By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated June 22, 2012)
People who suffer from panic disorder often have dysfunctional gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) systems (Lydiard, 2003; Nemeroff, 2003). This indicates that GABA plays a role in anxiety, and that increasing GABA may provide some benefits for anxiety sufferers.
How GABA Works to Reduce Anxiety
According to a well-researched article provided by the Denver Naturopathic Clinic (n.d.), the neurotransmitter glutamate sends a signal that encourages a nerve cell to fire off a nerve impulse, but GABA counterbalances its influence by sending a cease-fire signal. Without sufficient GABA, “nerve cells fire too often and too easily,” which can contribute to panic attacks, as well as headaches, seizure disorders, and other problems. Caffeine suppresses GABA release, which is why it can trigger panic attacks, whereas tranquilizing medications either mimic or increase GABA’s calming effect.
The Denver Naturopathic Clinic notes that there is disagreement as to whether oral GABA supplements will cross the blood brain barrier (which the author describes as a “biologic firewall between the body’s general blood circulation and the blood circulation that supplies the brain.”). Although many medical experts believe that it cannot get through, “studies on Human Growth Hormone suggest that it can” (Denver Naturopathic Clinic, n.d.).
GABA Supplements for Anxiety
Product reviews for GABA supplements suggest mixed results, with some people citing significant benefits and others achieving no effect. However, the positive reviews appear to outweigh the negative reviews overall.
Head and Kelly (2009) report on the results of several studies supporting GABA’s anti-anxiety effects. In one, natural-source GABA (PharmaGABA) reduced various anxiety indicators including heart rate, salivary cortisol, and pupil dilation, as well as changing brain wave patterns to a more relaxed state. Another study in which subjects who were afraid of heights crossed a suspension bridge after taking PharmaGABA also found that GABA reduced stress markers. Other studies have shown that GABA may improve sleep as well.
If considering supplements, check with a doctor first. Supplements can cause side effects, interact with some medications, and be contraindicated for certain medical conditions.
Natural Ways to Increase GABA
There are many natural ways to increase GABA, such as regular yoga practice (Head & Kelly, 2009) and eating certain foods. According to Dr. Eric Braverman (2005), top GABA-boosting foods include:
- Whole wheat
- Beef liver
- Rice bran
- Brown rice
- Citrus fruits
Taking valerian supplements may also increase GABA, and there is evidence suggesting that magnesium and green, black, and oolong teas may increase GABA as well (Denver Naturopathic Clinic, n.d.), though drinking too much strong tea will increase caffeine intake, which can have the opposite effect.
Other Natural Anxiety Remedies
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical or psychiatric advice. Medical concerns should be referred to a qualified doctor.
- Braverman, E.R., MD. (2005). The Edge Effect: Achieve Total Health and Longevity with the Balanced Brain Advantage. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Co.
- Denver Naturopathic Clinic. (n.d.). “GABA: Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid.” DenverNaturopathic.com.
- Head, K.A., ND, & Kelly, G.S., ND. (2009). “Nutrients and Botanicals for Treatment of Stress: Adrenal Fatigue, Neurotransmitter Imbalance, Anxiety, and Restless Sleep.” Alternative Medicine Review, 14(2), 116-140).
- Lydiard, R.B. (2003). “The Role of GABA in Anxiety Disorders.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 64(Suppl. 3), 21-27.
- Nemeroff, C.B. (2003). “The Role of GABA in the Pathophysiology and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.” Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 37(4): 133–146.