How Can GABA Be Used for Social Anxiety?

GABA supplements may help anxiety symptoms but evidence is limited

Close-up of a person taking a GABA supplement
Letizia Le Fur / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid in the body that acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Neurotransmitters are responsible for sending messages throughout the body. For instance, your brain may send a message to your hand that something is hot so that you don't touch it. GABA limits nerve transmission, which prevents nervous activity.

Without the right levels of GABA in your body, nerve cells are activated too often, making the symptoms of conditions like social anxiety disorder (SAD) even more intense.

This article covers what GABA is, its relation to social anxiety, and whether GABA supplements can help decrease anxiety.

The Link Between GABA and Social Anxiety

GABA is called an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it blocks certain messages sent from nerve cells to the brain. Because it blocks nerve stimulation and excitement, GABA can reduce stress and anxiety.

With social anxiety disorder, your neurons fire signals to feel anxious when you're at a crowded social gathering or when you meet someone new. GABA works to calm the brain and slow down the central nervous system, which can help to diminish these signals to feel anxious and help you feel more at ease in social situations.

GABA regulates your nervous system, which regulates your mood and helps you avoid extreme emotions, like fear or anxiety.

Low GABA activity has been shown to cause more severe anxiety symptoms, while healthy levels of GABA may help calm symptoms and make them more manageable.

GABA Deficiencies

It's possible for someone to have low levels of GABA in their brain. Research links low GABA levels with mental health conditions like anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, depression, and autism spectrum disorder.

Research has also shown that stress can affect how GABA functions in the body. Stress can decrease levels of GABA in the brain.

Unlike other types of deficiencies such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, there is no test a doctor can administer to know for sure whether you have a GABA deficiency.

Research on GABA Supplements

While some manufacturers will claim that GABA supplements improve sleep quality and lessen stress and anxiety, more research is needed to know whether GABA supplements actually offer these benefits.

One review of studies performed through 2020 concludes that there is limited evidence that GABA supplements relieve stress and very limited evidence that they improve sleep.

Additionally, it has not been confirmed that supplemental GABA can cross the blood-brain barrier. If it can't, taking GABA in supplement form would not have the intended effect on neurons in the brain. However, there is anecdotal evidence that people taking the supplement have experienced some anxiety relief.

Other supplements may help stimulate GABA receptors in the brain, such as magnesium, which is one of the reasons research suggests magnesium supplements may alleviate depression, anxiety, and stress. However, more evidence is needed to back this claim.

Side Effects of GABA Supplements

To date, there is insufficient evidence to determine the side effects of GABA supplements. But you should not drive or operate machinery if you are taking GABA supplements. You may experience a tingling or jittery feeling after taking GABA tablets.

GABA supplements should not be used by children; by those who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding; or have kidney or liver disease.

In addition, it is important to remember that GABA supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and, therefore, you cannot be sure of the safety or components of the GABA supplement that you purchase.

Before taking a GABA supplement, it's important to talk to a doctor to see if this supplement is a good choice for you.

Some supplements can interfere with your treatment and harm your health, particularly if you are taking other medications.

If a doctor feels GABA supplements may help you, they can help you determine the appropriate dosage. The correct dose for each person will depend on a number of factors such as your weight and activity level. It may take some time and trial-and-error to find what works best for you.

Improving GABA Levels Naturally

GABA is found naturally in some foods such as tomatoes, tea, soybeans, and germinated rice. GABA is also in some fermented foods like kimchi and miso. However, since there is no way of measuring GABA levels in the brain, it may be impossible to know whether you're actually increasing GABA levels by eating these foods.

It's also worth noting that GABA levels in food are much lower than they are in supplement form. Nonetheless, maintaining good nutrition is important for managing stress and anxiety levels.

A Word From Verywell

If you are living with untreated anxiety, the best first step is to see a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment. If you experience mild anxiety or are looking for a natural alternative to traditional medication, a GABA-promoting supplement may be right for you. Be sure to speak with a healthcare provider before taking any new supplements.

You can also ensure you're getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, and exercising regularly to help manage the day-to-day symptoms of anxiety.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nuss P. Anxiety disorders and GABA neurotransmission: A disturbance of modulationNeuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2015;11:165–175. doi:10.2147/NDT.S58841

  2. Zhao J, Verwer RWH, Gao SF, et al. Prefrontal alterations in GABAergic and glutamatergic gene expression in relation to depression and suicideJournal of Psychiatric Research. 2018;102:261-274. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2018.04.020

  3. Deidda G, Bozarth IF, Cancedda L. Modulation of GABAergic transmission in development and neurodevelopmental disorders: Investigating physiology and pathology to gain therapeutic perspectivesFront Cell Neurosci. 2014;8. doi:10.3389/fncel.2014.00119

  4. Hou X, Rong C, Wang F, et al. Gabaergic system in stress: Implications of gabaergic neuron subpopulations and the gut-vagus-brain pathwayNeural Plasticity. 2020;2020:e8858415. doi:10.11552F2020%2F8858415

  5. Hepsomali P, Groeger JA, Nishihira J, et al. Effects of oral gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration on stress and sleep in humans: A systematic reviewFront Neurosci. 2020;14:923. doi:10.3389/fnins.2020.00923

  6. Boonstra E, de Kleijn R, Colzato LS, Alkemade A, Forstmann BU, Nieuwenhuis S. Neurotransmitters as food supplements: The effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1520. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01520

  7. Boyle NB, Lawton C, Dye L. The effects of magnesium supplementation on subjective anxiety and stress-A systematic reviewNutrients. 2017;9(5):429. doi:10.3390/nu9050429

  8. National Institutes of Health, Office on Dietary Supplements. Dietary supplements: What you need to know.

  9. Boonstra E, de Kleijn R, Colzato LS, et al. Neurotransmitters as food supplements: The effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Front Psychol. 2015;6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01520

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."