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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Natural Therapies

Stress | November 27, 2017 | Author: Naturopath


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Natural Therapies

Approximately 1.9% percent of the Australian adult population has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder that belongs to a group of disorders known as ‘mental disorders’ and is categorized as one of the five anxiety disorders. It is characterized by unwanted fears, obsessions and beliefs that drive compulsive behaviours.  To get a better understanding of OCD, ideally it needs to be looked at in terms of how the disorder functions, what it consists of and how it affects people’s day-to-day living.

Both fear and anxiety drive OCD which is why OCD is categorized as an anxiety disorder. 

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

There are many different types of OCD symptoms that can be subdivided in 2 groups.

The first being the obsessions and the compulsions. These will in most cases interact with each other. For example the obsession may trigger a compulsion, which functions as a way to counter- act the anxiety caused by the obsession. This is sometimes referred to as the OCD cycle. 

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?Obsessions are thoughts, images or impulses that occur over and over again and feel outside of the person’s control. 

Individuals with OCD do not want to have these thoughts and find them disturbing.

In most cases, people with OCD realize that these thoughts don’t make any sense. 

Obsessions are typically accompanied by intense and uncomfortable feelings such as fear, disgust, doubt, or a feeling that things have to be done in a way that is right.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or thoughts that a person uses with the intention of neutralizing, counteracting, or making their obsessions go away.

People with OCD realize this is only a temporary solution but without a better way to cope they rely on the compulsion as a temporary escape. Compulsions can also include avoiding situations that trigger obsessions and carrying out these compulsions doesn’t usually make on OCD sufferer satisfied or bring happiness. 

The International OCD Foundation explains that compulsions are different from ordinary habits or rituals in the following ways:

  • They feel very out of control and are not always done “by choice”
  • The person might recognize that their own thoughts or behaviours are irrational but keep doing them anyway
  • At least one hour per day is spent on compulsive behaviours

Having a routine can be productive, enjoyable and beneficial, however, compulsions usually don’t bring any source of pleasure; instead, they lower anxiety temporarily, but long-term contribute to reoccurring fears and obsessions.

Common Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Symptoms

OCD is found in all age groups, all ethnic groups, and in both men and women. In children, OCD seems to be prevalent in boys more and is usually diagnosed earlier in life than in girls (average age of onset is typically reported as 6–15 for males and 20–29 for females). Research shows that up to one-half of all sufferers will find that their OCD has its roots in childhood, many even before their pre-school years. Most people with OCD start to show warning signs and symptoms as a teenager or in early adulthood, and the disorder is almost always diagnosed before the age of 40.

  • Obsessive thinking, having repeated thoughts and urges that are very hard to stop or ignore
  • A loss of control over behaviours and thoughts, especially in new and unfamiliar situations
  • Anxiety when rituals/compulsions are not performed or are interfered with
  • Repeated mental images that cause anxiety
  • Irrational fears about germs, illnesses and contamination
  • Feelings of aggression, fear and loss of control
  • Strong aversions or feelings against taboo topics such as sex, religion, and/or violence
  • The need to have things in a certain order, place, pattern or quantity
  • Excessive cleaning and/or handwashing
  • Repeatedly keep checking on anything that seems threatening. (Leaving the iron or stove on).

OCD can be further categorized into different subgroups based on their recurring compulsions:

Common Obsessive Compulsive Disorder SymptomsWashers. Usually fear contamination, germs and becoming dirty or sick

Hoarders. Find it very hard to throw things out and pass on unnecessary items

Doubters. Strongly fear being wrong, rejected, blamed or ridiculed by others

Checkers.  Fear being harmed from perceived dangers, such as from fires, robbers, animals, etc.

Counters. Tend to fixate on numbers and need to count things over and over again

Arrangers. Fixate on order, patterns, symmetry and balance

Causes of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Like other mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety, OCD is believed to be caused by a combination of factors related to both nature and nurture.  For example, a person with OCD most likely has some degree of a genetic predisposition to abnormal thinking patterns and brain structure, but their disorder is also likely being triggered by their upbringing and environment.

Although the exact cause of OCD is not certain, most researchers believe that a chemical/hormonal imbalance in the brain plays a part in the development of OCD, although it’s still not clear which comes first. Whether it is the disorder itself, or the chemical imbalance. When people suffering from OCD are given medication to alter certain aspects of their brain chemistry, particularly levels of two neurotransmitters called serotonin and vasopressin; some are able to find relief from symptoms. This suggests that serotonin and vasopressin play an important role in mood and behaviour regulation, and that hormonal imbalances can trigger anxiety.

OCD is caused by a combination of genetics, abnormal brain structure/functioning and life experiences/environment.


OCD seems to run in families. Although having a relative with OCD doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop the disorder itself, many family studies have shown that people with first-degree relatives (such as a parent, sibling or child) have a higher risk for developing OCD than those without a family history. However, it’s always hard for researchers to separate someone’s upbringing from their genetic predisposition.

Brain Structure and Functioning

Recently there have been new ways of using MRI brain scans to measure how different parts of the brain are functionally connected to one another which has revealed patterns of abnormality in the OCD brain. Within the brain, there are two parts most related to fear-based beliefs called the basal ganglia and the thalamus.

Brain Structure and FunctioningA connection/circuit runs from the front part of the brain to the basal ganglia, then to the thalamus, and then back to the front again. Healthy adults have a built-in mechanism that takes place during this brain circuit which acts like an internal filter, helping to decipher events/ thoughts from real and irrational. In people with OCD, this filter seems to be malfunctioning, so they are much more affected by perceived threats or fearful thoughts and have a harder time telling the difference.

Why does this break in normal brain circuits develop? Some researchers speculate that a combination of genetics, inflammation within the brain, and anxiety-provoking experiences (especially at a young age) contribute to abnormal brain processing that leads to OCD.

Life Experiences/Environment

People who have a history of trauma and difficult childhood experiences (like divorce, abuse, neglect or family deaths) are at an increased risk for developing OCD compared to those who don’t. These events seem to alter brain patterns and can even shape the physical structure of the brain which means that reoccurring thoughts wind up forming physical brain changes that make these thoughts more likely to happen again in the future.

Treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

OCD is typically treated with a combination of psychological support and medication. In some cases medication, helpful strategies to reduce anxiety and ongoing social/family support are all that is needed.

However, medication doesn’t solve the underlying problems associated with OCD, especially when it’s not combined with therapy and lifestyle changes.

Psychotropic medication use often leads to recurrence of symptoms and can also cause complications such as depression, sleep problems, changes in appetite/body weight and poor digestive function.

Studies have found that around 90 percent of all people with OCD who exclusively rely on medication have a complete return of their OCD symptoms once they stop taking medication. In contrast, certain therapy techniques used in combination with lifestyle changes can offer long-term relief for OCD symptoms, with no side effects and usually benefits beyond just gaining control over compulsions.

Studies show that therapeutic interventions and social support, without any medications at all, positively change the physical structure of the brain in people with OCD. One study published in the Journal of The American Medical Association found that after 10 weeks of structured exposure and response prevention behavioural and cognitive treatments, the majority of OCD patients showed significant improvements in certain brain processes and better control over OCD thoughts and compulsions.

Below are some of the most well-researched and beneficial treatment approaches for the treatment of OCD

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the leading therapeutic techniques used to treat OCD.

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy is now used in place of traditional psychoanalysis and many other forms of therapy because researchers have learned over the past 15 years that other techniques usually have little impact on the underlying causes of the disorder (ruminating thoughts and fears) and its symptoms. 
Many studies have found that CBT is highly beneficial for people with OCD even without the need for medication, and it can make a dramatic impact on someone’s quality of life within a relatively short period of time.

Reduce Anxiety

General anxiety, and the fear over consequences that will result from not acting out compulsions, is at the root of OCD, so reducing stress and anxiety is key. Certain lifestyle habits are known to either promote or lower anxiety, especially those related to someone’s diet, sleep, level of physical activity and their ability to handle stress.


An unhealthy diet can contribute to anxiety by raising inflammation in the body. This can alter brain structures and neurotransmitter function. A poor diet can also increase moodiness and fatigue as well as leading to weight gain and blood sugar imbalance that result in feelings of jitteriness/nervousness.  Anti-inflammatory foods, healthy fats, unrefined carbs and proteins are important for neurotransmitter synthesizing and balancing someone’s mood and stress response.

Treatment for Obsessive Compulsive DisorderFoods that can help with anxiety include foods high in B vitamins such as grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, poultry, brewer’s yeast and green leafy vegetables.  High-antioxidant foods such as fresh veggies and fruit, as well as raw dairy products.  Foods with omega-3 fats, especially wild-caught fish like salmon, and anti-inflammatory fats like coconut and olive oil, and foods high in magnesium such as leafy greens, nuts and avocados.

Foods that can contribute to anxiety include any added sugars, refined carbohydrates, alcohol and caffeine, refined fats such as most vegetable oils and trans-fats, and processed/packaged snacks that are high in artificial additives.


Fish oil, probiotics, Vitamin D3 and a B-complex are all invaluable in the management of OCD. They help with inflammation, mood regulation, energy levels and helping the body to manage and cope with stress.


The best herbs for OCD are those that are ‘adaptogenic.’ They help balance, restore and protect the body. An adaptogenic herb helps an individual respond to any influence or stressor and normalizes physiological functions. It also helps to lower cortisol which is the body’s stress hormone.

Adaptogens include Ashwaganda, Astragalus, Ginseng, Licorice, Holy basil and Rhodiola. Australia’s best online discount chemist


Clark, David A.; & Radomsky, Adam S. (2014). Introduction: A global perspective on unwanted intrusive thoughts. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders.

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