What Is GABA?

A neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) a chemical made in the brain. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA reduces a nerve cell's ability to send and receive chemical messages throughout the central nervous system.

Fluctuating levels of GABA are linked to medical conditions including anxiety, autism, and Parkinson's disease.

Several medications target GABA receptors. And though GABA supplements are used to lower stress and anxiety and combat insomnia, evidence of these benefits remains limited.

This article explains GABA, how it works, and what happens if there’s not enough GABA activity in the body. It also covers how GABA activity can be regulated with medication and supplements.

Neurotransmitters working (What to Know About GABA)

Verywell / Jessica Olah

What Is GABA?

GABA is a type of neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the nervous system.

Messages travel along the nervous system via neurons that pass signals to each other. For example, they might carry a message from the brain to your hand to move away from danger, or they may carry a message from the hand to the brain saying a pot is hot—or they may transmit messages between nerve cells in the nervous system.

As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA blocks or inhibits certain nerve transmission. It decreases the stimulation of neurons. This means that a neuron that receives a message along the way doesn't act on it, so the message isn't sent on to other neurons.

This slow down in message transition may be helpful in modulating mood and anxiety. In other words, GABA calms your nervous system down, helping you to not become overly anxious or afraid.

Problems with GABA signaling seem to play a role in disorders that affect your mental health or your nervous system. These are known as psychiatric and neurologic conditions.

Types of Neurotransmitters

Inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA block certain brain signals and decrease nervous system activity. Another inhibitory neurotransmitter, serotonin, helps to regulate mood and anxiety.

Excitatory neurotransmitters have the opposite effect: They promote certain brain signals and increase nervous system activity. An example of an excitatory neurotransmitter is norepinephrine.


When messages, called “action potentials,” are received by a neuron, the message is passed on to another neuron via a series of steps.

However, about 30% to 40% of neurons contain GABA. These are called GABAergic neurons. When GABAergic neurons receive a message, they release GABA into the synapses where the message is supposed to be carried on. The release of GABA starts a reaction that makes it less likely that the action potential will be passed on to other neurons.

GABA activity only lasts milliseconds, but it has significant consequences. In the brain, it results in a calming effect. In the spinal cord, this process allows for sensory information integration, which means it allows your nervous system to process and organize information coming in from the senses.

GABA and Its Benefits in the Body

GABA is an amino acid that helps to regulate mood. It's released by certain neurons that carry messages along the nervous system. GABA acts to stop messages from being transmitted. Specifically, it affects how the body reacts to feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress, and it allows the nervous system to better process information.

GABA and Mental Health

If there is a dysregulation in the functioning of GABAergic neurons, it can affect mental health and contribute to a vaiety of psychiatric and neurologic disorders (disorders of the brain and nervous system). A lack of proper GABA activity may play a role in schizophrenia, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and other disorders.

Anxiety Disorders

GABA activity helps you have a healthy response to stress by preventing neurons from sending out messages that would "fire up" the body.

Many things can impact GABA levels, which could contribute to anxiety. For example, research shows that external stressors and early life stressors can directly influence how GABA functions in the body, creating imbalances.


A lack of GABA is associated with problems carrying out normal cognitive functions. This is very important for people who have schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder that causes significant issues with thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

Problems with specific elements of the nervous system, GABA-A receptors, have been associated with features of schizophrenia, including hallucinations and cognitive impairment.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

While the exact cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is still unclear, animal and human studies have found associations between abnormalities in GABA activity and ASD symptoms. There seems to be a relationship between GABA and how a person with autism has limited interests or difficulty with social interaction.

The studies related to autism seem to show that GABA doesn't work alone. An imbalance in this neurotransmitter may affect other neurotransmitters and receptors, or GABA may be affected by them.

Major Depression

Lower levels of GABA in the body have also been associated with major depressive disorder (MDD). This is likely because GABA works in collaboration with other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which is also involved in mood disorders.

Research also suggested that improper GABA functioning may be a factor that contributes to suicide.

GABA and Physical Health

GABA activity plays an important role in several diseases, including neurodegenerative disorders in which the body’s nerve cells break down or die.

 Among these disorders are:

  • Huntington's disease: Reduced levels of GABA in people with Huntington's disease may contribute to dysfunction in the area of the brain that regulates voluntary movement.
  • Epilepsy: A lack of GABA activity is related to excessive nervous system activity during seizures.
  • Parkinson's disease: Rather than too little GABA activity, too much activity may be present with Parkinson's disease. This blocks messages in the movement centers of the brain.

Other disorders related to GABA activity include the following:

  • Pyridoxine deficiency is a rare disease in which pyridoxine (vitamin B6) is not available to synthesize, or form, GABA. A lack of pyridoxine may cause seizures during infancy.
  • Hepatic encephalopathy is a disorder in which liver disease affects brain function. It's associated with high levels of ammonia in the body. This ammonia may bind to GABA receptors and prevent them from functioning correctly.
  • Dystonia is a movement disorder that involves involuntary muscle spasms that are believed to be related to a lack of GABA activity.

GABA and Mental Health

Stress and other factors can affect the development of the nervous system and GABA activity. This can lead to too little GABA, which may play a role in disorders related to brain function and mood, including schizophrenia, autism, depression, and anxiety. GABA activity (too little or too much) is also associated with neurodegenerative diseases.


GABA occurs naturally in the body. In cases where there seems to be a problem with GABA activity, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication. Supplements are also sometimes used to regulate functions controlled by GABA.

How Can I Get GABA Naturally?

Research identifies foods that are dietary sources of GABA. They include broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, certain peas and beans, and oat, wheat, and barley. They also include rice, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and spinach.


Drugs that are used to regulate GABA signaling include:

  • Benzodiazepines: Bind to the GABA-A receptor, resulting in a calming effect
  • Barbiturates: Sedative drugs that increase how long GABA binds to the GABA-A receptor
  • Vigabatrin: Used to prevent the breakdown of GABA, helping to treat certain types of epilepsy
  • Propofol: A sedative commonly used in general anesthesia, which supports GABA functioning
  • Flumazenil: Binds to the GABA-A receptor, it is used to reverse the effects of benzodiazepines and improve mental status in people with hepatic encephalopathy
  • Baclofen: A muscle relaxant that promotes GABA-B binding
  • Valproic acid: Inhibits GABA uptake; acts as a mood stabilizer and anti-epileptic treatment
  • Zolpidem: Works on the GABA-A receptor for a sedative-hypnotic effect
  • Gabapentin: Increases GABA function; is commonly prescribed to treat neuropathic pain

GABA Supplements

GABA is available in non-prescription supplement form. Manufacturers sell natural GABA in pills and capsules at a range of prices, claiming their products can help reduce stress and help you to feel calm and relaxed. It can be sold alone or blended with other substances like melatonin, which promotes sleep. 

There is some question of how much of these supplements actually cross the blood-brain barrier and are ultimately available to the brain.

Are GABA Supplements Safe?

As with many other herbal supplements, pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid taking GABA supplements since there isn't strong research showing it's safe. If you're thinking about taking GABA supplements, talk to your healthcare provider first. 

Risks of Raising GABA Levels

GABA activity and/or production can be affected by alcohol and other drugs. These substances can be abused by people trying to self-medicate.

Alcohol, for example, promotes GABA receptor activity. This can create a temporary feeling of calm and relaxation. But the effect is artificial and risky. You won't get the same effect over time. People may build up a tolerance, which makes the body require more of the substance to achieve the same feeling.

Overdosing or taking multiple GABA-modulating drugs and alcohol can result in respiratory depression (slow breathing) due to increased GABA signaling in the brain stem.

When to Seek Help

While your body's natural production of GABA has many benefits, artificial means of altering GABA activity can potentially lead to serious problems. Abusing certain substances that impact GABA may lead to use disorders and toxicity.

If you're using GABA medication or supplements and other GABA-affecting drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines, talk with your healthcare provider. 

To learn more about substance abuse visit:


There’s still much that’s not understood about GABAergic neurons and GABA activity. It’s clear, though, that mood and mental health are affected by this amino acid. It also plays a role in neurodegenerative diseases and other disorders.

Healthcare providers may be able to prescribe medications to help regulate GABA activity and treat these problems. These drugs need to be properly administered to avoid dependence or abuse.

There’s little research to support the benefits of over-the-counter supplements. They may offer some help, but they also pose a potential threat to your health if you use those supplements with alcohol or some other drugs.

A Word From Verywell 

GABA-modulating drugs can have powerful effects, and can help with people struggling to relax, calm themselves, and sleep. However, many of them carry a risk of abuse, which can create even more problems. Mood and anxiety disorders are complex and require treatment directed by a professional, so speak with a qualified healthcareprovider before taking medication or supplements on your own.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many neurotransmitters are there?

    Although estimates vary, so far scientists have identified over 60 distinct neurotransmitters. These can be divided into three groups based on their function: excitatory neurotransmitters, inhibitory neurotransmitters, and modulatory neurotransmitters.

  • Can you take GABA every day?

    One study showed that taking 120 milligrams of GABA supplement per day for 12 weeks did not cause any serious adverse reactions. It may be safe although its benefits remain unclear. It's also not been determined if it's safe to use during pregnancy. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about its use.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Michelle Pugle
Michelle Pugle, BA, MA, is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of contributing accurate and accessible health news and information to authority websites and print magazines. Her work focuses on lifestyle management, chronic illness, and mental health. Michelle is the author of Ana, Mia & Me: A Memoir From an Anorexic Teen Mind.