There are some household ingredients—think melatonin, magnesium, and lavender—that immediately make you think of sleep. GABA isn’t one you hear all that often. We’re here to change that. This small but mighty neurotransmitter packs in a whole slew of impressive benefits. Here’s what you need to know:

What is GABA?

Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (aka GABA) is an amino acid produced naturally in the brain. It acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter that blocks certain brain signals and decreases activity in your nervous system. Glutamate works in reverse as an excitatory neurotransmitter that stimulates nerve cells. Low GABA equals high glutamate, and vice versa.

How GABA improves sleep

Ingredients included in sleep supplements work in one of two ways. Either they directly impact sleep quality/quantity (physical support) or they indirectly support sleep by reducing everyday stress and promoting a sense of calm and relaxation (emotional + behavioral support). GABA falls into that second group.

It works by binding to the GABA-A receptor, causing a hyperpolarization of the neuron. Chloride, which is negatively charged, moves into the neuron, which renders it less responsive to stimulation. In essence, when levels of GABA increase, it suppresses or inhibits the central nervous system (CNS) to reduce excitability and, when bound, produces a calming effect that may support a reduction in stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness.

  • The science behind GABA + stress/anxiety
    Various studies have examined the effect of GABA on symptoms of stress. In a 2009 study, (1) participants consumed chocolate enriched with 28 mg GABA 15 minutes before performing a problem-solving task, in which case GABA was found to have a stress-reducing effect.

    Additionally, a 2012 randomized, single-blind, placebo-controlled study (2) found that 100 mg of GABA had a positive psychological and physiological effect on adults under a condition of mental stress (examined via alpha band and beta band brain waves).

  • The science behind GABA + digestive health
    Emerging research confirms that GABA is a neurotransmitter effective in controlling gastrointestinal function. (3-6) It works by supporting the growth of healthy gut bacteria and nutritional microbiota interventions, although human clinical trials are needed to clarify the mechanism(s) of action and full potential benefits of GABA on digestive health.

  • The science behind GABA + insomnia
    In a 2018 study, (7) participants complaining of insomnia symptoms took 300 mg of GABA one hour before going to bed. Compared to those who took the placebo, they reported reduced sleep latency, aka the amount of time it takes to fall asleep (13.4 minutes pre-treatment vs 5.7 minutes post-treatment).

Foods that contain GABA

Unfortunately, there aren’t many food sources that contain this beneficial amino acid outside of fermented products such as miso, tempeh, and kimchi. That’s why it’s increasingly common to take in dietary supplement form.

READ MORE: The 15 Best + Worst Foods For Your Sleep

Dosing

When it comes to sleep, a clinically beneficial dosage of GABA is 100 mg, which is the amount included in Proper’s supplements.

GABA vs melatonin

GABA and melatonin are two of the most popular natural sleep aids, so it makes sense that they’re often compared to each other. Here’s what you should know:

  • They’re not mutually exclusive
    Depending on your unique sleep needs and wellness goals, you can opt for a sleep supplement that contains both GABA and melatonin, as Sleep + Restore does.

  • They produce varying effects
    While GABA provides emotional and behavioral support by reducing excitability and promoting relaxation and calmness, melatonin provides physical sleep support by directly regulating the sleep-wake cycle. It improves sleep quality, increases total sleep time, and decreases the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.

  • Melatonin isn’t for everyone
    It should be noted that, for some, melatonin produces symptoms of grogginess the next morning. If you’re a shift worker or a frequent traveler suffering from jet lag, then melatonin might be the best choice for you in order to reset your natural sleep cycle (aka circadian rhythm). If not, you may want to consider other natural sleep aids such as GABA.

Possible side effects + interactions of GABA

Oral GABA supplements are very well tolerated by healthy adults. In rare circumstances, some may experience side effects such as nausea, gastric distress, diminished appetite, or muscle weakness.

Note: If you are taking prescription medications, pregnant, or breastfeeding, please seek medical advice from your healthcare provider prior to taking any dietary supplements/sleep medicines.  Additional caution should be exercised for those suffering from sleep disorders who are also on antidepressants, high blood pressure medication, or other neurally-active medications.

Discover other natural ingredients in addition to GABA that play an important role in a good night's sleep, such as L-theanine, valerian, and more.