GABA is one of the key neurotransmitters that help to help reduce anxiety, among providing other benefits.
But, how can you increase GABA naturally? Are there foods high in GABA that can boost GABA levels or GABA activity in the brain?
In this article, we will discuss how to increase GABA naturally, including foods high in GABA and other lifestyle modifications that can potentially increase GABA naturally.
More specifically, we will cover the following:
- What Is GABA?
- Benefits of Increasing GABA Levels
- Medications to Increase GABA
- How to Increase GABA Naturally
Let’s dive in!
What Is GABA?
Before we cover how to increase GABA naturally and specific GABA foods, it’s helpful to briefly discuss what GABA is, the benefits of GABA, and why you might want to increase GABA levels.
GABA refers to Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid.
It is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms down or slows down the nervous system, helping to reduce anxiety and improve mood by preventing the transmission of certain signals that would otherwise excite the fight-or-flight response or ramp up feelings of anxiety.
For this reason, the potential benefits of increasing GABA include decreasing anxiety, supporting an upbeat mood, lowering blood pressure, and preventing muscle spasms.
The human body naturally produces GABA, but there are also medications, supplements, and foods that contain GABA or increase the production of GABA.
The reason that there are some foods with GABA is that GABA is also present in certain animals, plants, and other microorganisms that we may consume.
Benefits of Increasing GABA Levels
GABA is one of the neurotransmitters that has been studied in depth by researchers.
This research has elucidated various benefits of GABA, which has since been described as a bioactive agent, meaning that it can influence the activity and reactions in the body.
Researchers from one recent study on the benefits of GABA found that this neurotransmitter may provide the following benefits in the human body:
- Supporting mood and decreasing the symptoms or likelihood of depression
- Aiding sleep or acting as a natural sedative
- Reducing blood pressure
- Improving the function of the immune system
- Reducing the risk of cancer
- Reducing the risk of diabetes
Another review that aimed to examine GABA benefits found that GABA displays antioxidant, anti-microbial, and anti-seizure properties.
As such, GABA may help treat and prevent chronic conditions such as diabetes.
The sedative properties of this neurotransmitter may be helpful in managing insomnia, and because GABA can reduce blood pressure, boosting GABA levels can be particularly helpful for people with hypertension.
Medications to Increase GABA
Because there are a number of important benefits of GABA, many people are interested in how to increase GABA levels in the body.
There are pharmaceutical ways to increase the production or action of GABA in the body.
For example, the medication gabapentin, which is used to help manage nerve pain, has been shown to enhance the action of GABA in the body rather than necessarily increasing the production of GABA or being a direct GABA supplement.
Other medications that may boost the action of GABA in the human body include benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax, which are medications typically used to treat anxiety, agitation, and sometimes even seizures and muscle spasms.
Indeed, some studies have found that people who suffer from depression may have naturally lower levels of GABA. Taking benzodiazepines, in such scenarios, has been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression by enhancing the action of whatever concentration of GABA is present.
Baclofen is another medication that may enhance the action of natural GABA. This medication is often given to treat narcolepsy, which is a sleep disorder, or Baclofen may be given for muscle spasms.
Lastly, another medication thought to boost GABA function rather than increasing levels of GABA or being a direct GABA supplement is Valproate. This medication is often used to stabilize the mood or prevent seizures.
How to Increase GABA Naturally
While there is nothing inherently wrong with taking medications to support GABA function in the body, some people are more interested in how to increase GABA naturally without using prescription medication.
The following are ways to do so:
#1: Consume Foods High In GABA
There are certain “GABA foods“ or foods high in GABA that may help supplement or elevate the levels of GABA in your body.
Some of the best GABA foods include fermented foods such as kimchi, tempeh, sourdough bread, sake, fermented fish, fermented buffalo milk, fermented cassava, mulberry beer, yogurt sake, fermented durian (an Asian fruit), and Zlatar cheese.
Although foods highest in GABA tend to be fermented foods, there are other foods that contain GABA that are often more commonly consumed in the typical Western diet.
Examples of other foods that researchers have determined contain GABA include the following:
- Adzuki beans and soybeans
- Peas and lentils
- Broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables
- Sweet potatoes
- Shitake mushrooms
- Mature green tomatoes (not red tomatoes that aren’t ripe yet)
- Walnuts and almonds
- Wheat and barley
- Brown and red rice
- White tea, green tea, and red tea
#2: Take Natural GABA Supplements
Another potentially effective approach for how to increase GABA naturally is to consider taking GABA supplements.
However, to date, there is not a substantial body of evidence that necessarily concludes that GABA supplements are indeed effective at increasing GABA levels in the human body.
More research will be needed to conclusively determine that GABA supplements can increase levels of GABA significantly.
With that said, there is anecdotal evidence that natural supplements to boost GABA can be helpful in relieving stress and anxiety, improving sleep, and lowering blood pressure.
GABA supplements differ from medications used to increase GABA in the fact that they do not require a prescription and are typically natural in derivation.
Most supplements that boost GABA are manufactured by fermenting a form of lactic acid bacteria.
Lactic acid bacteria are beneficial microorganisms that are naturally present in certain fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir.
Most GABA supplements are pills or capsules that you swallow, but certain supplements to increase GABA are sold as a powder that can be added to foods such as yogurt or applesauce.
Due to the lack of scientific evidence demonstrating the utility of natural supplements to increase GABA, as well as the lack of strict federal regulations governing natural supplements in general, if you are interested in how to increase GABA naturally through supplements, it is advisable to speak with your healthcare provider before doing so.
This is a particularly important precaution for anyone who has a condition or diagnosis in which increasing GABA may be relatively crucial to physical or mental health and well-being, such as depression, anxiety, hypertension, insomnia, or a seizure disorder.
The primary concern about the effectiveness of natural GABA supplements is less about a worry that these supplements are harmful, but rather that some experts believe that GABA supplements are unable to actually cross the blood-brain barrier, which would be a necessary step in order to exert effective bioactive activity.
These experts tend to argue that the demonstrated benefits of GABA supplements are likely due to the placebo effect rather than physiological alterations in GABA levels for GABA activity in the brain.
With that said some studies have indeed found that taking natural GABA supplements can cause demonstrable improvements in brain function, stress and anxiety, and even muscle growth.
For example, one small study found that taking a GABA supplement (800 mg per day) improved task performance abilities and thinking skills.
An older study found that subjects taking a significantly lower dose of GABA (100 mg per day) experienced lower levels of stress, particularly during mental tasks.
Perhaps most interesting for those who spend time strength training and working out, one small study found that taking GABA supplements increased levels of growth hormone and supported muscle growth.
In this study, healthy male subjects were either given just a whey protein supplement or the way protein plus GABA supplement once a day for 12 weeks while following an exercise protocol that involved performing two strength training workouts per week.
Results indicated that those who took the GABA supplement along with the whey protein powder experienced higher levels of growth hormone and significantly greater increases in fat-free mass (muscle hypertrophy) than the subjects who only took the whey protein supplements.
Although this study only included 21 subjects, it certainly presents interesting information that may point to the potential for GABA supplements to be useful as an ergogenic aid for muscle growth.
Larger, more robust research studies will be necessary in order to corroborate or further examine this potential benefit of GABA supplements.
Lastly, physical activity may increase GABA naturally. For example, studies have found that yoga may reduce anxiety and boost GABA production.
To learn more about naturally boosting neurotransmitters that promote happiness, check out our guide about increasing serotonin and other “happy hormones” here.