Do GABA supplements really help with Anxiety?

Do GABA supplements really help with Anxiety?

Do GABA supplements really help with Anxiety?

If you’ve looked into dietary supplements that may help with anxiety or stress relief, chances are that you have come across GABA (Gamma AminoButyric Acid).  We’re going to explore what this mouthful of an ingredient is, how the body uses it in its natural processes and what to look for when evaluating GABA supplements.


What is GABA? 

Gamma AminoButyric Acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter attaching to proteins called GABA receptors.  When GABA is present and binds to these receptors, it produces a calming effect (Medical News Today).

We have all heard of the “fight or flight” response of the brain.  Simply put, this is your body’s natural response to being put in an extremely stressful situation.  You may experience this right before a car accident, when an animal jumps out at you or any number of other frightening situations.  These events immediately trigger an area of the brain, the amygdala, to send a signal to another area of the brain, the hypothalamus.  The hypothalamus then immediately triggers your whole body to get ready for an intense event.  For most people, this causes a spike in adrenaline, an elevated heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, increased breathing rate and dilation of your pupils.  It’s believed that our body has evolved this way to increase our chances of survival in life or death situations.  The portion of our nervous system responsible for this process is called our sympathetic nervous system (Harvard Health).

After your body is done dealing with the threat, it needs to be able to calm down.  This is up to our body’s parasympathetic nervous system.  It helps slow down all of the processes that were triggered by the fight or flight response.  A key part of this process is GABA (Front Neuroscience). 


How is GABA produced?


Both exercise and diet increase GABA in the brain. GABA is produced naturally in your brain from glutamate, an amino acid that is produced in the body and also occurs naturally in many foods. You can increase your brain’s GABA levels by eating the following foods:


  • Cheese
  • Slow-cooked meats
  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes
  • Soy 
  • Eggs

The consumption of glutamate has been widely debated. At high concentrations, glutamate can overexcite nerve cells causing them to die (EveryDay Health). A low glutamate intake, however, has been linked to depression and other health conditions since glutamate is necessary for creating GABA in the brain. 


Many people take GABA supplements to attempt to add to the calming effect of what the body produces naturally.


What is a GABA Supplement?


Now it is easy to see why you constantly see supplement companies out there selling GABA as a supplement.  If GABA is part of the brain’s normal process to calm itself during these times of fight or flight response, taking it as a supplement must help produce a calming effect too, right?  Well, sort of.  Like many things in life, it’s not that simple.  The fight or flight response is often linked to clinical conditions involving anxiety, however, getting GABA to the brain isn’t as simple as just swallowing any old GABA pills (WebMD).

Your nervous system has another really important trick up its sleeve, the Blood Brain Barrier.  Think of this as a wall that keeps bacteria, fungi, viruses and other toxins from passing from our blood into our brain and nervous system.  OK, that’s cool but what’s it got to do with GABA?  Well, multiple studies have shown that little, if any, of synthetic GABA supplements can cross the Blood Brain Barrier (Journal of Hepatology).  So when you take synthetic GABA supplements, most of it is unlikely to make its way into your nervous system where it’s needed to produce its calming effect.  Additionally, these synthetic forms of GABA are produced using several toxic substances such as succinimide, piperylurethan and fuming nitric acid, N-(β-bromoethyl) phthalimide and sodiomalonic ester, and γ-chlorobutyronitrile and potassium phthalimide (Utzy.com).  Given all of this, we strongly recommend against using any generic forms of GABA to help provide anxiety and stress relief.

However, one leading food ingredient company, Pharma Food Ingredients® developed a unique and natural version of GABA, called PharmaGABA®.  This form of GABA is developed via fermentation mirroring the body’s own process using a probiotic often used to ferment vegetables, cheese, wine and other foods.  This natural form has undergone eight clinical trials showcasing its effectiveness on providing stress relief at specific dosage levels.  These trials measured brain wave patterns, pupil dilation, heart rate as well as cortisol.  In a double-blind study against synthetic GABA, it was shown that the synthetic form did not have the same stress relief benefits suggesting the generic form.  Definitely my favorite of the studies involved having subjects who had acrophobia (fear of heights) walk across a suspension bridge spanning a 150 foot canyon.  Halfway across, saliva samples were taken to measure their IgA levels (an antibody in saliva that drops during levels of stress.)  In the cases where a placebo was given, the drop in IgA levels was observed, however, in the cases where the subjects had been given PharmaGABA, their levels were the same on average at the halfway point (Bioclinic Naturals).  

In addition to helping reduce anxiety, a 2014 study showed that PharmaGABA can help people get to sleep faster and have longer and more restful sleep.  The clinical trial participants also reported a higher quality of sleep (Sleep Review).  This finding is especially helpful for those seeking additional help falling asleep as PharmaGABA doesn’t typically cause feelings of drowsiness, allowing it be taken at night or during the day.

Choosing the Right GABA Supplement


In short, there are many GABA supplements out on the market, however, you should only invest in those using a trademarked and clinically studied natural form such as PharmaGABA if you are looking for a supplement that has been clinically studied to be effective at reducing anxiety.  Only these supplements contain a form of GABA that has been clinically tested, is GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) and shown to be effective.  

In addition, you should always look for supplements that include at least 100mg of delivered GABA per dose to ensure you’re getting the clinically studied amount of the ingredient.  At Virtue, our Anxiety + Stress Relief formula includes 100mg in each serving to ensure you get the highest quality, clinically studied and correctly dosed GABA on the market.
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