One of the buzziest sleep aids of the moment happens to be GABA. But what exactly is GABA—and can it really help promote better sleep?
Here’s what you need to know about GABA, its potential benefits, and how to use it safely for a good snooze.
What is GABA?
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in your body that controls nerve cell hyperactivity. It slows down the brain by blocking specific signals and balancing out excitatory neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, in your nervous system. As a result, it produces a calming effect, helping reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear so that you can better transition to sleep.
While your body naturally contains GABA, you can also increase its levels by eating magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium binds to GABA receptors and increases their activity, thus relaxing the body. Examples of magnesium-rich foods include edamame, tempeh, brown rice, pumpkin seeds, and chia seeds. It can also be found in green and oolong teas.
Like magnesium, exercising (especially cardio) can increase GABA levels. Meditation and yoga may also help boost GABA levels. In fact, one study showed brain GABA levels increased by 27% for yoga practitioners after one 60-minute yoga session.
GABA is also available as a dietary supplement—however, the effects of this type of GABA and whether or not it promotes better sleep are unclear.
Some studies state this type of GABA can’t get to your brain as the membrane only allows specific molecules to go through it. However, there are a few studies that have confirmed the positive effects of GABA supplements that promote relaxation and better sleep.
It’s still important to note, though, that naturally produced GABA is more effective than supplemental GABA.
What are the benefits of GABA for sleep?
GABA has a few potential benefits for better quality sleep. Keep reading to learn about them!
Can help calm stress
Stress, overthinking, anxiety, and burnout can all contribute to a night of bad sleep. This occurs because your mind is overstimulated, despite your body being in a restful state. By increasing your GABA levels, you’ll inhibit brain activity, which will allow both your brain and body to unwind and better prepare you for a good night’s sleep.
In a study conducted in 2006 to evaluate the effect of GABA on brain waves, 13 individuals were set to intake only water, GABA (100 mg), or L-theanine. Electroencephalograms (tests that measure electrical activity in the brain) were obtained after 60 minutes of administration.
Results showed that the supplemental GABA significantly increased alpha waves (which occur when people feel relaxed) and decreased beta waves (which occur when people feel alert and attentive), compared to water or L-theanine. The increased levels of alpha waves mean GABA can potentially bring you to a “meditative” or resting state and make you immune to potential stress.
Can decrease the time it takes to fall asleep
Sometimes, it can take several minutes or even an hour before you actually fall asleep—especially if you don’t already feel tired. While GABA won’t make you feel sleepy like melatonin, it can relax you, which can shorten the time it takes for you to fall asleep.
In a clinical trial conducted in 2015, GABA (100 mg) produced by natural fermentation was administered to humans to see if it could improve their sleep. Results showed that GABA shortened sleep latency by about five minutes, helping people get to sleep faster.
Can increase the time spent in deep sleep
Although all stages of sleep are crucial for your overall health, deep sleep provides specific mental and physical benefits that other stages don’t. Deep sleep releases the growth hormone and supports bone, muscle, tissue, and immune system repair. It also improves memory and focus. Therefore, it’s important you get as much deep sleep as possible—and GABA might be the way to do that.
According to a 2016 study, GABA increased the total time spent in non-rapid eye movement sleep (which includes the deepest stages of sleep) in people who received it, compared to individuals who received a placebo. The study also found that the GABA supplement shortened sleep latency (the time it takes a person to fall asleep after they get into bed).
A different study showed that patients with insomnia who received treatment with GABA extracted from fermented rice germ had improved sleep quality and sleep efficiency after four weeks.
What’s the right GABA dosage for sleep?
The effects of GABA supplementation will vary from person to person and will also depend on the type of supplement you choose to use. A few precautions you should take before using GABA include:
- Speaking with your doctor to know if it’s safe for you
- Reading all labels and lists of ingredients to avoid reactions
- Keeping track of how much you consume and when
That said, scientifically supported research has shown that between 100 to 200 milligrams of GABA are typically safe to consume approximately 30 minutes to an hour before bed. GABA can also be regarded as safe and appropriate for daily intake for those seeking improvement in the quality of their sleep.
Does GABA have any side effects?
Potential side effects of GABA supplements include upset stomach, headache, muscle weakness, and sleepiness. While sleepiness could be a good thing if you’re looking to improve your sleep with GABA, it’s important to avoid driving or operating machinery after taking it. GABA can also interact with other medications and supplements, so it’s important to tell your doctor before you begin regularly using it.
Note that GABA supplements aren’t tested or reviewed the same way prescribed medications are, nor are they FDA-approved or regulated. So, to avoid low-quality products (and to save you a few bucks), look for a supplement that’s been certified by a third-party company.
Does GABA help you sleep?
Naturally produced GABA and supplementation GABA can both improve the quality of your sleep, including sleep duration and the time it takes for you to fall asleep. However, naturally produced GABA will be more effective in improving your sleep compared to supplemental GABA.
When should I take GABA for sleep?
You can take a GABA supplement approximately 30 minutes to an hour before bed.
Can you take GABA every day?
According to research, 100 to 200 milligrams of GABA is safe and appropriate for daily intake.
Curious about OTC sleep aids and whether they really work? Check out our guide to the best OTC sleep aids to learn more.