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Last updated: Jul 3rd, 2011

GABA and Anxiety:

Diagram of GABA molecule
Diagram of a GABA Molecule

GABA, which stands for Gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a chemical which naturally occurs in the body. GABA plays a role in muscle relaxation (releasing muscle tone or muscle tension).

There is considerable scientific evidence that the GABA system plays a role in anxiety disorders. Most of the chemicals, including both synthetic drugs and naturally occurring compounds in herbal remedies, known to have effects on anxiety, also have effects on the GABA system. The role of GABA has led some people and businesses to use, sell, or promote GABA as a dietary supplement.

Does taking GABA as a supplement help with anxiety?

Short answer: no.

There is no solid evidence supporting the idea that taking GABA as a supplement has any positive effect on anxiety, and based on what is known about human physiology, there are reasons that it is unlikely to help. GABA cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so if you take it as a supplement, it will not affect your mental state directly. GABA is produced by the body, including inside the brain, by converting the amino acid glutamate, in a reaction that involves Vitamin B6. [Source] Vitamin B6 deficiency is known to cause symptoms resembling anxiety and depression; rather than supplementing your diet with GABA, a better approach would be to make sure you are eating a diverse, well-balanced diet, with enough protein and vitamin B6.

There are, however, many other natural remedies and treatments for anxiety which are solidly supported by scientific evidence.

Drugs and Their Effect on the GABA System:

The medications used by the mainstream to treat anxiety, such as the benzodiazepines, are known to act on the GABA system, increasing the amount of GABA, and this effect may be related to their anti-anxiety effects. However, there is no solid evidence that any kind of medication provides anything more than short-term effects for reducing anxiety. Medication is not suitable for long-term treatment of anxiety. Alcohol is also known to have a similar effect on the GABA system. These effects produce marked relaxation and might temporarily relieve anxiety (think of a person being drunk) but do nothing to address the root causes of anxiety.

It is for this reason that I advocate only natural (drug-free) treatments for anxiety, which include exercise, diet, meditation, cognitive approaches (which can include therapy), and several other approaches.

References and Further Reading:

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