GABA supplements: why this ‘natural cure’ for anxiety and poor sleep is a bad idea



Anxiety and poor sleep are some of the most common issues reported by individuals that seek out my services. While there can be many underlying reasons for these issues, I have seen an increase in the number of people asking me about GABA or who come to me with this item already in their supplement list.

GABA stands for gamma-amino-butyric acid. It is a one of the eight major neurotransmitters and elicits its effects by binding with the GABA receptor (which can be sub-divided into GABA-A and GABA-B receptors, and sub-divided further between these two major, and is responsible for a calming, sleep-inducing effect.

It may come as no surprise that benzodiazepine drugs (Xanax, Valium, etc) work by attaching to the GABA receptor. They reliably induced a calming response and are therefore prescribed for anxiety, palpitations and insomnia. There is only one problem; the body soon adjusts to their presence and downregulates the GABA receptor. The consequence: benzodiazepine dependence. This is characterized by a continual need for these drugs just to feel normal, with withdrawal symptoms appearing quickly whenever the victim tries to stop them.

For this reason, people have understandably looked to other options to help them deal with symptoms. GABA supplements represent one such option. Hailed as the ‘natural Valium’, many individuals have embraced the product and rave about the positive impacts that they bring.

There’s just one problem: GABA supplements don’t work. Theoretically, at least.

GABA is one of the most active neurotransmitters in the brain, but the GABA molecule is just too large to cross the blood-brain barrier. This means that none of the actually GABA will cross the blood-brain barrier if it is taken in supplement form unless the individual concerned has a dysfunctional blood-brain barrier. It is only when this barrier is breached, or the barrier starts to let in bigger molecules than it should, that GABA can actually get into the brain and have an effect.

This is why most people will notice nothing from these supplements (take-home tip: if you are not sure if GABA is having an effect on you, it’s not).

Only those with compromised integrity at the blood-brain barrier will feel a calming response. Does this mean that those with a ‘leaky’ barrier should make use of GABA supplements? No. Because, just like Valium or Xanax, continual use of GABA supplements will downregulate the GABA receptor in exactly the same way. And cause dependence in exactly the same way.

Those with a ‘leaky’ blood-brain barrier should instead understand that their responses to the GABA supplements are much more than an anomaly. This is a sign of a serious health issue. A dysfunctional blood-brain barrier means that all sorts of proteins and allergens can now enter the brain unrestricted. Inflammation in the result. Inflammation in the brain reliably disturbs the transmission of signals, meaning that each neurotransmitter will be unable to express itself; and yes, this includes GABA!

This is why, if you respond to GABA, then you should immediately look at taking steps to rehab the conditions in the central nervous system (this can be done with glutamine, glutathione precursors and attention given to the levels of testosterone/estrogen). The only sensible use of GABA supplements remains a diagnostic tool to determine the integrity of the blood-brain barrier. Meanwhile, anyone using GABA as an anti-anxiety measure needs their head looking at… just not in the way they might think ;)