Apr. 13, 2023
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a chemical produced in the brain. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA reduces the ability of nerve cells to send and receive chemical messages throughout the central nervous system.
Fluctuating GABA levels have been linked to medical conditions including anxiety, autism and Parkinson's disease.
Several drugs target GABA receptors. Although GABA supplements can be used to reduce stress and anxiety and to combat insomnia, evidence of these benefits remains limited.
This article explains GABA, how it works, and what happens if there is insufficient GABA activity in the body. It also covers how GABA activity can be regulated through medication and supplements.
GABA is a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the nervous system.
Messages travel along the nervous system through neurons that carry signals to each other. For example, they may send a message from your brain to your hand to stay out of danger, or they may send a message from your hand to your brain that the pot is hot - or they may send messages between nerve cells in the nervous system.
As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA blocks or inhibits certain neurotransmission. It reduces the stimulation of neurons.2 This means that neurons along the way that receive messages do not operate on them, so messages are not sent to other neurons.
This slowing of message transmission may help to regulate mood and anxiety. In other words, GABA can calm your nervous system and help you avoid excessive anxiety or fear.
GABA signalling problems seem to play a role in disorders that affect your mental health or nervous system. These are known as mental and neurological disorders.
Inhibitory neurotransmitters such as GABA block certain brain signals and reduce neurological activity. Another inhibitory neurotransmitter, serotonin, helps regulate mood and anxiety.
Excitatory neurotransmitters have the opposite effect: they boost certain brain signals and increase nervous system activity. An example of an excitatory neurotransmitter is norepinephrine.
When a neuron receives a message called an 'action potential', this message is passed on to another neuron in a series of steps.
However, around 30% to 40% of neurons contain GABA.2 These are known as GABAergic neurons. When GABAergic neurons receive a message, they release GABA into the synapse where the message should be transmitted. the release of GABA initiates a response that makes it less likely that action potentials will be transmitted to other neurons.
GABA activity lasts only a few milliseconds, but can have a significant impact. In the brain, it produces a sedative effect. In the spinal cord, this process allows sensory information to be integrated, meaning it allows your nervous system to process and organise information from the senses.
GABA is an amino acid that helps to regulate mood. It is released by certain neurons that carry information in the nervous system and GABA works by preventing information from being transmitted. Specifically, it affects the body's response to feelings of anxiety, fear and stress, and allows the nervous system to process information better.
If GABAergic neurons are dysfunctional, it can affect mental health and lead to a variety of mental and neurological disorders (brain and nervous system disorders). A lack of proper GABA activity may play a role in schizophrenia, autism, Tourette's syndrome and other disorders.
GABA activity helps you respond to stress in a healthy way by preventing neurons from sending messages that would "excite" your body.
Many things can affect GABA levels, and this can lead to anxiety. For example, studies have shown that external stressors and early life stressors can directly affect the function of GABA in the body, causing imbalances.
A lack of GABA is associated with problems performing normal cognitive functions. This is important for people with schizophrenia, a mental illness that causes major problems with thoughts, emotions and behaviour.
Problems with specific elements of the nervous system (GABA-A receptors) are associated with features of schizophrenia, including hallucinations and cognitive impairment.
Although the exact cause of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is unknown, animal and human studies have found an association between abnormal GABA activity and symptoms of ASD. there appears to be a relationship between GABA and limited interest or social difficulties in people with autism.
Studies related to autism seem to indicate that GABA does not work alone. This neurotransmitter imbalance may affect other neurotransmitters and receptors, or GABA may be affected by them.
Lower levels of GABA in the body are also associated with major depressive disorder (MDD). This may be because GABA works in tandem with other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which is also associated with mood disorders.
Research also suggests that inappropriate GABA function may be a contributing factor to suicide.
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