The relationship between alcohol and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is more complex than you might think.

Article at a Glance:

There are several important points to remember about alcohol use and GABA, including:

Alcohol and GABA both produce relaxing and sedating effects in the body

Alcohol does not increase levels of GABA, but it produces similar effects

Drinking too much can overstimulate GABA pathways

Drinking large amounts of alcohol over time can cause desensitized GABA receptors, increasing chances of developing an alcohol use disorder

Alcohol and GABA

Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is a neurotransmitter that blocks certain impulses fired between nerve cells in the brain. It is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Because GABA receptors are located in many parts of the brain, binding to them can have various effects. However, GABA activation is generally associated with sedation and relaxation.

Alcohol mimics the effects of GABA by binding to GABA receptors in the brain. While alcohol and GABA have similar effects, does alcohol affect levels of GABA? Alcohol does not increase GABA, but it produced similar effects on the body.

How Alcohol Impacts GABA

Alcohol is an agonist of GABA receptors, meaning that alcohol binds to certain GABA receptors in the brain, where it replicates the activity of the GABA. This activity causes relaxed or tired feelings after drinking.

The body creates GABA from glutamate with the help of certain enzymes. Notably, alcohol is not involved in the production of GABA. Additionally, alcohol does not speed up or slow down the production of GABA. In other words, alcohol does not directly affect GABA levels. However, there are important implications to consider long-term or excessive alcohol use.

Drinking too much can overstimulate GABA pathways, causing extreme sedation of the central nervous system and, in turn, alcohol toxicity and overdose.

Continued exposure to alcohol over time can desensitize the GABA receptors. This desensitization may cause people to feel increased stress or anxiety, which may make them want to drink more frequently. Tolerance to alcohol is built over time and can lead to dependence or addiction.

Desensitized GABA receptors due to alcohol abuse use may also explain why people experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms like anxiety when they attempt to stop drinking. Their brains may become overstimulated and unable to regulate GABA on their own, triggering withdrawal symptoms once they become sober.

If you are worried about your alcohol consumption, treatment options are available. Call The Recovery Village todayto speak with someone who can guide you toward the right program for your needs. Calling The Recovery Village is free and confidential, and you don’t have to commit to an alcohol rehab program over the phone.

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Camille Renzoni
Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
Nathan Jakowski
Medically Reviewed By – Nathan Jakowski, PharmD
Nate Jakowski is a clinical pharmacist specializing in drug information and managed care. He completed his Doctor of Pharmacy degree at the University of Wisconsin. Read more

Socrates Bardi, Jason. “The effects of alcohol on the brain.” Published February 25, 2002. Accessed March 23, 2019.

Davies, Martin. “The role of GABAA receptors in mediating[…]ntral nervous system.” Published July 2003. Accessed March 23, 2019.

Banerjee, Niladri. “Neurotransmitters in alcoholism: A revie[…] and genetic studies”. Published January 2014. Accessed March 23, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.