Get rid of your Valium. Throw out your sleeping pills. If you’re a worrywart and/or lose sleep because your thoughts spin out of control, then you’ll want to know about gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Low levels of this brain chemical are associated with anxiety, depression and insomnia. But there are natural ways to boost your GABA levels. Holly Lucille, ND, RN, who practices naturopathic medicine in Los Angeles, explains how…

GABA is a neurotransmitter—and one of its main jobs is to hinder the transmission of impulses from one neuron to another. GABA actually can turn down the volume of activity in the emotional center of the brain and balance other excitatory neurotransmitters. When we don’t have enough GABA, nerve cells fire too often and too easily. We experience this as anxiety and depression. During calming activities, such as deep breathing or yoga, neurons release GABA, which attaches to receptor sites and tells cells not to fire.


For patients who complain of chronic stress and anxiety and for those who can’t seem to settle down, naturopathic doctors often recommend GABA in supplement form. Most conventional medical doctors are not as sure about the ability of supplemental GABA to ease anxiety. While there are no definitive studies showing its effectiveness and it is unclear how GABA works in the body, supplemental GABA has been shown to produce a calming effect. In one Japanese study, researchers found that study participants who took a GABA supplement had a significantly greater increase in alpha brain waves (associated with relaxation) and a decrease in beta brain waves (associated with brain arousal and thoughts spinning out of control) than those who received a placebo. The study also found that subjects with a fear of heights who took a GABA supplement had significantly higher levels of immunoglobulin A (a component of the immune system) while crossing a suspension bridge than those who took a placebo, suggesting that GABA can help reduce the harmful effects of stress on immunity.

It is recommended that people take GABA while supervised by a naturopathic doctor. It is not recommended that you take GABA if you already take an antidepressant or if you have attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder. Patients who are prone to nervousness usually take GABA daily to help ease their anxiety (not just when they feel anxious). You can speak to your doctor about how much GABA to take, but it is often recommended that users take a small amount, starting with about 250 mg daily.

Since GABA has a calming effect, it is not recommended for anyone who needs to be alert while driving or operating machinery. Side effects may include a tingling sensation anywhere on the body, which dissipates quickly. In some cases, GABA can cause anxiety at higher doses, such as at 750 mg.