Food

Got OCD? Changing Your Diet Might Help

By being mindful about the food they eat, OCD sufferers can actually reduce their symptoms.

Photo Credit: BlueSkyImage/Shutterstock

"You are what you eat" is one of those little phrases that crops up all the time to remind you that food can play a big part in your well being. In other words, if you change your diet, you can change your life.

Not convinced?

Take people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is an anxiety disorder that leads to certain types of repetitive behavior, thoughts or compulsions that are beyond the sufferer's control. This tends to manifest in psychological tics such as repeating gestures or rituals that help provide relief from anxiety. Ironically, by being a bit obsessive about the food they eat, OCD sufferers can actually reduce their symptoms.

OCD is a complex disorder that can be triggered by a number of factors. For that reason, there is no simple solution to reducing its effects. But thinking about the nutrients and vitamins in food and how these affect the body and mental health can make a big difference.

Tryptophan

You’ve likely heard about tryptophan as the ingredient in turkey that makes you feel sleepy. Though this is actually a bit of a myth, there is some truth to its calming effects. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which once ingested, is first converted into another amino acid, 5-hydroxytryptophan, and then into serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. Serotonin helps to regulate essential bodily activities like sleep, mood, pain, appetite, and—you guessed it—anxiety.

OCD sufferers often have a serotonin deficiency. There are a number of foods apart from turkey that contain serotonin-producing tryptophan, including fellow protein-rich foods like chicken, milk, eggs and cheese. Another key source of tryptophan can be found in whole grain foods such as brown rice, quinoa, beans, legumes, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, and nuts. When eating whole grain foods such as bread, pasta and cereal, make sure whole grains are listed as one of the main ingredients to ensure you get the full effects.

Ideal meal: whole grain cereal in low-fat milk or yogurt, topped with granola.

Fruits and Vegetables

There are many causes, known and unknown, for how OCD can develop. One theory suggests the behavior can be triggered by an excessive secretion of adrenalin, which leads to hypoglycemia, more commonly known as low blood sugar.

Clinical nutritionist Jurriaan Plesman of the Hypoglycemic Health Association of Australia explains that this is due to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance takes place when your body is unable to stabilize its blood sugar levels, which leads to an increase in the production of stress hormones such as adrenaline and in turn leads to an increase in anxiety. The solution, Plesman suggests, is a “hypoglycemic diet that can help normalize blood sugar levels and prevent the excessive secretion of the stress hormones, which in turn may reduce or prevent symptoms of OCD.”

Key to such a diet, and really any healthy eating plan, are fruits and vegetables. Along with helping to balance blood sugar levels, fruits and vegetables are a great source of antioxidants—such as beta-carotene and vitamin C—which can greatly help to reduce anxiety.

Ideal, nutrient-rich examples: berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, leafy greens, broccoli, bell peppers, brussels sprouts and squash.

Fish, Walnuts and Flaxseed

You’ve heard fish referred to as brain food, right? Well there’s good reason for that. For one, fish are often rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help with brain function, and as some research suggests, benefit people suffering from nervous disorders. A study published last year directly attributes eating fish to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disorder. Flaxseed and walnuts are also prime sources for omega-3 fatty acids.

Ideal fish: coldwater fish such as salmon, herring, lake trout, halibut and mackerel. 

Folic Acid and Vitamin B12

Ray Sahelian, a nutrition export and author of MindBoosters has some advice in his book for people suffering from OCD. Sahelian suggests OCD sufferers eat foods “rich in folic acid and vitamin B12.” Folic acid foods include broccoli, bananas, potatoes and soy products. B12 can be found in liver and dairy products.

Just as important as eating the right food is avoiding food and certain eating patterns that can add to anxiety. WebMD suggests the following helpful tips for keeping you on the road to a healthier body and mind.

1. Avoid or limit caffeine intake.

Caffeine can heighten stress-induced anxiety, especially if consumed in high quantities. That said, if you already have a lot of caffeine in your diet, it’s important to slowly cut down to avoid sending your body into shock. Apart from coffee and tea, caffeine can also be found in soft drinks and chocolate.

2. Moderate alcohol consumption.

Drinking alcohol to deal with stress often ends up worsening the problem. Instead, “limit yourself to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women” to keep a healthy balance.

3. Maintain consistent mealtimes.

Skipping meals can lead to a drop in blood sugar, which can exacerbate other stress-related symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. 

4. Don’t use food to deal with stress.

It’s important that the food you eat is healthy and helps to reduce stress, but don’t turn to food as a crutch. Comfort eating generally leads to overeating. Instead, seek out other forms of relaxation such as exercise, taking a walk in nature, spending time with pets, or taking a long bath.

“In my current life, I am healthier that I have ever been,” wrote Gianna Marinelli in a blog post explaining how her change in diet affected her life. “I am OCD and anxiety free, for the first time in 10 years, and I owe it to how I am eating. All the residual OCD symptoms are gone, and they only arise when I deviate from eating good foods.”

Marinelli stands as a testament to the benefits of better eating. That said, it’s important to note that OCD is a complex disorder that requires attention on multiple fronts. If you feel you may suffer from OCD, the first step is to reach out to your physician for a referral to a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist. From there, you can begin the holistic process toward recovery, beginning with the food you choose to eat.

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.

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