The anxiety-reducing power of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) supplements is widely proclaimed across the Web. One site declares that GABA (which is synthesized naturally in the brain) “is a powerful tool if you’re looking to gain control over your sleep, stress, or mood” and then goes on to push GABA supplements as if their effectiveness were obvious.
But according to neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, an expert on the relationship between the brain and nutrition, we actually don’t know if these supplements help, because human studies have been inconclusive.
We do know that naturally occurring GABA acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter blocking the activity of certain neural pathways in the brain. “And overactivity of certain pathways might be involved in anxiety,” Perlmutter explains.
Many researchers believe that GABA may regulate anxiety because it seems to work together with anxiety medications. Librium, Valium, and other benzodiazepines attach to the same neuronal receptors (tiny sites on our neurons) as GABA. Theoretically, the meds help GABA reduce neuron activity even further, with a calming result.
So, naturally occurring GABA may well be nature’s tranquilizer. “But what we don’t know, because it hasn’t been demonstrated, is whether having higher levels of GABA — via supplements — would slow down activity in those neural pathways more,” Perlmutter says.
And there’s a bigger problem. We also don’t know whether GABA taken orally and passed into the bloodstream can actually reach the brain through the blood-brain barrier. This dense network of cells in the blood vessels of the nervous system protects the brain by allowing oxygen, water, and other beneficial elements (think anesthetic drugs) in while keeping bacteria and other harmful blood-borne substances out.
“If GABA supplements work to reduce anxiety in specific cases, we’re probably talking about a placebo effect — and, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Perlmutter explains. “I’m all for supplements when they can be shown to work as a powerful adjunct to treatment. But there’s very little data to make us think that we could use GABA supplements to treat anxiety or depression.”
Perlmutter points to other supplements as alternatives: “Valerian has widespread recognition in helping to reduce anxiety. And magnesium supplements have shown very good results against anxiety, too, especially in people with low magnesium levels.”
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This originally appeared as “Do GABA Supplements Help With Anxiety?” in the May 2019 print issue of Experience Life.