ZMA and GABA are two ingredients that we commonly see in sleep supplements, but they’re very different things. For one, ZMA is actually a combo of three ingredients: Zinc asparate, magnesium aspartate, and vitamin B6. GABA (short for Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), on the other hand, is a single and very potent neurotransmitter.
While ZMA is a popular supplement made up of ingredients in very particular proportion, GABA refers to the neurotransmitter itself. Most manufacturers use similar ingredient lists for their versions of ZMA, though some will add an additional ingredient or two. Originally developed to boost athletic performance and recovery, ZMA is now more commonly used to enhance sleep (and there’s arguably more anecdotal and research evidence to suggest its benefit to sleep as opposed to just muscular recovery). My favorite version is True Athlete’s, which also contains the relaxing amino acid l-theanine.
GABA is the brain’s most important “downer” neurotransmitter, and it — in layman’s terms — counters “upper” neurotransmitters to help calm (or “depress”) the brain. We see it in a number of forms, but overall it’s important to note that GABA has difficulty crossing the blood-brain barrier because the body is generally very good at regulating it. That means simply ingesting it orally has minimal — and sometimes no — effects.
I have experienced some sleep-promoting effects from GABA, including very vivid dreams and deeper sleep. However, the GABA-containing ingredient I most liked (called phenibut) is increasingly difficult to find on the market due to various regulations and manufacturing limitations. Phenibut is the primary ingredient in Upgraded Self (aka Bulletproof’s) GABAwava supplement.
Overall, I see ZMA as a much more beginner-friendly sleep supplement than those containing GABA. It’s relatively easy to time, and it’s also easier to take a small dosage and build up to assess your personal tolerance. Magnesium on its own can be one of the more powerful sleep-boosting ingredients, especially for those who don’t get a lot in their diets. For that reason, magnesium-containing supplements like New Mood, ZMA, and Natural Calm are high on my list of consistent sleep improvers.