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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Nutrition

by Jurriaan Plesman, BA(Psych), Post Grad Dip Clin Nutrition

I see the phenomenon of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in terms of underlying metabolic disorders that can be treated without recourse to drugs.

OCD can be described as a wide range of symptoms that compels a person to act or think in repetitive ways also known as rumination. The person may be afflicted with compulsive thoughts or possessed with fear of contamination by bugs. This would result in him/her having to wash their hands over an over again. Others are compelled to make sure that water taps have been properly closed or things are in their correct place. It has features in common with what is often called “perfectionism”, which is sometimes shown as intolerance to people’s foibles. “Rules MUST be strictly adhered to!” This has inevitable consequences to one’s self-image subjected to an obsession that “I am not good enough!”. This may extend to a diagnosis of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, where the person is obsessed about a perceived imperfection of one’s body or bodily functions, such as olfactory reference syndrome (compulsive belief of smelling) PsychCentral. Another common symptom is repetitive thoughts of constant fear of death, aggression, sexual ideation and violence or wanting to harm people or getting irritated by people’s quirky or unconventional behaviour. Other behaviours associated with OCD are nail biting or trichotillomania urges to pull out hair of scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows, skin picking and hypochondriasis (obsessive fears of having an illness). Obsessive thoughts can also be caused by a conviction or delusion that a mood disorder MUST have “psychological” reasons dating back to “forgotten” memories originating from childhood. Symptoms of OCD may vary over time depending on the popular notions of what constitutes obsessive thoughts. But there seems to be a common element of stress that can not be related to the environment. See also: Diagnostic criteria of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCD) in Benjamin J Sadock, 806

OCD seems to be caused by excess secretion of adrenaline, the fight/flight hormone, from an internal origin. Adrenaline is also the focusing hormone, because in case of danger you cannot take your eyes away from the enemy (tiger). Thus it forces you to focus on things. Hence excess adrenaline production can result in Obsessive Thoughts and Compulsive Behaviours of the kind of “making sure behaviour”. Like compulsively making sure that you have closed the door properly or making sure that you have not caught a bug and compulsively washing your hands. Making sure you breath fresh air etc.

Hallucinations and Delusions

Understanding the psychological consequences of OCD could lead us to suspect that the generation of stress hormones can also create the fearful imageries experienced by people suffering from psychotic episodes – during periods of stress – as in schizophrenia. Being suddenly bombarded with endogenous stress hormones – such as cortisol and adrenaline – the mind appears to create images and ideas that fits the strange inner experience of panic and fear. Hence, hallucinations and delusions resulting in excess adrenaline production can make sense to otherwise incomprehensible ‘psychological’ events. This has been further discussed here.  See also Psychological Projection and Hypoglycemia.

The activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) by adrenaline prepares your body for strenuous action in face of danger in the environment. But if the SNS is activated by an internal biological mechanism due to a biological disorder, there is no external enemy or stimulus. So you have to make one up to give you some sort of rational explanation of why you feel the way you do. This is at the root of delusions and hallucinations, where the mind invents causes for abnormal psychological experiences as a result of internal biochemical imbalances.

Some of these weird and varied “psychological” and physical symptoms are explained in Anxiety and the Sympathetic Nervous System.

OCD is a sub-class of anxiety attacks. Both OCD and anxiety attacks are marked by excess adrenaline production mainly caused by unstable blood sugar levels that can easily be tested by medical tests, such as the test for hypoglycemia as explained here.

It can also be tested with a paper-and-pencil test such as The Nutrition-Behavior Inventory questionnaire (NBI) or the Hypoglycemia Questionnaire

The real question is why is the body overproducing adrenaline and at the wrong time and circumstances? The answer lies in the the function of adrenaline. Adrenaline apart from being a fight/flight hormone is also a hormone that converts sugar stores in the body (glycogen) into glucose. (See image) Glucose is the brain’s major source of energy. It requires about 70% of glucose to fuel the biochemical machinery of brain cells. Without that energy brain cells will soon die. Thus whenever the brain senses energy starvation it will trigger the release of adrenaline so as to feed the brain again with energy. For the effects of insulin resistance on the body see here.

The next question is: why is the brain starved of energy with all that sugar being consumed in our society?

The reason is that a person may have a physical disorder that prevents the conversion of sugar sources in food (carbohydrates) into biological energy called ATP. That energy is essential in the production of feel good (relaxing) neuro-chemicals, such as serotonin. Without it we will feel anxious, insecure, in danger and panicky without knowing why.

This is usually the case when a person suffers from Insulin Resistance. Insulin Resistance is usually associated with the development of Diabetes Type II. Most doctors can test this, but they appear to have problems testing for pre-diabetic insulin resistance, because they have not been trained for this. We have a test for hypoglycemia at our web site. This condition is called “The Hypoglycemic Syndrome” which is characterized by unstable blood sugar levels, going up and down. Unstable blood sugar levels, due to insulin resistance, causes the body to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Whenever there is a sudden drop in brain sugar levels, adrenaline kicks in to attempt the redress the imbalance. One immediate remedy to stabilize blood sugar levels is by taking Glycerine as one tablespoon mixed in glass of water and mixed with a dash of lemonade to improve taste.

Thus now we have an explanation how excess adrenaline can cause OCD, and for that matter many other so-called “mental” illnesses. Apart from hypoglycemia, there are many other factors that can contribute to OCD. See:   Silent Diseases and Mood Disorders

The solution is to go on a hypoglycemic diet, as first step in treatment. It may take some time to stabilise blood sugar levels. This is similar to a diabetic diet. It normalizes blood sugar levels, and stops the brain from producing stress hormones. Apart from hypoglycemia there are many other metabolic disorders that are responsible for “abnormal psychological” experiences, but this is another matter. See “Silent Diseases and Mood Disorders” below.

Please discuss this article with your health care worker, doctor or nutritional doctor or therapist.

See also Research Studies:
Depression and Insulin resistance

13 Responses

  1. kakrpa says:

    Hi JP, I suffer from severe anxiety/OCD (purely obsessive rumination) and have read your articles w great interest. I came across another article just now that seems to resonate with your articles. Thoughts? Is best way to approach pH mainly diet/exercise? Thinking there are prob supplements that might help as well? 🙂


    • Jurriaan Plesman says:

      I am not familiar with pH levels associated with hypoglycemia. There is a study showing a low pH levels linked to Metabolic Syndrome which shares insulin resistance. I think the best approach is the adoption of the hypoglycemic diet in treating anxiety/OCD.

  2. Nick says:

    Hi JP,

    Thanks for the article. I have suffered from severe OCD since I was very young and find it gets increasingly worse during times of stress/anxiety. I recently cut out sugar from my diet and after a week felt much more calm and had more energy. My OCD reduced as well.
    I then had a few drinks on the weekend and for the next couple of days again felt anxious/irritable and tired.

    I have since read that alcohol has a similar effect to sugar on your insulin release, so I have cut out alcohol too.

  3. Karl says:

    I have suffered from OCD and ruminations since I was about 12 years old. I agree with most of the above on this site,particularly the role in adrenaline. Since I have given up strenous exercise such as weight training and press ups etc,my OCD has decreased. It was also bad last year when I was on creatine supplements. The exercise itself became a compulsion. Since I have packed it in my OCD has fallen and I am a lot more chilled out. I dont ‘plan’ to do things as much as I did,I just do them when I want to.

  4. Autumn Root says:

    I was reading this article because of a show on 20/20 about OCD in children. Our family is currently taking a supplement called Plexus slim. It works to balance blood sugars and has really helped myself and my son with anxiety, sleeplessness and fatigue. I do think because of our diets high in so many sugars these disorders are becoming even more prevalent. We are so thankful for Plexus!

  5. george says:

    Do you think nail biting would be helped by a hypoglycemic diet?

  6. Andrea says:

    Oh wow! This is the most well explained and best worded description of ocd/ obsessive compulsive behaviour that I have ever come across and I have read many explanations by many highly ‘educated’ professionals in the area. Thank you so much for contributing this piece of writing and knowledge. I know mine is caused by not eating breakfast and leaving it until I’m starving until I eat… coupled with copious amounts of coffee. Since I have started having oat bran daily, I’ve noticed my blood sugar is A LOT more stable and I can get things done without being paralyzed by incessant thoughts. Thanks again for the article!

  7. Ruben says:

    I love this article, thank you so much, I used to have severe OCD I change my diet when I read a similar article, cut out sugar and caffeine, I keep a journal of what I ate and how I felt and I soon realized for me, Ruminations where so much more strongly correlated with Sugar than with caffeine. I was shocked. Caffeine will have me focused but if I add sugar, I’d have terrible thoughts!

    • Penelope says:

      I totally concur Ruben! I gave up coffee a few years ago because I thought it was the cause of my anxiety but quickly replaced it with tea (which I know, does have caffeine in it as well). Things actually became worse and I couldn’t work out why until recently … I was finding the L-Theanine in tea was actually ‘doping’ me, so instead of being unable to focus because I was stimulated by caffeine, I couldn’t focus because I was being ‘sedated’ by L-Theanine. I’m back on coffee now but I percolate my own and have 50% decaf/50% non-decaf.

      I’ve known I have also had an issue with sugar(s) for sometime too but have generally managed most types except refined sugar and I am very cautious with alcohol. Unfortunately, my sis-in-law served up a lovely serving of (very sweet) mixed berry and apple pie on Friday evening … I couldn’t understand why I was having trouble falling asleep that night (because I hadn’t gone anywhere near my daily allowance of coffee since the morning) until I woke the following morning with a ‘sugar hangover’ and realised that the sweetness of the berry pie was in fact refined sugar and not just the fruit. When I woke my mind went immediately into ruminating mode and I hadn’t experienced morning anxiety like that for weeks. The connection was very obvious.

      I’m also wondering JP, where do bananas fit into this equation? Are they ok to consume if you have a tendency to not tolerate sugars well, or should they be avoided at all cost?

      With thanks.

  8. KG says:

    High protein works. What about protein bars the only concern is sugar though. What else is there with so much protein?

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