unclear how this effect occurs. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Huntington’s disease

There is limited evidence that GABA may be used to treat Huntington’s disease, although muscle coordination did not seem to improve. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Hypertension (high blood pressure)

There is limited evidence that GABA-enriched food products may reduce blood pressure in individuals with slightly high blood pressure. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Meningitis

There is limited evidence that GABA may reduce the symptoms of meningitis when taken orally with other vitamins and agents that stimulate the immune system. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Motion sickness

There is limited evidence that GABA may prevent the symptoms associated with motion sickness. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Movement disorders

There is limited evidence that large doses of GABA injected into the vein may prevent involuntary movements. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Relaxation/stress/anxiety

There is limited evidence that GABA may cause “lack of alertness” and reduced stress when taken in low doses by mouth. However, higher doses of GABA injected into the vein may cause anxiety, mood disturbances, or restlessness. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

Sleep enhancement

There is limited evidence that GABA supplements taken by mouth may enhance or promote sleep, although how this occurs is unclear, since GABA does not cross the blood-brain barrier. Further research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.

*Key to grades:

Tradition

The below uses are based on tradition or scientific theories. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious and should be evaluated by a qualified health care professional.

  • Bodybuilding, colon cancer, concentration enhancement, contraceptive, depression, diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, infant eye/brain development, insomnia, mood disorders, premenstrual syndrome.

Dosing

The below doses are based on scientific research, publications, traditional use, or expert opinion. Many herbs and supplements have not been thoroughly tested, and safety and effectiveness may not be proven. Brands may be made differently, with variable ingredients, even within the same brand. The below doses may not apply to all products. You should read product labels, and discuss doses with a qualified healthcare provider before starting therapy.

Adults (18 years and older)

  • GABA supplements (250-500 milligrams) have been taken by mouth three times daily on an empty stomach or only at bedtime.

  • For brain injuries, GABA has been taken by mouth.

  • For bronchitis, 1.5-3 grams of GABA has been taken by mouth daily for 20 days.

  • For epilepsy, 250-3,000 milligrams of GABA has been taken by mouth daily.

  • For fibromyalgia, 250-500 milligrams of GABA has been taken by mouth three times daily.

  • For growth hormone production, 1-18 grams of GABA has been taken by mouth daily.

  • For high blood pressure, 100 milliliters of fermented milk product containing 10-12 milligrams of GABA has been taken by mouth for 12 weeks. Also a Chlorella supplement containing 20 milligrams of GABA has been taken twice daily by mouth for 12 weeks.

  • For Huntington’s disease, dipropylacetic acid (DPA) has been taken by mouth either alone or with high doses of GABA.

  • For Itsenko-Cushing disease, GABA has been taken by mouth.

  • For movement disorders, GABA (up to 533 milligrams per kilogram of body weight) has been injected into the vein daily for three weeks.

  • For pain, 250-500 milligrams of GABA has been taken by mouth three times daily.

  • For relaxation and to decrease stress or anxiety, 28-750 milligrams of GABA has been taken by mouth daily.

  • For sleep enhancement, 100-1,000 milligrams of GABA have been taken by mouth before sleep.

  • To help tobacco users quit, 250 milligrams of GABA has been taken by mouth three times daily, or 750 milligrams has been taken by mouth once at bedtime.

  • GABA (0.1-1.0 milligram per kilogram of body weight) has been injected into the vein of individuals to cause psychological disturbance.

  • Unclear doses and methods of GABA delivery have been used to treat atherosclerosis, inflammation of nerves, nerve dysfunctions, and high blood pressure.

Children (under 18 years old)

  • In general, doses of GABA for children may be adjusted from adult doses according to body weight.

  • For attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, 750-milligram capsules of GABA (one-half to six capsules maximum) have been taken by mouth three times daily. Unclear doses of GABA have also been taken by children (7-10 years of age) to treat “minimal psychoorganic syndromes.”

  • Unclear doses of GABA have been used to treat cerebral palsy, meningitis, and motion sickness in children.

Safety

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. There is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety of products, and effects may vary. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy. Consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience side effects.

Allergies

  • Avoid in people with a known allergy or sensitivity to GABA.

Side Effects and Warnings

  • GABA may increase the risk of bleeding. Caution is advised in people with bleeding disorders or those taking drugs that may increase the risk of bleeding. Dosing adjustments may be necessary.

  • Drowsiness or sedation may occur. Use caution if driving or operating heavy machinery.

  • GABA may cause anxiety, breathlessness, constipation, decreased menstrual bleeding, flushing, increased growth hormone levels, increased levels of glutamate pyruvate transaminase (GPT), increased or decreased rate of breathing, minor throat burning, mood disturbances, muscle weakness, nausea, numbness, rapid heart rate, restlessness, seizures, stomach pain, tingling, and wheezing.

  • Use cautiously in people with cancer; in people taking 5-HTP, hop, kava, lemon balm, passionflower, skullcap, or valerian; and in people who take or consume coffee, fermented foods, GABA-enriched plant products, L-arginine, magnesium, phosphatidylserine, tea, valerian, vitamin B6, or zinc.

  • Avoid in people with fatigue, liver disorders, liver failure, menstrual disorders, mood disorders, problems with breathing, problems with hormones, seizures or other neurological disorders, or stomach disorders.

  • Avoid in people who take or consume alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, beta-carbolines, chloride channel blockers (picrotoxin), dopaminergic agents, epilepsy medications, GABA transporter (GAT) inhibitors, gabapentin, neuroactive steroids, pregabalin, valproate, or vigabatrin.

  • Avoid using GABA in high doses.

  • Avoid in people with a known allergy or sensitivity to GABA.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

  • There is currently a lack of scientific evidence on the use of GABA during pregnancy or lactation.

Interactions

Most herbs and supplements have not been thoroughly tested for interactions with other herbs, supplements, drugs, or foods. The interactions listed below are based on reports in scientific publications, laboratory experiments, or traditional use. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy.

Interactions with Drugs

  • GABA may affect the risk of bleeding when taken with drugs that affect blood clotting or bleeding. Some examples include aspirin, anticoagulants (blood thinners) such as warfarin (Coumadin®) or heparin, antiplatelet drugs such as clopidogrel (Plavix®), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®) or naproxen (Naprosyn®, Aleve®).

  • GABA may also interact with agents that affect dopamine levels, alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, beta-carbolines, chloride channel blockers, GABA transporter (GAT) inhibitors, GABA(A) receptor antagonists (bicuculline in particular), GABAergic drugs (particularly medicines used to treat epilepsy), gabapentin, neuroactive steroids, pregabalin, valproate, and vigabatrin.

Interactions with Herbs and Dietary Supplements

  • GABA may affect the risk of bleeding when taken with herbs and supplements that affect the rates of blood clotting and bleeding. Multiple cases of bleeding have been reported with the use of Ginkgo biloba, and fewer cases with garlic and saw palmetto. Numerous other agents may theoretically increase the risk of bleeding, although this has not been proven in most cases.

  • GABA may interact with 5-HTP, coffee, fermented foods, GABA-enriched plant products (which may include fava beans, some rice, soybeans, sunflowers, and tomatoes), GABAergic herbs and supplements (including hop, kava, lemon balm, passionflower, skullcap, and valerian), L-arginine, magnesium, phosphatidylserine, tea, valerian, vitamin B6, and zinc.

Author Information

  • This information is based on a systematic review of scientific literature edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com).

References

Natural Standard developed the above evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to www.naturalstandard.com. Selected references are listed below.

  1. Abdou AM, Higashiguchi S, Horie K, Kim M, Hatta H, and Yokogoshi H. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. Biofactors 2006;26(3):201-208. View Abstract
  2. Cavagnini F, Invitti C, Pinto M, Maraschini C, Di Landro A, Dubini A, and Marelli A. Effect of acute and repeated administration of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) on growth hormone and prolactin secretion in man. Acta Endocrinol.(Copenh) 1980;93(2):149-154. View Abstract
  3. Cho YR, Chang JY, and Chang HC. Production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) by Lactobacillus buchneri isolated from kimchi and its neuroprotective effect on neuronal cells. J.Microbiol.Biotechnol. 2007;17(1):104-109. View Abstract
  4. Cocito L, Bianchetti A, Bossi L, Giberti L, and Loeb C. GABA and phosphatidylserine in human photosensitivity: a pilot study. Epilepsy Res. 1994;17(1):49-53. View Abstract
  5. Elliott KA, Jasper HH. Gammaaminobutyric acid. Physiol Rev. 1959;39(2):383-406. View Abstract
  6. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), Monograph. Altern.Med.Rev. 2007;12(3):274-279. View Abstract
  7. Loeb C, Benassi E, Bo GP, Cocito L, Maffini M, and Scotto P. Preliminary evaluation of the effect of GABA and phosphatidylserine in epileptic patients. Epilepsy Res. 1987;1(3):209-212. View Abstract
  8. Mishunina TM, Kononenko VI, Komissarenko IV, and Luchitskii EV. [The effect of GABA-ergic preparations on the function of the hypothalamo-hypophyseal-adrenal system in patients with Itsenko-Cushing disease]. Probl.Endokrinol.(Mosk) 1991;37(4):28-31. View Abstract
  9. Nemeroff CB. The role of GABA in the pathophysiology and treatment of anxiety disorders. Psychopharmacol.Bull. 2003;37(4):133-146. View Abstract
  10. Okita Y, Nakamura H, Kouda K, Takahashi I, Takaoka T, Kimura M, and Sugiura T. Effects of vegetable containing gamma-aminobutyric acid on the cardiac autonomic nervous system in healthy young people. J.Physiol Anthropol. 2009;28(3):101-107. View Abstract
  11. Petty F. Plasma concentrations of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and mood disorders: a blood test for manic depressive disease? Clin.Chem. 1994;40(2):296-302. View Abstract
  12. Shimada M, Hasegawa T, Nishimura C, Kan H, Kanno T, Nakamura T, and Matsubayashi T. Anti-hypertensive effect of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-rich Chlorella on high-normal blood pressure and borderline hypertension in placebo-controlled double blind study. Clin.Exp.Hypertens. 2009;31(4):342-354. View Abstract
  13. Shoulson I, Kartzinel R, and Chase TN. Huntington’s disease: treatment with dipropylacetic acid and gamma-aminobutyric acid. Neurology 1976;26(1):61-63. View Abstract
  14. Yogeeswari P, Ragavendran JV, and Sriram D. An update on GABA analogs for CNS drug discovery. Recent Pat CNS.Drug Discov. 2006;1(1):113-118. View Abstract

The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.