Taking GABA for Sleep: The Science Behind It and If It Really Works

Sleep is very, very important to us. Our busy lives (and technology addiction) cause seemingly perennial exhaustion—making the little time we allow for sleep imperative to maintaining sanity. Our interest in a good night's rest knows no end, creating intrigue around subjects like the best times to sleep, our sleep position, teas that help come bedtime, and the best calming beauty products. We've even researched how to function on no sleep because, well, it happens.

Now, we're interested in GABA and its favorable effect on our sleeping schedules and occasional insomnia. Not sure what GABA is? Don't worry—we weren't either. Below, find the science-backed information we found most helpful.

It causes mental and physical relaxation.

Photo:

Stocksy

GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is a naturally occurring chemical compound produced in your brain, and, according to a recent study, helps to relax your body as well as your mind. "After 60 minutes of administration," the clinical trial's abstract reads, "GABA significantly increases alpha waves and decreases beta waves compared to water or L-theanine. These findings denote that GABA not only induces relaxation but also reduces anxiety."

Low levels of it may lead to stress and insomnia.

Photo:

Stocksy

Studies have found GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Its levels are affected by poor diet, illness, age, and environmental toxins. Plus, an insufficient amount of GABA in your body can lead to anxiety, irritability, and sleep disorders like insomnia.

According to recent sleep studies, GABA levels are up to 30% lower in people suffering from insomnia. Similarly, GABA levels are also lower in patients with depression or mood disorders (FYI: Experts let us in on the best vitamins for anxiety).

Sleep aids support GABA but don't actually include the compound.

Photo:

@parachutehome

Popular sleep medications like Ambien and Lunesta work to increase GABA's effects by helping it better bind to your brain's receptors—but they don't contain any of the neurotransmitter itself, reports the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health's research-based site, Berkeley Wellness.

Moreover, "there's no credible evidence that taking GABA orally increases its levels in the brain—apparently, the compound can't pass from the blood to the brain (through the blood-brain barrier)." So, the medication that works with the compound is your best bet for insomnia relief. 

Ed. note: Please speak with a doctor before trying any new supplements or making major dietary adjustments.

Next up: Try these five ways to get more REM sleep, according to a sleep specialist.