Supplements to Treat Your Child's ADHD: GABA

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

It happens to every parent who has a child with ADHD or autism. You go through the "search for the perfect supplement" phase to treat your child's symptoms. If you spend any amount of time in parent support groups, undoubtedly someone will bombard you with a list of supplements, herbs, and vitamins your child should try. It seems that everyone from acquaintances to family members has an opinion about using supplements.

When my son first got diagnosed with autism, we were sent a care package of supplements from a relative who is a pharmacist. I was grateful for the help but I wondered about the efficacy and safety of these products and especially for a child. So I began to research these supplements on-line and in the literature. In addition I listened to other parents about what worked and what didn't work for their child. We even tried some of these natural remedies and slowly over the years I have come to some conclusions based upon our personal experience. In this on-going series I am going to be sharing information, research, and also my personal experience as a parent with regard to the use of supplements to treat the symptoms of your child's ADHD or related disorder.

We are going to start this series by discussing a supplement called GABA or gamma aminobutyric acid.

But before I begin I wish to add a little disclaimer: The allure to try a supplement or vitamin to help your child can be strong. You don't need a prescription for a supplement. Supplements are readily available at your health food store or even supermarket. Herbs, supplements, and vitamins have a positive connotation of being "natural." In addition, you may be frightened by the side effects of prescription medications. However, you should know that some supplements may contain unnatural fillers or even harmful ingredients. Currently the FDA does not regulate supplements. Some supplements can cause potentially dangerous side effects but you may not know it because no information is provided. Some herbs, vitamins, and supplements may cause adverse interactions when combined with other medications or supplements.

Final reminder: Always tell your child's doctor about any supplements you are giving to your child. Do your homework and research the supplement as much as you can before allowing your child to take it. Create a log of any changes in behavior, mental, or physical symptoms after initiating treatment with any type of supplement.

What is GABA?

GABA, or gamma aminobutyric acid, is often referred to in the literature as an amino acid which acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter for the central nervous system. GABA blocks nerve impulses so that nerve cells do not fire too frequently. GABA is also responsible for the regulation of muscle tone. It is viewed by some as our body's natural calming chemical, as it ensures balance in the functioning of our nervous system.

What does GABA have to do with ADHD?

It is speculated by some that there are certain populations which may have a GABA deficiency. Individuals who have symptoms of ADHD, autism, anxiety, and depression fall into this category. The lack of this brain chemical is said to cause symptoms which may include: Brain fog, mood swings, increased stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, and aggression.

Is there any science to back up the theory that children with ADHD are deficient in GABA?

There is one highly referenced research study about the imbalance of neurotransmitters in children who have ADHD. In a February 2004 issue of the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, researchers found that study subjects having ADHD had higher levels of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, than did children without ADHD. In addition they also found that the ADHD group had decreased levels of GABA. The imbalance of the levels of these brain chemicals may explain ADHD symptoms such as poor impulse control and hyperactivity. Although the study was small (the study authors used only eight children aged 6 to 12 who were diagnosed with ADHD with hyperactivity as compared to 8 children without ADHD) it has some implications for how we view ADHD. Some believe that this study shows a biological basis for ADHD and that our next step is to figure out how to correct this chemical imbalance.

Does it follow that a GABA supplement can help treat my child's ADHD symptoms?

Not necessarily. There are a lot of leaps and assumptions we have to make before reaching this conclusion. First we have to believe that ADHD symptoms are caused by a GABA deficiency and also that the best way to fix the imbalance is through a supplement. There are some critics who say that a GABA supplement may not adequately penetrate the blood-brain barrier rendering them ineffective. Some warn that consumers should be skeptical and to consider other GABA-boosting alternatives such as eating foods which increase levels of GABA. Dr. Eric Braverman,author of The Healing Nutrients Within: Facts, Findings, and New Research on Amino Acids, provides a list of GABA-rich foods which may include: Bananas, broccoli, brown rice, lentils, nuts, molasses, oatmeal, spinach, and whole grains among others.

As with the case for many supplements, there is not a whole lot of research on whether GABA supplements actually work to decrease the symptoms of ADHD or other related disorders. Most of the evidence is anecdotal from parents, caregivers, and individuals taking GABA. There are a lot of glowing reports out there but whether or not they would stand up to scientific scrutiny is another question.

Are there any side effects to taking a GABA supplement?

There is little research on the possible side effects of taking this type of supplement. If you search through forum threads you may hear of users reporting mild tingling sensations in the face and neck region, as well as changes in heart rate and breathing pattern. One drug site, eMedTV, reports that the side effects of GABA administered by IV may include: Dysphoria (depression, anxiety, or irritability), an increase in blood pressure and an increase in heart rate.

Our personal experience taking GABA supplements

If you look in my kitchen cupboard you will find a bottle of GABA Calm by Source Naturals. I did hear stories from friends who said that this supplement calmed their child and made them less hyperactive and less anxious. Well who doesn't want that? I also heard other anecdotal stories about how it helps with PMS and anxiety in women. So I thought that my son and I could both try this supplement. We bought GABA Calm from our local Whole Foods store. It is relatively cheap where you can buy 30 sublingual tablets for under $8. These sublingual tablets come in peppermint and orange flavors and they melt under your tongue. This particular brand of supplement advertises that it combines three of the main inhibitory neurotransmitters, plus N-acytyl L-tyrosine, a precursor of norepinephrine. It contains magnesium, GABA, n-acetyl l-tyrosine and taurine. They say it is absorbed directly in the bloodstream through the blood vessels under the tongue and cheeks for a speedy entry into your system.

I would love to say that this supplement "worked' for me or my son. But that didn't happen in our case. I took data on my son's anxious behaviors before and after giving this supplement and I saw no change. I took it with him for two weeks and I felt no more calm than usual. One of the problems with taking supplements is that you don't know what to reasonably expect. You also don't have any data about how long it does take to see results. So we stopped taking it after two weeks. This is not to say that this supplement will not work for your child. I have heard many parents say that it did help to ease their child's anxiety. It is just like with prescription medications, what works for one person may not work for another. The difference is that with prescription medications you have rigorous scientific research to look at to make comparisons and assess the level of risk of usage.

We would love to hear from you. Have you ever given GABA as a supplement to your child? Did you notice any difference in your child's behavior or mood? Did you feel it worked or didn't work for your child? Tell us your story

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."