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Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a calming neurotransmitter in the brain, critical for relaxation, reducing stress and anxiety, and most of all, encouraging restfulness by making you feel sleepy at night.
GABA is one of the most widely used supplements for helping people overcome stress and sleep-related issues. And while supplements are easy to come by (Trader Joe's even has their own GABA supplement), there's something most products won't tell you...
...You shouldn’t take GABA on its own, otherwise it won’t work!
Today we're going to put this topic to bed and explain why GABA supplements may not be all that they seem. Read on to learn why GABA is the brain's most important calming neurotransmitter, and learn the few key steps to take to make your GABA supplement more effective.
What is GABA?
GABA was discovered in 1950 and has since been recognized as the dominant inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. There are excitatory neurotransmitters as well, like adrenaline, which, in excess, can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness. 
The brain balances these effects by sending out other neurotransmitters that have calming effects, such as GABA. By inhibiting the action of excitatory neurotransmitters and reducing anxiety and restlessness, GABA promotes relaxation and sleepiness, and thus, as a supplement, can be a fantastic aid for people who suffer from insomnia and anxiety.
Related: GABA: The Brain's Downer
To understand how GABA influences a person’s sleeping patterns, it’s important that you understand the standard cycle that the brain undergoes each night during sleep. The following is an overview of the different sleep stages.
Stage 1 is when you’re getting sleepy and are ready to drift off.
Stage 2 - Your brainwave activity quickens and follows a steadier rhythm. Your core temperature and heart rate decrease.
Stage 3 sees the emergence of deeper, slower brain waves. Here, you switch from light sleep to deep sleep.
Stage 4 is the deep sleep stage, also known as delta sleep. This is a vitally important stage because it’s where much of the highest-quality sleep occurs.
- Stage 5 is the REM (rapid-eye movement) stage, where most dreams occur.
The third and fourth stage are arguably the most important. Stage three, the slow-wave sleep stage, is important because it reduces the level of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body, and simultaneously reduces inflammation. Both of these are important for improving your nightly sleep.
The fourth stage, deep sleep, is important because it helps your immune system grow stronger. In a similar manner that your brain commits things to memory, your immune system “memorizes” pathogens and viruses to memory during this phase. 
Infographic courtesy of https://blog.hubspot.com/
Getting a proper sleep cycle each night is crucial for optimal health, and the brain’s GABA system is primarily responsible for activating each stage. Activated GABA receptors---which require a source of GABA to actually be activated---promote quality sleep, especially in stages three and four.
Conversely, low GABA levels prevent healthy sleep. People with GABA deficiency are known to have a hard time getting a full night’s rest and often wake up during the night. This prevents them from ever reaching stages three, four, and five, thus preventing them from getting the rest they need. 
What About Sleep Aids?
Drugs like benzodiazepines (Ativan, Klonopin, Xanax) work on the GABA receptors and are widely respected as fantastic medicines for people suffering from insomnia---however, they are also known for being seriously addictive, and they can cause long-term dependency.
So what should someone do if they simply aren’t able to produce enough GABA to help ease them into a restful night’s sleep, but they don’t want to risk taking addictive medication? They could start using GABA supplements to boost the levels of GABA available to the brain.
Why is GABA Ineffective?
In order for your GABA supplement to be effective, it has to make it to your brain.
Now here's the problem: GABA is known as a self-inhibiting compound, which means that it breaks down before it’s able to exert any effects on the brain or central nervous system. 
The blood-brain barrier determines what’s allowed to flow from the brain into the blood and vice versa. GABA is broken down by the digestive tract so quickly that even high doses it doesn’t get a chance to pass through the blood-brain barrier.  The blood-brain barrier is mostly for preventing toxins from entering the brain, but in this case, it’s preventing the admission of a neurotransmitter that the brain is already supposed to be producing on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, supplement companies that sell GABA don’t always make note of the fact that it only works in combination with the right substances. It’s most effective when taken as an enhanced supplement, or in combination with other supplements.
Improving GABA Absorption
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While GABA in and of itself is largely ineffective at increasing GABA in the brain, there are a few ways to boost absorption, making sure your efforts (and your dollars) aren't being wasted.
Here are some of the best ways to make GABA more effective.
Increasing GABA Through Diet
While you can’t eat food that contains GABA, you can certainly eat foods that contain glutamate and glutamic acid, the precursors your body uses to manufacture GABA.
Foods with lots of glutamate and glutamic acid include grass-fed meats, eggs, dairy products, fish, sea vegetables, tomatoes and mushrooms. Fermented foods also have a positive impact on GABA levels. 
Improve Nitric Oxide Levels
Nitric oxide opens and expands blood vessels so oxygen, nutrients and supplemental compounds can be transported more easily throughout your body.  It also makes it easier for substances to pass through the blood-brain barrier.
Taking this in combination with things like GABA, which typically don’t pass through the BBB at all, allows for them to pass through the barrier in small amounts. You should be cautious not to overdo it, since you don’t want to allow any toxins through the BBB.
Supplements that improve nitric oxide levels include.
- L-citrulline is an amino acid that the the body converts it into L-arginine, which effectively boosts levels of nitric oxide.
- Grape Seed extract is another fantastic booster of nitric oxide.
The combination of these two nutritional supplements will make it much easier for GABA to travel through your bloodstream without being damaged and pass through the blood-brain barrier where it can exert its effects on your brain. 
Stop GABA from Breaking Down
All nutrients and hormones are eventually broken down by our body and absorbed or excreted. GABA is broken down by GABA transaminase. If you inhibit the action of GABA transaminase, it will prevent your brain from getting rid of the GABA that you might still need by making more of it available for a longer time.
One supplement thought to be particularly effective at inhibiting this enzyme is rosmarinic extract. This is a naturally occurring flavonoid that can be found in herbs like rosemary, sage, mint and basil. It’s been used for ages in aromatherapy because it produces relaxing effects through its ingestion and inhalation---probably due to its action as an inhibitor of GABA transaminase. 
GABA is one of the most important neurotransmitters in our brains. It’s vital for ensuring a healthy sleep schedule, for reducing anxiety, and for promoting well-being. Unfortunately, not everybody is able to produce enough GABA on their own, and this may be affecting their ability to get a good night’s rest. Luckily, it’s not too difficult to increase the amount of GABA available to the brain. This can be done through lifestyle changes and by taking supplements which we’ve outlined above.
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Have you tried GABA for insomnia or anxiety? Share your thoughts below!