What is GABA?
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. It is responsible for “reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system.” By decreasing activity in the nervous system, GABA aid in reducing fight or flight responses such as fear, anxiety, aggression, stress, and agitation.
Research suggests it might also be key in reducing seizure activity, mood disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). GABA was long thought to be unable to penetrate the blood-brain barrier (BBB) suggesting that improvement with supplementation was largely placebo. However, new research shows that GABA can penetrate the BBB in small amounts, lending credibility to the countless anecdotal accounts of GABA supplements calming the nervous system.
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Researchers are in the early phases of understanding GABA supplement’s mechanism of action, but anecdotal evidence suggests that supplementation produces sustained benefits throughout the central nervous system. (Boonstra, et al., 2015)
What is GABA product for autism?
Many people with autism use GABA supplements because of their wide scope of benefits. People with autism have high instances of co-occurring anxiety or mood disorders and report higher levels of agitation and irritation than their neurotypical peers. Additionally, people with autism are at a higher risk for seizures, with 20-30 percent of children with autism developing epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood.
(Autism Spectrum Disorder Face Sheet, 2019) A study published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews notes that autism (and commonly comorbid Fragile X Syndrome, Rett syndrome, and Fetal anticonvulsant syndrome) may be linked to “dysfunction in particular aspects of GABAergic inhibitory signaling in the brain.” (Coghlan, et al., 2012) Supplementing inhibited GABA signaling might be an effective way to increase the efficacy of the central nervous system. When used for autism treatment, GABA is usually taken as a dietary supplement in pill form. GABA supplements for autism are available in pills and chewable tablets.
The effects of GABA on children with autism
Autism and the comorbid disorders featured above might share a “common neurobiological pathway…which critically involved impairments in particular aspects of inhibitory GABA neurotransmission.” (Coghlan, et al., 2012)
This means that if anecdotal evidence proves true, children with special needs could benefit from GABA supplementation more than most other demographics. As researchers continue their quest to pinpoint exactly how GABA supplementation helps, parents and caregivers of children with special needs are eager to share why the supplement has become a staple in autism treatment.
Children with autism might benefit from one or more of the following: decreased anxiety, an increase in mood stability, reduced seizure activity, better sleep, and a decrease in comorbid ADHD symptoms. As GABA calms the central nervous system, some children show secondary benefits of improved socialization (likely due to decreased anxiety) and improved school performance (possibly due to a reduction in ADHD symptoms). It is important to remember that every child responds to GABA supplementation differently and research is still inconclusive as to how GABA supplementation works in children with autism.
Can GABA supplements help treat my child’s ADHD symptoms?
A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that “reduced GABA concentration in ADHD in concordant with recently reported deficits in short intracortical inhibition in ADHD and suggests a GABAergic deficit in ADHD.” (Edden, Crocetti, Zhu, Gilbert, & Mostofsky, 2012) Despite the relationship between low GABA concentration and ADHD diagnoses, the efficacy of GABA supplements has not been widely studied. However, GABA supplements have amassed quite the reputation for being a holistic component of treating ADHD. One study at the Kyorin University Medical School in Japan conducted a study that indicated GABA potentially helps students with ADHD.
The researchers used PharmaGABA which is made using Lactobacillus hilgardii (a bacteria used to ferment vegetables) and provided the supplement to schoolchildren who then took a math test. Of the 60 students in the study, the test group was given 100mg of PharmaGABA, and the control group was given a placebo. The test group scored 20 percent higher on the math test than the control group given a placebo. This study was conducted on a group of children not diagnosed with ADHD; however, lead researcher Dr. Michael Murray expects that students with ADHD would respond similarly.
Are there side effects of GABA on autism?
At this time, the United States Food and Drug Administration regards dietary supplements as a food and not a drug. At its current status of a “food,” GABA supplements are not being federally studied for possible effects or side effects. Limited studies by a third party and private institutions have rendered inconclusive evidence of side effects.
Before you introduce a GABA supplement to your child’s diet, it would be wise to consult with your child’s pediatrician for advice on dosing and possible interactions with other medications or supplements. Creating a dosing journal where you can chart the dosage your child was given along with any changes in behavior (positive or negative) along with any physical symptoms can be useful. It might also be helpful to only introduce one new supplement at a time so that you can isolate any physical or behavioral changes.
Due to its sleep benefits, some people have found GABA to be mildly sedating. When paired with an anxiety medication or mood stabilizer, be mindful of lethargy, sluggishness, or the sensation of moving/thinking in slow motion. This may mean that the central and peripheral nervous systems are overly calmed. Be sure you report any changes in behavior to a pediatrician or psychiatrist.
Choosing evidence-based treatment
Choosing evidence-based treatment is likely a priority for you when deciding what options to pursue with your child. While GABA supplements are not widely studied, the research thus far points to GABA supplements being a safe option to try even if we are not sure how they work. The most recent studies suggest that a therapeutic dose of GABA supplement is between 200 and 800 milligrams.
Young children at low weights should be given lower dosages. Your child’s pediatrician can help you determine an appropriate dosage for your child’s height, weight, age, and metabolism. If you are unsure where to begin within a therapeutic range, start low and increase the dosage as recommended by your pediatrician and according to your child’s needs.
The possibilities of treating ASD
As researchers understand more about ASD, new treatments are cropping up regularly. For many families who feel as though they have exhausted every avenue of treatment, new studies are constantly evolving autism treatment. It is important to remember while autism is not curable, evidence-based treatments such as GABA supplements are always worth discussing with your child’s pediatrician.
Keep in mind that not all children are the same, so suggested remedies may not benefit your child. Perhaps melatonin and GABA supplements would be a successful combination to help your child sleep. An anti-anxiety medication or a mood stabilizer paired with GABA supplements might help your child manage anxiety or mood disorders. Anti-convulsant medication and GABA supplements might help your child reduce his/her instances of seizures.
Remaining open to exploring new treatments for ASD is key in finding what works best for your child. Keep an open line of communication with your child’s treatment team and stay curious about possible treatments to give you and your child a better quality of life. Always verify use with your child’s doctor to ensure it does not interfere with other medicines.
Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet. (2019, May). Retrieved May, 2019, from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet
Boonstra, E., De Kleijn, R., Colzato, L. S., Alkemade, A., Forstmann, B. U., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2015, October 06). Neurotransmitters as food supplements: The effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Retrieved May, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4594160/
Coghlan, S., Horder, J., Inkster, B., Mendez, M. A., Murphy, D. G., & Nutt, D. J. (2012, July 25). GABA system dysfunction in autism and related disorders: From synapse to symptoms. Retrieved May, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4477717/
Edden, R. A., Crocetti, D., Zhu, H., Gilbert, D. L., & Mostofsky, S. H. (2012, July). Reduced GABA concentration in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Retrieved May, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3970207/
Elizabeth, R. (n.d.). Children’s Dosage of GABA Supplements for ADHD. Retrieved May, 2019, from https://www.livestrong.com/article/517318-childrens-dosage-of-gaba-supplements-for-adhd/