Stress is a chronic problem. For many, it’s a fact of modern life, as we juggle jobs, family, finances, and a dozen other commitments. It creeps up on us and gets the better of us all too often. In fact, it’s thought that nearly half of all adults worldwide are struggling with record high levels of stress and anxiety.
What can we do about it?
There are a few things. Lightening the load can help, if you can manage it. Try to shake loose a few commitments. Sleep, exercise, a healthy social life, and even a healthy sex life can all help.
Supplementation can also go a long way to helping you manage your stress and anxiety levels.
Our bodies all make something called GABA – or, to give it its full name, gamma-aminobutyric acid. It’s an amino acid that works as the brain’s foremost inhibitory neurotransmitter. In short, it works in your brain to keep you calm. And whilst we make a certain amount of GABA, it’s a case of the more the merrier, broadly speaking. We can take it in supplement form as a way to help in managing stress levels.
Given the stressful times many of us find ourselves in, we thought it would be a good idea to look into GABA in more detail, alongside some of the best GABA supplements on the market today.
Our Top GABA Alternative
As you will read below, the use of GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid supplementation still has some way to go to be clinically proven. As such, if you are looking for a calming, stress relieving supplement that uses natural top tier ingredients that are clinically backed then we’d suggest taking a look at The Stress Reduction Supplement.
It will help with mood, anxiety, stress and having an overall calming impact that can also improve your sleep.
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an amino acid. As we have seen, it one of the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitters. Up to half of all the neurons in your brain, your central nervous system (CNS) and your peripheral nervous system (PNS) will contain it.
To fully understand what GABA does for you, we need to look a little into the role that neurons play. Essentially, they transmit information through our brains and nervous systems using something called action potential – electric charges that tell individual neurons to open their potassium and sodium channels.
Neurons can be switched between being excitatory (likelier) or inhibitory (less likely) to transmit these actions potentials. GABA is generally responsible for inhibiting neurons. This basically quietens the flow of information through your brain.
This quietening effect can lead to numerous benefits, including allowing for better stress and anxiety management, improved sleep depth, improved circadian rhythms, improved memory, mood, and pain perception, optimized growth hormone output and protein synthesis, improved lipid levels, lower blood pressure, and inhibited proliferation of cancer cells.
Quite often epilepsy can be attributed to low GABA levels in the brain. With too little GABA, your neurons can fire irregularly. In turn, this can lead to seizure.
There isn’t too much that is new in the idea of increasing GABA levels to reduce the effects of various health concerns. In fact, plenty of common current medication exists that is based on it, or that increases the amount your brain makes. This includes diazepam, or Valium; clorazepate, or Tranxene; alprazolam, or Xanax; clonazepam, or Klonopin; vigabatrin, or Sabril; and gabapentin, or Gralise.
Many recreational drugs often affect GABA receptors. This includes alcohol, as well as certain illicit drugs like GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate). This is often in part where the disinhibition associated with getting drunk comes from. Further, if anything has a depressant, sedative effect (like alcohol), this usually stems from its ability to increase your brain’s GABA levels.
GABA & Your Body
There are a few ways in which GABA can affect the human body. We all have GABA receptors in our central nervous systems (CNS, including the brain and spine). We also have them in our peripheral nervous systems (PNS), which are all the nerves found outside the CNS.
We have seen how it can affect the brain, but there is also peripheral GABA that we need to account for. These are areas outside the brain that can be changed by, or that can generate, GABA.
Firstly, your gastrointestinal system, or GI tract, contains GABA receptors. Research indicates that your microbiome – broadly speaking, the bacteria found in your gut and other places – can impact your thinking. It can influence your mood, your cognitive ability, and your behavior. It’s thought that this is largely due to GABA receptor interactions.
In fact, some bacteria, for instance Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains, can produce GABA.
Eating disorders can often be traced in part back to low levels of GABA, including common disorders like anorexia nervosa and binge eating patterns. GABA is thought to possibly work in conjunction with other appetite regulating signals to control satiation and taste perception.
It’s always a good idea to test your gut health using a simple mail order kit if you are worried about your GABA levels, or to test your GABA levels if you are struggling with any kind of eating disorder.
GABA can also affect the metabolite progesterone, a hormone released by the ovaries. Or, rather, progesterone can act on GABA receptors. In general, the more progesterone you release, the greater your GABA functionality – this could help to explain premenstrual dysphoric disorder and PMS.
GABA can also influence human growth hormone (HGH) production and protein synthesis, making it crucial to maintenance and creation of healthy growth and muscle mass. This is partly due to the improved quality of deep sleep granted by GABA, during which your body will generate more HGH. You will have more HGH circulating through your system if you have better quality sleep.
As we have seen, there are a great many health benefits to be gained from optimizing GABA levels, for both the brain and the wider body.
GABA supplements will generally come as some form of ingestible pill, capsule, oil, or powder. When you ingest it, your stomach will break it down into its base form, at which point it will begin to bring the benefits you need from it.
There is some debate as to whether GABA can broach the blood-brain barrier (BBB), however. The BBB is a highly selective physical barrier standing between your blood supply and your CNS. Basically, it keeps things out of your brain that are best kept from your brain, or often that shouldn’t reach your brain.
It’s hard to get past the BBB without a transporter or receptor protein, designed to bring one specific form of molecule into the brain.
If GABA supplements cannot pass the BBB, and we don’t know whether or not it can, then it is unclear how they can work. They may work through the brain, CNS or PNS, or they may not. They may not work at all, or they may work through an entirely different mechanism or set of mechanisms.
More data is needed before we can say for sure.
GABA Quick Verdict
For quality, it’s hard to argue with the experts. If you want the best product, go with the one that researchers consistently use in their studies. Go with Thorne PharmaGABA.
You get to choose between two well-dosed options, safe in the knowledge (or, at least, reasonably safe in the knowledge) that everything is high-quality and well-sourced.
Our Top GABA Supplements
If you are still set on finding a good quality GABA supplement then read on, as we have selected 6 of the best GABA supplements available.
Source Naturals GABA Calm
Source Naturals’ GABA Calm is just about the best GABA lozenge available. This makes it incredibly useful as a convenient, handy way to get in all the GABA you need – simply suck it like a sweet and carry on with your day!
It contains a great many incredibly high-quality ingredients optimized to deliver GABA to your system whilst also enabling optimal use once it’s there. Added extras include l-tyrosine for improved dopamine production and taurine to accentuate the soothing effects inherent to GABA. In short, these two will make you happier and calmer above and beyond what you might expect from increased GABA dosage.
GABA Calm also uses glycine to aid GABA’s role as an extra repressive neurotransmitter, thus boosting the supplement’s overall potency and efficacy.
You can find these lozenges in two lovely flavors, peppermint and orange. You can get packs of 30, 60, and 90 lozenges, depending on your own usage and needs. Each lozenge gives you 125 mg of GABA. This is decent enough, though obviously static – it can be hard to go for higher doses, as it will mean having three or more lozenges in your mouth in one go, or having to suck them constantly throughout the day.
It’s also very reasonably priced, at a little under 20 cents per lozenge, depending on the pack you go for.
If you want your GABA in handy lozenge format, this is the one for you.
Source Naturals GABA Calm Pros
- Two lovely flavors to choose from
- Gives you GABA supporting ingredients alongside the base GABA itself
- Incredibly well-priced for one of the most reasonably GABA offerings going
- You can take it sublingually (under your tongue) for efficient absorption
Source Naturals GABA Calm Cons
- Not suitable for those on MAO inhibitors
- Lozenges aren’t for everyone – they take a while to dissolve and are hard to vary in dose
If lozenges are a no-go because you want an easier way to dose, Frunutta GABA might be the way to go. It’s just about the best GABA source going for those who want to personalize intake with little fuss or stress. It is delicious, using natural cherry flavoring sweetened with stevia and lactose to give you a lovely taste.
As with the lozenges above, it’s best taken sublingually – beneath your tongue. This will allow for faster, more efficient absorption. Alternatively, you can simply swallow it as a pill if you don’t want the fuss – this is how I would be tempted to go with it on a more regular basis.
Do beware the stevia if you’ve not tried it before. It can be pretty intense if you struggle with stomach sensitivity, giving you gastrointestinal or digestive discomfort. However, this is rare – most people will get along absolutely fine with Frunutta GABA.
But what makes it so easy to dose? Well, it’s interesting in that you get tiny, tiny doses of GABA with each tab. Each one only gives you 50 mg. This may sound like a bad thing, but it really isn’t. You can pinpoint how much GABA you want to a multiple of 50 mg and then simply take the appropriate number of tabs. Precise dosing is incredibly easy, even if larger dosing can be a bit of a hassle.
It’s not as reasonably priced as Source Naturals’ GABA Calm. A single, standalone order will set you back just over twenty dollars. This should last about a month, though of course this depends on how many tabs you take each day.
You can save 10% by subscribing. They will deliver new packs at either 45, 60, or 80 day intervals of your choosing.
Frunutta GABA Pros
- You can swallow or dissolve the tabs depending on your preference
- Fantastic for optimal, sublingual absorption
- Easy to dose with each tab coming in tiny increments
- Reasonably priced
- Subscribe and save options available
- Free shipping on all orders over $25
Frunutta GABA Cons
- A little pricey per serving
- Contains lactose
- Stevia isn’t for everyone
- Larger doses can be unwieldy
Nutricost GABA Powder
If you really want fine control over your dosing, no matter how high or low, a good-quality powder may be exactly what you need. And a good-quality powder is exactly what we have here, with just about the safest, most cost-effective option going: Nutricost GABA Powder.
It’s something of a lone wolf on the GABA market. Where other products make a big deal about coming in handy lozenges and pills, Nutricost GABA Powder comes, obviously enough, in powder form. This makes it perfect for those wanting to add a bit of something special to their daily protein shakes, or to anyone looking to precisely measure out something they can simply swill down with ease.
Alternatively, you can mix the powder with a little oil carrier to take it sublingually for best results. The powder itself is near enough tasteless.
It’s also very, very cheap. In fact, a single container costs a little over $20 and gives you a full 1,000 servings! (This means that you get about three years’ servings in one long-lasting pack). It works out at about $0.02 per serving, which is ridiculous, especially when you compare it with some of their closest competitors.
I would recommend using digital scales for precise dosing. The pack itself is designed to be used with a scoop, but this can be pretty inaccurate – you’re essentially eyeballing it. This can mean a little extra fuss compared with some of the powder’s competitors – a powder will always inherently be more inconvenient than a simple tablet or lozenge. However, it can be well worth it for the rock-bottom pricing and the accuracy available.
Nutricost GABA Powder is also amongst the demonstrably safest GABA products on the market. It uses a cGMP-compliant and FDA-registered facility in its manufacturing process. It’s also one of the only GABA products I’ve been able to find that uses third party independent testing from ISO-accredited labs.
If they say it’s safe and high quality, believe them – they have gone far out of their way to prove it.
Nutricost GABA Powder Pros
- Very well-priced without sacrificing quality
- Easy to customize with accurate dosing
- About three years’ worth of product in each container
- Third-party tested
- Made in a cGMP-compliant, FDA-registered facility
Nutricost GABA Powder Cons
- Powder is inconvenient and hard to measure out properly
NOW GABA Capsules
NOW’s GABA Capsules are just about the most cost effective way I’ve been able to find for taking pre-measured doses. Their product is decent quality, each capsule gives you a very generous 500 mg of GABA with no fuss, with a lovely addition in there for making the whole experience far more optimal. Each capsule gives you 2 mg of vitamin B6 to aid your body’s natural GABA production.
You do get some fillers with NOW GABA Capsules. This isn’t too horrific – there is nothing sinister in there. It’s just rice flour, stearic acid, and silicon dioxide. None of these are in any way detrimental, but you should know going in that this isn’t a pure GABA product.
Let’s talk pricing, which is where these capsules really take off. Each capsule is well portioned and costs you a little over 10 cents per day – you can get 100 capsules for around thirteen dollars or 200 capsules for about twenty-five dollars.
NOW GABA Capsules Pros
- Added vitamin B6 for improved natural GABA output
- Very cost effective
- Comes in generous containers of 100 to 200 capsules
NOW GABA Capsules Cons
- A little too much filler included
- High dose with no way to alter
Pure Encapsulations GABA
Let’s bring out the big guns, now, with one of the strongest GABA supplements I would recommend. We’re talking about Pure Encapsulations GABA, a real monster of a supplement that is perfect for anybody looking to overcome really chronic, out of hand stress levels.
Each serving is dosed at an incredibly high 700 mg. This should be more than enough GABA for your needs (though it may also be too much – do remember to always check with your healthcare provider before starting a new supplement).
You also get vitamin C, as ascorbyl palmitate. This is an odd inclusion, one about which I was initially really quite skeptical. However, there is sound reasoning behind it.
Pure Encapsulations claim that it increases GABA’s absorption. This may or may not be true – we really don’t know enough about GABA’s absorption to be sure about this. However, it does bring about a good secondary effect.
Chronic stress depletes your immune health. It leaves you wide open to infection and disease. Vitamin C, meanwhile, boosts your immune health. If you find yourself getting frequently ill because of your stress levels, this might be just what you need.
It’s a good idea in theory. However, Pure Encapsulation don’t list how much vitamin C you get in every serving. It can’t be a lot, though, meaning that it’s a little useless on its own. If immune function and vitamin C deficiency are a concern, you will likely need to seek extra sources.
It’s priced in the middle of things, at around twenty-five to thirty cents a go, and you can order batches of 60 or 120 capsules. This is also very reasonable on a cent per mg of GABA basis. It’s not the best product on this list. It is the strongest, though, so if you need to go big, it’s the one for you.
Pure Encapsulations GABA Pros
- Very strong GABA profile
- Cost-effective for those needing higher doses
- No fillers or added anything
- Vitamin C included
Pure Encapsulations GABA Cons
- Unsure on vitamin C levels
- May be too strong for most people
Let’s end on a high note – a very high note, in fact, with just about the best overall GABA supplement going – Thorne PharmaGABA.
It’s generally the go-to GABA supplement for researchers, forming something akin to a gold standard for the sector.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, and most importantly to me, is the high-quality scientific rigor with which Thorne operate. They use and cite some of the most cutting-edge scientific research in every step of their design and manufacturing process.
Secondly, it’s just about the purest GABA supplement going. In fact, it’s hard to get anything purer, because there is nothing in their capsules that you don’t want to be there – no additives, no gluten, no dairy, no soy. They only put GABA and a little magnesium citrate and calcium laurate (for texture and anti-clumping) in their product.
They could be a little clearer on their testing process. This is an area I diverge from them a bit over. I like clarity. I think the consumer deserves it. We can see that Thorne are partnered with some top research groups (the Mayo Clinic, the Hypertension Institute, and so on) and that they have tested PharmaGABA in several studies, many of which are third party. Hence, we can infer good practice. However, there is nothing in any of their literature suggesting that the end results have been third-party quality tested.
This seems like an odd oversight for an otherwise near-perfect product.
If you’re a trusting person, they offer one of the best GABA products going, if not the best. However, peace of mind may be harder to come by.
You do get a good couple of options for the capsules, with two different strength doses on offer. You can go for PharmaGABA-100 or PharmaGABA-250, which dose at 100 mg and 250 mg respectively, for around thirty or fifty dollars respectively. You get 60 capsules in each, either way.
Thorne PharmaGABA Pros
- Comes in two different, well-dosed strengths
- Preferred by researchers for scientific studies
- Ingredient sourcing and dosing is fully transparent
- No additives or fillers
Thorne PharmaGABA Cons
- Third-party testing is unclear
- Quite expensive
There are two frontrunners for me. Though everything on this list is good quality, and the different forms will appeal to different people depending on preference and need, there are two that take the top spot. I can’t really choose between them.
It comes down to quality and price.
For quality, it’s hard to argue with the experts. If you want the best product, go with the one that researchers consistently use in their studies. Go with Thorne PharmaGABA. You get to choose between two well-dosed options, safe in the knowledge (or, at least, reasonably safe in the knowledge) that everything is high-quality and well-sourced.
But then there is price. How can you justify going for anything else on this list when you can get an incredibly good, highly usable product for often a tenth of the price of its competitors? Why, in other words, would you not go with Nutricost GABA Powder?
I love it. The powder is good quality, if a little awkward to use. And it costs meagre cents per serving. You can pay for three years’ supply what other products would charge you for a single month’s.
If you don’t mind the hassle involved with powder – or, indeed, if it appeals to you, as it does me – go with Nutricost GABA Powder. It’s too good and too well-priced to turn down.
If you want a capsule, pre-measured and well-made, I suggest Thorne PharmaGABA.
GABA Safety Concerns
GABA supplements are safe on the whole, at least according to both the FDA and the USP (the United States Pharmacopeia, a guide to all drugs and pharmaceuticals you will ever come across). This is good enough for me. These two bodies are stringent, fair, and largely open. If they label something as safe, it is generally safe, unless you’re being really cynical about things.
However, there are no clear, definitive guidelines on safe dosing. We don’t really know what safe dosing looks like for different people. There is also some conflicting information here. For example, the FDA claims that up to 750 mg of pharma-GABA created from Lactobacillus is safe for ingestion, whilst USP recommends a daily limit of 125 mg for up to three months. Most of the scientific literature on GABA use 100-125 mg daily. No overdose symptoms have been found in doses up to 18kg over a four day period.
Most supplements fall within this range. Certainly, those in the list below do, or are at least designed to be taken at these dosages. We really don’t know what dose will work best for any individual. Therefore, I would suggest going with lower dose products or easily modified supplements in the early days as you figure out what works for you.
Take multiple small dose capsules or use a powder that you can measure out under your own control in the early days (see below for options).
Taking GABA: A Warning
You shouldn’t take GABA if you’re on any form of medication or recreational drug that changes your GABA output, unless you do so under your healthcare provider’s supervision and with their consent. It is likely a bad idea to take GABA supplements even if you just like a regular alcoholic drink.
Your brain can suffer from your GABA levels being thrown out of kilter. A surplus or deficit can be highly damaging to your health. It can lead to hypersomnia, or daytime drowsiness and lethargy, as well as high blood pressure and acute stress. It can also cause strokes and seizures; in some cases, it can shut off oxygen supply to your body’s cells, eventually leading to death.
Your brain is also highly adaptable to GABA levels; it will stop making it naturally if you take in too much from an exogenous source.
If you want to use GABA supplements to help combat stress, you should do so under your healthcare provider’s supervision. Ideally, you should seek the advice of a psychiatrist or similar medical provider.
You should not take GABA supplements if you often ingest alcohol, as mentioned above, or if you’re on any kind of anxiety or epilepsy medication, as you will be compounding their effects in unsafe ways. If you take party drugs with a depressive element like GHB you should also forego GABA (though, for the sake of your health, you may instead want to consider foregoing the GHB).
What Is GABA Made From?
Naturally occurring GABA within your body is made using vitamin B6 and glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter. However, it can also be made outside the body, hence the existence of exogenous GABA supplements.
In fact, you can take in plenty of dietary GABA (around 80-120mg per day on average) from common foods. Fermented foodstuffs are amongst the best sources of dietary GABA. GABA is something of a by-product from foods fermented using Lactobacillus bacteria, a probiotic genus that creates plenty of GABA as a form of defense in highly acidic environments.
Hence, possibly, GABA is found in such high quantities inside the gut – it is a highly acidic environment with plenty of lactobacillus forming a solid baseline of common GI bacteria. Non-pickled, fermented foods such as yoghurt, cheese, kefir, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, tempeh and cocoa are all great sources, as is valerian, which you’ll often find in some of the more calming types of tea.
This article was written by: Isobel Davies – SOMA Mental Health & Wellness Editor
Isobel has been an advocate for mental health and mental wellness for the best part of a decade. She uses nootropics (on and off) to support her cognitive functioning and combines this with yoga and meditation to bring a state of calmness to her life.
Away from work, she is a keen pianist and home baker. She has a young family that she adores.