GABA (“gamma-aminobutyric acid”) is a naturally occurring amino acid that operates as a chemical messenger in the brain. Chemical messengers in the brain, or “neurotransmitters,” carry messages between cells in the brain. GABA is known as an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter, because it blocks certain brain signals, reducing their activity in the brain. The signals that GABA blocks are related to feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety. That’s why GABA’s inhibiting action induces a feeling of calm.
Today, many people take GABA supplements in the hope of reducing anxiety and promoting calm. The question is: Do these supplements really help and are they the best way to safeguard mental health?
What Is GABA?
GABA attaches to proteins in the brain called GABA receptors, thereby blocking some of the brain’s stress signals and promoting a greater sense of calm. GABA occurs naturally in the brain but is also found in certain foods–although not many. Some fermented foods like kimchi and miso contain GABA, but scientists currently don’t know how much consumed GABA actually reaches the brain. That hasn’t stopped GABA supplements from becoming popular among many people searching for ways to manage stress and even symptoms of anxiety or depression.
GABA Is a Natural and Healthy–and Necessary–Neurotransmitter
There’s no doubt that GABA does important work in the brain as it blocks feelings associated with fear, stress, and anxiety. The nerve signals associated with these feelings can become overactive; GABA works to control them by inhibiting their activity.
A common rationale among those who take GABA supplements is that more is better. By ingesting more GABA, they hope to reduce negative emotions like fear or even anger to induce feelings of calm.
And, to be sure, an abundance of stress is not healthy mentally or physically. Science is clear about the possible negative effects that come with chronic stress. Some of these effects include an increased risk for high blood pressure, insomnia, gastrointestinal complaints, and the development of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Can You Take GABA as a Supplement?
Many people take GABA supplements, which can be purchased online or in shops that sell supplements and homeopathic products. Today, roughly one in five people can expect to experience at least one major episode of depression in their lives. Mental health conditions like anxiety affect millions of people. However, not everyone feels comfortable taking pharmaceuticals because of their side effects, expense, or the need to see healthcare providers for ongoing prescriptions for medications.
Many people have thus sought out natural or alternative remedies to manage feelings of depression, anxiety, or high stress. GABA is just one of many different options that are available in supplement form today.
Does Taking GABA Help?
Anecdotally speaking, lots of people purchase GABA supplements and find them helpful, but do they really work? Unfortunately, current research is not up to snuff. In other words, there isn’t a body of scientific study that clearly illustrates that taking a GABA supplement works to alleviate stress and induce feelings of calm. Just as researchers aren’t sure how much naturally occurring GABA in foods makes it to the brain, they aren’t sure how effective GABA supplements are at reaching and working in the brain either.
What makes researchers question taking GABA foods and supplements as a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals? Mainly, they question the efficacy of consuming GABA. Because of the blood-brain barrier, lots of things people consume do not impact the brain. Pharmaceutical companies, of course, design medications for anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, etc., that are able to reach and operate in the brain. Before these drugs reach the market, their efficacy and safety must be rigorously tested and proven to work. That’s not the case with supplements.
So, while some people insist that taking GABA has helped them control their mental health symptoms, many researchers remain skeptical, especially when it comes to patients who have been clinically diagnosed with conditions like generalized anxiety disorder or depression. Until more scientific research is conducted about GABA supplements, the medical community simply cannot be sure that they work–or work particularly well.
Supplements and Homeopathic “Cures” for Mental Health and Addiction: Know the Dangers
Reduced levels of GABA are associated with many different mental health conditions. For that reason alone, it’s not surprising that many people believe that taking a GABA supplement can repair their GABA imbalance, leading to a decrease in their mental health symptoms. However, increasing consumption of foods with GABA or taking GABA supplements has not been scientifically proven to increase GABA levels in the brain and to sufficiently work to reduce those unpleasant symptoms associated with conditions like anxiety.
There are a few reasons why healthcare providers are concerned about so-called natural remedies and homeopathic cures for mental and physical ailments. For one, taking supplements often does not effectively replace pharmaceutical remedies. So, doctors fear that patients will take supplements in the mistaken belief that they will have a positive effect on their condition and refrain from taking medications that have actually been proven to have a positive effect on the health condition in question.
Secondly, many supplements and homeopathic cures can actually be dangerous. Although lots of people take these products in order to avoid medication side effects, these products, too, may cause side effects. Some may even interfere with other medications that the patient is taking. Lastly, supplements are not tested and regulated the way that pharmaceutical drugs are. That’s worrisome to medical researchers as they cannot be sure that all the ingredients found in supplements are safe or effective for what they’re marketed to do.
In short, doctors advise patients not to put too much stock in alternative health remedies like GABA supplements. They also encourage patients to discuss any supplements with them first before they purchase them. Many healthcare providers may support patients if they want to take certain supplements, but it’s always important to discuss them with a medical provider first in order to learn about their safety or possible side effects and possible interactions with medications.
If you are living with high stress or chronic stress or are experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression, it’s critically important to get a professional medical evaluation. If the root issue is clinically diagnosed anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition, supplements may not be enough for proper symptom management—and some may be completely ineffective in treating the disorder.
FHE Health specializes in treating mental health conditions and substance addictions. Before taking supplements to alleviate your symptoms, consider getting an in-depth evaluation first. Schedule an appointment with FHE Health today to find out how to successfully–and safely–manage your condition.