The sometimes abrupt switch from an active work day to a relaxing evening doesn’t always come as easy as simply clocking out — stressors from work, bills, taxes, and other conundrums of the modern world can pile up and manifest as unpleasant anxieties that bog you down and make it difficult to calm down or sleep. This is where GABA comes in and helps you calm down, whether you’re taking it as a supplement or simply creating it within your own brain. Despite what it often feels like, humans are actually pretty well-equipped to regulate emotion and chemical responses but when you’re feeling out of whack and unable to calm your racing brain in the evening, you can always reach for a GABA supplement to, well, supplement your own natural production. Imagine being able to put up a shield in your brain between everything that keeps you up at night and a good night of sleep — that’s what GABA does.
What is GABA?
Okay — quick science lesson: GABA (Gamma-Aminobutryic acid) is an amino acid that’s naturally produced in the human brain and functions as a neurotransmitter, facilitating communication among brain cells. Amino acids are organic compounds in the brain that build proteins and synthesize hormones. In GABA’s case, what this means is that they act as an inhibitory neurotransmitter — GABA’s main role is to reduce the activity of neurons in the central nervous system and brain so that we can experience several pleasant (and necessary) effects:
- Increased relaxation
- Reduced stress
- A calm, balanced mood
- Alleviation of pain
- Boost in ability to sleep (maybe that’s caused by all of the above)
In short, GABA blocks your brain from feeling anxieties and helps stop the flow of information to your brain that would otherwise keep your mind racing, your body aching, and your head spinning from all the things you forgot to do today that, good gracious, you’ve gotta do tomorrow on top of all the work you’ve got tomorrow and now you can’t sleep — ACK!
So… if you’re feeling anxious and unable to sleep or relax in the evening, is there anything you can do to get more of this calming neurotransmitter?
Kick Back with a GABA Supplement
Despite being created naturally within the brain, GABA can also be taken as a supplement to help reduce your stress and anxiety and promote a balanced mood. As the body’s most important inhibitory neurotransmitter, we’re lucky that this supplement can cross the blood-brain barrier (essentially the movement of things from the blood to your brain) and work alongside our own production of GABA to aid in relaxation.
If you’re uninterested in supplements, there are also foods that have relatively high naturally-occurring amounts of GABA such as green, black, and oolong tea and fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and tempeh. In a 2018 study, researchers found objective improvements in sleep after subjects were treated with GABA supplements extracted from fermented unpolished rice germ. Go ahead and relax with a cup of tea and a bowl of yogurt — it might help you relax more than you think!
What Does GABA do for You?
Sleep: GABA enables the mind and body to (respectively) mentally and physically relax. It’s necessary for your brain to be able to block out the stressors of day-to-day life because otherwise you’d never be able to calm your thoughts or meditate, especially in this overstimulating modern world. Low GABA activity has been linked to insomnia and disrupted sleep, as well as less restful overall sleep. In trying to get a decent night’s sleep, it’s important to regulate the brain functions that contribute to sleep, whether that’s through supplements, a healthy diet, or consistent exercise and activity.
Stress: In its natural chemical state, GABA’s primary role is to slow the activity of neurons in the brain, which allows the body to be more relaxed and alleviated from stress and anxieties. Feeling overwhelmed and unable to turn off your internal conversation when your head hits the pillow at night? A GABA supplement may cure what ails you (or at least make it a less pressing matter so you can hit the hay)
High Blood Pressure: If you suffer from high blood pressure, GABA supplements may be a way to reduce it. In addition to being a problem in its own right, high blood pressure can lead to poor sleep, as your body naturally drops in blood pressure at night when you wind down. High blood pressure is also linked to hyperarousal, the state of physical alertness and vigilance that can be attributed to difficulty falling asleep. If you hop in bed and watch the shadows in the corners of the room or creaking of floorboards… it may be time to get your blood pressure checked!
Is GABA Safe?
For the most part, GABA oral supplements are considered completely safe for a healthy adult. Like all supplements, there are potential side effects including drowsiness & fatigue, muscle weakness, gastric distress, nausea, and a diminished appetite. If we’re being honest, that reads like a list of basic potential side effects for any over-the-counter supplement. No serious side effects seem to be prevalent with a normal dose. Is GABA safe? It sure seems to be!
Should You Use a GABA Supplement?
Though there isn’t ample research on the efficacy of GABA supplements, the evidence that we do have shows that it may be a decent treatment for low level anxiety, stress, high blood pressure, and poor sleep.
It can often be difficult to pinpoint what exactly is holding you back from relaxing in the evening, reading a book, or even just stopping your mind from racing with thoughts of days to come, but it’s important to remember that the human brain is a complex (and often confusing) piece of machinery. There’s no such thing as a miracle cure-all, but taking a GABA supplement may help push you over the edge from another restless night to a restful sleep. Don’t rely on a simple supplement to treat an underlying condition (such as severe anxiety or high blood pressure) but don’t be afraid to let yourself alleviate some of the difficulty.