These days, many people are having trouble sleeping. Health concerns, economic concerns and overall stress levels are at an all-time high, and the unfortunate fallout from that is that people are finding it hard to sleep well. Lack of quality sleep, over time, can lead to serious health issues, including a compromised immune system, and this can put people at greater risk for becoming ill.
What can we do about it? People are usually reticent to jump right into taking a prescription sleep aide, as these can have side effects and in some cases become habit forming. Instead, many seek out less invasive steps to improve their sleep quality. Making behavioral changes, like focusing on the positive things in life, getting exercise and using relaxation techniques like meditation are all helpful. However, there are some supplements that can also help. GABA and melatonin are both compounds that naturally occur in the human body and aid in improving quality of sleep.
What is GABA? How does it work in the body?
GABA stands for gamma aminobutyric acid. It is an amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in the brain and is naturally present in the body. GABA binds to GABA receptors in the brain, and other parts of the nervous system.1 GABA actually works as an inhibitor when it attaches to its respective receptor. When the GABA molecule binds to its receptor, it opens an ion channel in the plasma membrane which polarizes the cell to an extreme. When the cell is very polarized, it cannot create an action potential. In other words, the neuron (brain cell) cannot fire. This inhibition of neuron firing can decrease respiratory rate and superfluous movements in the body.3
How is GABA used to induce sleep?
The effects of inhibiting neuron firing through GABA-receptor binding can put the body in a state that is more relaxed and ready to sleep. In fact, inhibition of some bodily functions is the central mechanism for sleep in general. Some of the functions that are changed to induce sleep include a lower respiratory rate and less superfluous body movements.2,3 GABA, as it is a naturally occurring substance in the body, can be used as an alternative to drugs such as benzodiazepine in order to relieve mild and non-chronic sleep disturbances. The use of drugs that are not naturally occurring in the body can lead to dependence or increased tolerance. Therefore, it is necessary to develop new bioactive substances derived from natural sources that present with similar efficacy but fewer side effects than hypnotic drugs, for the successful treatment of sleep-related disturbances.1 GABA is one of these substances.
What are some ways to increase GABA activity in the body?
It is possible to take GABA as a dietary supplement in an ingestible form. According to an article in Frontiers in Psychology, “Hundreds of people report that these supplements have helped them alleviate anxiety and/or improve sleep quality, in addition to other beneficial effects.”4
GABA is also a compound found in many types of plants and microorganisms. Certain types of tea, soybeans and germinated brown rice contain GABA, and microorganisms such as lactic acid bacteria are known to produce GABA. Since lactic acid bacteria are often used in the fermentation process—there are many types of fermented foods that also contain GABA.5
Does taking GABA orally work?
The effectiveness of GABA supplements comes down to its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. When GABA is ingested, it works its way into the bloodstream and only by crossing this barrier is it able to reach the neurons in the brain that possess GABA receptors. Only recently has evidence suggested that GABA from supplements is able to cross the blood-brain barrier, and effectively reach receptors.4 There are a variety of GABA tabs, chews and capsules available as supplements.
What are some other benefits of taking GABA?
A study in the Journal of the Japanese Society for Food Science and Technology found that giving patients GABA improved depression and other mood disorders, especially in the times before menopause or senility.6 Another study in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology showed the possibility of using GABA to interfere with the growth of malignant tumors.7 However, the most well-established research into taking GABA has been for its benefits in improving sleep and relaxation.
What is melatonin and how is it produced?
Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland in response to the detection of darkness. Melatonin is a molecule that is responsible for helping manage the sleep cycle and is driven by the circadian clock in the hypothalamus. It is actually derived from the body’s stores of serotonin hence the similarities in their names.7
How can melatonin be used to improve sleep and how is it taken?
Melatonin is typically taken as a dietary supplement. It can be derived from microorganisms, or it can be produced synthetically.8 Natural melatonin production in the body is inhibited in response to specific wavelengths of blue light. These specific wavelengths are sometimes found in sources of artificial light. According to an article in Progress in Brain Research, “One potential problem facing modern societies is the widespread use/misuse of artificial light at night. This light, if of the proper wavelength and sufficient irradiance, alters the function of the biological clock and restricts pineal melatonin production.”7 This restricted production of melatonin which disrupts the circadian rhythm can be supplemented by an ingestible source of melatonin.8
Does melatonin have any other potential benefits?
Melatonin, as a hormone, helps to regulate the immune system and blood pressure. It also acts as a key antioxidant and lessens oxidative stress on the brain and gastrointestinal tract.9 There are also limited studies that suggest melatonin may be involved in the prevention of malignant tumors because of its ability to protect DNA against damage from free radicals.8
Are there any drawbacks to taking these two sleep inducers?
Most of the side effects related to GABA are credited to drugs meant to imitate the effects of GABA and interact with GABA receptors. This is due to the limited amount of research done that proves supplementary GABA—taken as a dietary supplement or in GABA-enriched food—is actually able to pass through the blood-brain barrier.4
The side effects of melatonin are also mild and limited. These effects include headache, sleepiness and mild nausea.10
GABA and melatonin supplements are natural alternatives to sleep-inducing drugs, such as barbiturates. They come in a variety of forms, ranging from capsules to chews, and Frunutta makes a sublingual version of GABA and melatonin that is easy to take because it dissolves right under the tongue. GABA and melatonin supplements work in the body in different ways, GABA reducing the superfluous movements of muscles and organs, and melatonin regulating the body’s circadian rhythm. There are not many known or serious side effects for either of these supplements, and both have been used widely to combat sleep difficulties. If you are having occasional trouble falling asleep at night, a natural sleep supplement such as GABA or melatonin may be helpful to you!
1 Kim, S., Jo, K., Hong, K., Han, S. H., Suh, H. J., GABA and l-theanine mixture decreases sleep latency and improves NREM sleep. Pharmaceutical Biology, 2019. 57(1): 65–73.
2 Gottesmann, C., GABA mechanisms and sleep. Neuroscience, 2002. 111(2): 231-239.
3 Jewett, B. E., Sharma, S., Physiology, GABA. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-.
4 Boonstra, E., de Kleijn, R., Colzato, L. S., Alkemade, A., Forstmann, B. U. and Nieuwenhuis, S., Neurotransmitters as food supplements: the effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Front. Psychol. 6:1520.
5 Diana, M., Quilez, J., Rafecas, M., Gamma-aminobutyric acid as a bioactive compound in foods: a review. Journal of Functional Foods, 2014. 10: 407-420.
6 Okada, T., Sugishita, T., Murakami, T., Murai, H., Saikusa, T., Horino, T., Onoda, A., Kajimoto, O., Takahashi, R., Takahashi, T., Effect of the defatted rice germ enriched with GABA for sleeplessness, depression, autonomic disorder by oral administration. Journal of the Japanese Society for Food Science and Technology, 2000. 47(8): 596-603.
7 Kleinrok, Z., Matuszek, M., Jesipowicz J., Matuszek, B., Opolski, A., Radzikowski, C., GABA content and GAD activity in colon tumors taken from patients with colon cancer or from xenografted human colon cancer cells growing as s.c. tumors in athymic nu/nu mice. Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology: an Official Journal of the Polish Physiological Society, 1998. 49(2): 303-310.
8 Reiter, R. J., Tan, D., Fuentes-Broto, L., Chapter 8 – Melatonin: A Multitasking Molecule. Progress in Brain Research, 2010. 181: 127-151.
9 Tordjman, S., Chokron, S., Delorme, R., Charrier, A., Bellissant, E., Jaafari, N., Fougerou, C., Melatonin: Pharmacology, Functions and Therapeutic Benefits. Current Neuropharmacology, 2017. 15(3): 434-443.
10 “Melatonin: What You Need to Know.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Oct, 2019.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.” You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.