Natural Ways to Manage OCD Symptoms
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a mental disorder that causes the sufferer to have obsessive recurring thoughts, and/or feel the need to perform certain actions compulsively in an effort to ease anxiety. The cycle between having intrusive thoughts and behaving compulsively is an uphill battle against feelings of anxiety and trying to temporarily ease said anxiety.
Typically, OCD is a mental disorder that is experienced for a long period of time. While there is no definitive cause of OCD or any cure, there are many forms of treatment that offer relief from the paralysing symptoms.
The most common form of treatment for OCD is therapy treatment, using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). Medication can also be used to treat OCD, however, it is recommended that medication is accompanied by some form of therapy treatment to avoid medication dependency. Medication must be agreed upon and prescribed by your doctor.
Alongside these forms of treatment, there is a lot that OCD sufferers can do to manage symptoms naturally from home. Many lifestyle factors can have a huge impact on our physical, emotional and mental health.
OCD causes the sufferer to experience a lot of daily stress and anxiety. In this article, we’re going to outline natural ways that you can help to reduce anxiety and manage OCD symptoms. These tips should be used as an accompaniment to formal OCD treatment.
Thinking in terms of survival, sleep is pretty weird. Let’s travel back in time for a moment to early humanity. In survival terms, sleep is an evolutionary nightmare! Our bodies require us to be in the ultimate state of vulnerability for us to survive and thrive. While we’re asleep, we’re vulnerable to bear attacks, property theft, and to other natural threats like weather, natural disasters, etc.
If sleep weren’t a CRUCIAL factor in our survival, evolution would have gotten rid of it by now. It would have at the very least reduced the amount we need to sleep to thrive!
But it hasn’t, and that tells us that sleep is a fundamental aspect of our health and wellbeing. Sleep is essential for physical and mental growth and preparedness.
Many people pride themselves on ‘getting by’ on 5 hours or less of sleep. We declare proudly that we aren’t good sleepers, we’re too busy, too stressed, too on-the-go to get anything more than a few hours of sleep per night.
The reality is, there is a very small percentage of people in the world who can thrive off of 5 hours of sleep or less. Rounded to a whole number, that percentage is 0%.
I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but the chances are, you are not one of the chosen few who thrives off of anything less than 7 hours of sleep per night.
Modern Day Sleep Challenges
Our sleep cycle is supposed to be from when the sun sets to when the sun rises. The term ‘midnight’ literary references the middle of the night. Nowadays, many of us don’t get to sleep until the middle of the night.
Nature chose our sleep cycle on purpose. Unlike other animals, human vision is poor at night time, meaning it’s the optimal time to sleep as we won’t be very good at hunting or gathering at night.
Our bodies release melatonin once the sun starts to set. Melatonin is a hormone that encourages sleep. When the sun rises, melatonin production is reduced so that we can wake up. You may have heard of melatonin supplements. These can be helpful for people experiencing jet lag, however, studies have shown that outside of jet lag, melatonin supplementation seems to have a placebo effect on people taking it. While supplementation is never the optimal option and you should always be cautious of where you’re getting your supplements from, melatonin supplementation hasn’t been shown to have any negative side effects. If it helps get you to sleep, go for it!
In modern-day, our body's natural melatonin production is being tampered with due to light emitted by our smartphones and screens. Blue light, found in screens, tricks the brain into thinking it’s actually daytime, stopping the production of melatonin. This is why it’s so difficult to sleep if we’ve been using our phones or watching TV before bed.
If you want to improve the quality of your sleep and get to sleep faster, we recommend either getting your hands on a blue light filter for your smartphone or better still, turn off the screens at least an hour before you plan to go to sleep.
How can sleep help OCD?
We know that getting enough high quality sleep helps to improve overall health, but how does it directly affect OCD?
While some OCD sufferers may not struggle with their sleep, others might, due to checking behaviours that take them out of bed after already having started their sleep routine, forcing them to start the ‘getting to sleep’ process all over again.
Many mental health issues come in pairs or packages. Some OCD sufferers may also suffer from some form of depression or insomnia or other mental health issues that have an impact on sleep quality. It’s especially important for these people to take a look at how they can improve their sleep quality, actively working towards building a sleep routine.
Sleep deprivation impacts our decision making. If we are physically and mentally exhausted, we typically start to make not-so-good decisions. Studies have shown, for example, people who are sleep deprived tend to make unhealthy food decisions during the day, as they’re trying to compensate for their lack of energy.
Sleep deprivation can also cause people more stress. For those with OCD, for example, we may indulge in OCD behaviours and compulsions more when we are sleep deprived than if we had enough quality sleep. We simply don’t have the energy to fight the compulsion.
7-9 hours of sleep is the recommended amount of sleep for most people. The only exceptions are for athletes or people who are training who may need up to 10 hours of sleep for their bodies to properly recover from the intensive exercise.
There are also those few who thrive off of 5 hours of sleep or less. Please don’t assume you are one of these people! Long-term sleep deprivation can cause some pretty nasty health concerns. If you don’t think you’re getting enough sleep, try building a sleep routine. Keep it simple and add to it as you go.
Building a Sleep Routine
Start by figuring out what time you need to go to sleep in order to get 8 hours of sleep. If we aim for 8 hours, and it takes an hour to get to sleep, you’re still getting 7 hours of sleep which is a pretty good place to start.
Try to get to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. This will help the body find a natural sleep rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up.
Once our new sleep schedule starts to feel automatic, we can start to add small improvements, like limiting screen time 1 hour before bed, reducing alcohol or substance intake which decreases the quality of sleep, and dimming the lights in your home 1 hour before your scheduled sleep time to encourage melatonin production.
Build your sleep routine one step at a time. If we try to change our sleep routine entirely overnight (pun intended!) we’re likely going to find it too challenging and give up on all of it. It’s much more productive to get used to one new habit before taking on more.
Food is powerful. It has the ability to make us feel great, and it can make us feel terrible. The way food makes us feel depends entirely on what we’re eating, how we’re eating it, when we’re eating it, and how we feel about what, how and when we’re eating.
‘Hangry’ is real, we get grumpy when we’re hungry. This is because the brain doesn’t have enough energy left to function properly. The brain needs the right type of energy to thrive. Essentially, we need to eat high nutrient-dense food to keep our bodies and brains happy!
High nutrient-dense food is food that is packed with the good stuff. It’s easy to find high nutrient-dense food. All you have to do is look for food where you recognise the ingredients.
For example, you know what an apple is. You can identify it. An apple is packed with nutrients.
Now let’s think about our pot noodles. They come with a flavour pack that we add to the noodles while they’re cooking, but can we identify the ingredients in our noodles? Not really without looking at the ingredient list… and even then, some of the ingredients may sound foreign to us. This is because this type of food is highly processed to have a long shelf-life. Our pot noodles aren’t going to be very nutrient-dense, and they may have ingredients that our bodies don’t recognise. Remember, if you don’t recognise an ingredient, the chances are, your body won’t either.
When we feel ‘hangry’, we’re just nutrient deprived. We need to give our bodies enough quality nutrients for it to thrive.
PLEASE NOTE: Moderation is key. We have to eat pretty much every day of our lives, so the food we eat needs to be healthy, but it also needs to be enjoyable! Look for healthier versions of meals that you actually enjoy. We can’t live a fulfilled life if we’re depriving ourselves of these daily pleasures. Identify foods in your diet that should be ‘sometimes’ foods, such as processed snacks and meals, and when you do indulge in these foods, enjoy them fully! If you’re aiming for healthy 80% of the time, that’s an awesome place to be. Healthy 100% of the time is unsustainable for most and is only going to leave us feeling bad when we eventually indulge in our not-so-good pleasures. You’re only human, allow yourself 20% wiggle room.
How can nutrition directly impact OCD symptom management?
Food regulates our mood. Giving our body the right types of nutrients can help it to manage OCD symptoms through mood management. If we’re nutrient-deprived, our body is already at a disadvantage before it even encounters a trigger. Nutrition has an impact on all aspects of our health, including OCD.
Many OCD sufferers have a serotonin imbalance. This is why SSRIs are used to treat OCD. SSRIs (or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) essentially work by increasing levels of serotonin, however, they can cause side effects. Always speak with a doctor about medication treatment before taking any medication.
5-HTP is the precursor of serotonin. While 5-HTP is not found in food, there are foods that you can eat that encourage the body’s production of 5-HTP.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is responsible for helping the body produce 5-HTP. Tryptophan can be found in many different types of food, including…
- Pumpkin and squash seeds
- Milk and meat products, such as mutton, chicken breast, beef liver, and turkey breast (if you have access to local farm produce, this will be better for you and for the environment than mass-produced factory-farmed milk and meat products)
- Vegetables, such as spinach, eggplant (aubergine), green peas, broccoli, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms
- Fruits, such as apples, bananas, pineapple, peaches, strawberries and blueberries
Whether you’re a meat-eater, vegetarian or vegan, there are plenty of foods that can naturally encourage the production of serotonin.
Omega-3 fatty acids are now considered essential for natural support for mood and anxiety regulation. Our brains require Omega-3 fatty acids in order to send and receive signals that enable a balanced mood. A great source of Omega-3 is fish! If you don’t like fish, it might be worth considering supplementing with an Omega-3 supplement.
IMPORTANT: Supplementing nutrients is not as good as getting the real thing from whole foods. Always try to get your nutrients from real foods, and supplement only if necessary. Be cautious of where you find your supplements, and always speak with your doctor before taking supplements.
A study conducted in October of 2005, published in the journal ‘Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences’ found that levels of folate were depressed in patients with OCD. Folate is a vitamin closely linked to B-12. Another earlier study conducted in 1988 published in the journal ‘Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica’ examined specifically vitamin B-12 and it’s role in the pathophysiology of OCD. The study showed that patients with OCD were more likely to have a B-12 deficiency than patients who did not have OCD.
B-12 is responsible for the synthesis of DNA and RNA. It plays a role in the maintenance of the nervous system and is involved in the production of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Translated into plain English, B-12 is pretty important! We can find B-12 in animal food sources, such as fish, meat, eggs and dairy. This means that for OCD sufferers who are also vegetarian or vegan, it might be worth supplementing B-12. Remember, getting vitamins from whole foods is better than supplements. Always speak with your doctor before supplementing.
Magnesium is a key nutrient for balanced mood, rest and relaxation. It’s also a vitamin that many people in the western world seem to be lacking in their diets. While there is little research regarding the link between magnesium and OCD, magnesium deficiencies have been linked to depression, and many within the health industry believe that the calming effects of magnesium can be beneficial for those struggling with anxiety and mood-related disorders.
If you’re a chocolate lover, you’re going to love this. Dark chocolate is an awesome source of magnesium! Magnesium deficiencies have also been linked to migraines, so if you experience migraines, grab yourself a few squares of dark chocolate!
Avocados, nuts, tofu, seeds, whole grains, bananas and leafy greens are also great sources of magnesium.
Work with your body, not against it
Nutrition has a huge impact on our bodies ability to heal, regulate mood and thrive. Neglecting to eat the right food while trying to heal from OCD is going to make things a bit more difficult. We want to be working with our bodies, not against them.
Remember, getting your nutrients and vitamins from real, whole foods is ALWAYS better than supplementing. Speak with your doctor before taking supplements.
Breathing exercises are a great way to ease anxiety and decrease stress instantly. Practising breathing exercises on the regular can also help to manage stress long-term.
We’re going to teach you a really simple breathing exercise that instantly eases anxiety. You can practice this anywhere at any time, sitting, standing or laying down.
Let’s give it a try right now. Whether you’re sitting, standing or laying down, relax all the muscles in your body. Bring the shoulders away from the ears around the back. Relax the muscles in the face, relaxing the eyelids. If it’s comfortable for you, you can close the eyes.
Exhale all of the air out of your lungs. Take a long, deep inhale through the nose, hold at the top for a couple of seconds, and slowly exhale through the mouth until all of the air is gone. Repeat, inhaling slowly through the nose, holding at the top for a couple of seconds, and slowly exhaling through the mouth. We’re trying to elongate each exhale here, slowing down the breath.
Repeat a few times. After a few minutes, you should start to notice your thoughts slowing down along with the breath. Stay here, practising this deep breathing for as long as you need to. Even repeating just a couple of times can help to reduce anxiety.
Remember, regularly practising breathing exercises will help to increase lung capacity and help to manage stress long-term. People with OCD encounter anxiety and stress very frequently, so this can be a really useful tool to have to ease anxiety once triggered.
Aerobic exercise is a movement that increases the heart rate that you can do consistently without taking a break. This includes things like speed walking, jogging, running, swimming and cycling.
Aerobic exercise stimulates and strengthens the heart and lungs, improving the body’s utilization of oxygen.
A study conducted in 2017 by Gen Hosp Psychiatry examined the effects of aerobic exercise on OCD symptoms. Participants were asked to continue their regular treatment, adding in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise to their treatment plan for 12 weeks.
The results? The frequency and severity of the participants OCD symptoms were reduced immediately following the aerobic exercise. The overall severity and frequency of OCD symptoms generally decreased over the examined 12 weeks. The positive effects of this experiment were felt by some participants for up to 6 months after the study was over.
Exercise is frequently recommended as an accompaniment to medication and therapy treatment for OCD sufferers.
We’re all unique! We all like different things. If the idea of running bores or intimidates you, don’t force yourself! Find a movement practice that you enjoy. Try speed walking, try jogging or cycling, or both! Experiment and try to find a workout routine that you find enjoyable. If you can enjoy your workouts, it’ll be a lot easier to find the motivation to do them.
Scientific research is showing us time and time again that there are many benefits of mindfulness meditation when it comes to OCD treatment.
Dr Jefferey Schwartz is an American psychiatrist renowned for his work with people suffering from OCD. Leonardo DiCaprio, a celebrity actor, even hired Dr Schwartz to help him understand the mental disorder that a character he was playing suffered from. Leonardo DiCaprio has had his own experiences with OCD in his lifetime, with symptoms worsening for the actor after performing in the movie where he was playing a character with OCD.
Dr Schwartz has had an enormous amount of success in his career treating patients with OCD using the Buddhist mindfulness meditation practice.
The practice of meditation involves sitting (or standing or lying) with our thoughts, noticing when a thought enters the mind, and bringing our awareness back to the present moment, focussing on our breath or on a mantra (a positive phrase).
OCD sufferers will experience extreme anxiety, with intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. Dr Schwartz teaches his patients a meditation technique called the 4 Rs.
- Relabel: Notice when an obsessive thought enters the mind and label it as such. “This is an obsessive thought.”
- Reattribute: Recognise and tell yourself that it is your condition that is creating the obsessive thought.
- Refocus: Bring your awareness to something other than the obsessive thought.
- Revalue: Stop reacting to these thoughts in such an extreme way. Start to work towards paying them less credence.
These steps are simple, but that does not mean they are easy. Practising meditation can be frustrating. It’s hard to evaluate on our own if we’re ‘doing it right’. Sitting alone with our thoughts can be intimidating and uncomfortable.
For all the discomfort and challenge meditation takes, it yields results that are SO worth it. If you’d like to start using meditation as a tool to help manage and reduce OCD symptoms, there are plenty of meditation apps you can use, as well as free guided meditations on platforms like YouTube.
Something to remember
Living with OCD is massively challenging. Speaking with your doctor about a formal treatment plan is always advised. Therapy treatment (sometimes alongside medication) are most commonly used forms of treatment for OCD. These natural ways to manage OCD symptoms are recommended to practice alongside formal treatment, offering instant tools to cope with symptoms and triggers from home.
Overall physical and mental health should not be overlooked throughout the treatment of OCD. If we’re not getting enough quality sleep, if we aren’t eating enough nutrient-dense food, if we aren’t moving our bodies enough, or managing stress in some kind of way, we will be making it harder for us to recover from OCD.
This is a long list that we’ve just covered. Don’t feel like you have to fix all of these items at once, these things take time! Just like building new habits takes time. Identify one area from this list that you can work on, and once you’re feeling confident you’re nailing it, you can pick another item from the list to work on. Give yourself time to heal and recover, offer yourself compassion and empathy as you take on this challenge! You’ve got this!
Gabie Lazareff is a certified health coach, yoga teacher and freelance nutrition & wellness writer. After years of navigating the messy waters of mental health, her mission is to share her experiences and advice with others.