What Is GABA?

A neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid, a type of chemical in your body that's important for keeping you healthy and keeping your body systems functioning properly. GABA’s main job is to work as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it blocks messages sent between the nerve cells and the brain or spinal cord. 

Specifically, GABA blocks certain nerve signals in the brain to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress. Without the right level of GABA in the body, conditions such as anxiety disorders may become worse.

This article explains what GABA is, 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.

NMDA, AMPA and GABA receptors
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What Is GABA?

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the nervous system. Messages travel along the nervous systems 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.

As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA blocks certain nerve transmission, or messages. It works by preventing 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.

GABA stops messages related to extreme moods. 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.

The Difference Between Types of Neurotransmitters

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

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

Functions

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.

Recap

GABA is an amino acid that helps regulate your 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.

Role of GABA in Mental Health

If GABA isn't released properly by GABAergic neurons, it can affect mental health and contribute to neurodevelopmental 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.

Schizophrenia

A lack of GABA is associated with problems carrying out normal mental functions. This is known as cognitive deficits. This is very important for people who have schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder that causes issues with proper thinking 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 other 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.

How GABA Influences Physical Health

Proper 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 the vitamin pyridoxine 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.

Recap

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. Studies show a connection between a lack of the amino acid and schizophrenia, autism, depression, and anxiety. 

GABA activity (too little or too much) is also associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Other illnesses may be caused by the body not properly making GABA or other substances getting in the way of it functioning properly.

Treatment

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

Medications

Drugs that are used to regulate GABA signaling include:

  • Benzodiazepines: Bind to the GABA-A receptor, increasing the 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 treat certain types of epilepsy
  • Propofol: A sedative commonly used in general anesthesia, it supports GABA functioning
  • Flumazenil: Binds to the GABA-A receptor, improves 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 synthesis; is commonly prescribed to treat neuropathic pain

Supplements

GABA is also 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 feel calm and relaxed. It can be sold alone or blended with other substances like melatonin, which promotes sleep. 

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 doctor first. 

Risks

Alcohol and other drugs can affect GABA production or activity. 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 (for example, taking GABA supplements and drinking 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 lead to serious problems. Abusing certain substances may lead to toxicity.

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

To learn more about substance abuse visit:

Summary

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. Doctors 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 great threat to your health if you use those supplements with alcohol or some other drugs.

A Word From Verywell 

Talk to your doctor if you're experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression before self-treating with over-the-counter. Mood and anxiety disorders are complex and require professionally directed treatment.

GABA-modulating drugs can have a powerful pull for people struggling to relax, calm themselves, and sleep. But they carry a high risk of abuse, which can create even more problems. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use issues or abuse, seeking professional treatment sooner rather than later can help minimize the negative effects.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many neurotransmitters are there?

    So far, scientists have identified over 60 distinct neurotransmitters. These are divided into three groups based on their function: excitatory neurotransmitters, inhibitory neurotransmitters, and modulatory neurotransmitters.

  • How does GABA deficiency affect someone?

    A deficiency in GABA activity can contribute to certain mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and depression. It's also involved in some physical conditions, including Huntington's disease, dystonia, and muscle spasticity.

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