These natural remedies for OCD can ease obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms without side effects and are often as effective as standard OCD treatment.
The first-line medical treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is typically prescription antidepressants, but these drugs aren’t ideal.
They don’t work for everyone and can have unpleasant side effects.
If obsessions and compulsions are running your life, you have other options.
There are numerous natural remedies for OCD — therapies, supplements, lifestyle interventions, and mind-body techniques — that can alleviate the symptoms of OCD without drugs.
What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is the fourth most common mental disorder. (1)
It affects more than 2% of the population, making it even more prevalent than bipolar disorder, panic disorder, or schizophrenia. (2)
As the name implies, OCD is characterized by obsessions and compulsions.
Obsessions are intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that cause distress.
Common obsessions include unreasonable concerns about germs and cleanliness or the overwhelming need for order and symmetry.
Compulsions are behaviors that a person with OCD feels compelled to perform to try to ease their anxiety. (3)
Compulsive rituals include the need to do things in a particular order, obsessive hand washing, or repetitively checking on things, like making sure that doors are locked.
A defining characteristic of OCD is that these habits take a lot of time, cause distress, and interfere with daily living. (4)
Underlying Causes of OCD
The underlying causes of OCD are complex and almost certainly multifactorial.
OCD is linked to a substantial increase in brain inflammation. (7)
Interestingly, PET scans reveal that brain inflammation increases when people with OCD try to resist their compulsions.
And finally, there’s a correlation between OCD and numerous brain chemicals.
- too little serotonin
- too little GABA
- too much dopamine
- too much glutamate
Low levels of another important brain chemical, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), may also be linked to OCD.
BDNF is a protein that stimulates the formation of new brain cells and protects the brain from degeneration. (12)
There’s also a correlation between OCD and higher than usual levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (13)
Knowing the underlying causes of OCD can help you better understand how both drugs and natural treatments for OCD work.
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Standard OCD Treatments: Drugs and Therapy
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the recommended treatments for OCD are drug therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of the two. (14)
The first-line standard medical treatment for OCD is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the most popular type of antidepressant.
If an SSRI doesn’t work, your doctor may prescribe Clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant which generally works better than SSRIs, but often has more side effects. (15)
These drugs on their own are not extremely successful and, once you quit taking them, you are back where you started. (16)
For these reasons, some kind of psychotherapy is usually recommended as well.
Traditional psychotherapy (talk therapy) is not very effective at treating OCD.
The most effective type of therapy is exposure and response prevention (ERP). (17)
ERP therapy requires you to face your obsessions, but then refrain from acting on them.
For example, you may be required to touch what you perceive to be a germ-ridden surface and then not wash your hands.
ERP can be extremely difficult, but if you can stick with it, it can be very effective.
When therapy works, it actually changes the structure and function of the OCD brain. (18)
Why Consider Natural Remedies for OCD?
Not everyone who tries drugs or therapy achieves long-term remission of OCD symptoms. (19)
Therapy helps 80% of those who try it.
Prescription drugs help only 50% and carry a higher risk of relapse and side effects. (20)
The American Psychiatric Association suggests giving drug treatment 12 weeks and therapy up to 20 weekly sessions to fully kick in.
If symptoms have not abated after this time, they suggest trying a new strategy. (21)
If neither prescription medications nor therapy has helped, medical doctors still have some interesting tools in their arsenal.
They may suggest brain surgery, or techniques such as Gamma Knife treatment, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), or deep brain stimulation (DBS). (22)
Most of these treatments have substantial side effects and should not be considered lightly.
If you are among the many OCD patients resistant to the standard medical treatment protocol of drugs and behavioral therapy, you should consider natural remedies for OCD.
Supplements for OCD
There are a surprising number of supplements that can help by various mechanisms, such as balancing brain chemicals or reducing inflammation.
Many of these natural supplements have been studied and found to work as well as prescription medications, without the side effects.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is one of the most important herbs in Indian Ayurvedic healing.
It’s considered an adaptogen, a substance that simultaneously calms and energizes, while increasing your resilience to stress.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
How to Increase BDNF, Key Protein for Healthy Brain Cells
Ashwagandha increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), low levels of which are linked to OCD. (23)
Ashwagandha reduces obsessive behaviors at least as well as the SSRI drug fluoxetine and, when used together, ashwagandha enhances its effects. (24)
Curcumin is the main bioactive component in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).
Additionally, curcumin is as effective for depression as Prozac, minus the side effects.
This makes curcumin an ideal supplement to try if you have OCD accompanied by depression. (27)
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Inositol, formerly known as vitamin B8, shows promise for treating OCD.
The same neurotransmitters implicated in OCD rely on inositol to relay messages.
When inositol is lacking, neurotransmitters can’t do their jobs.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
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Inositol is considered a very safe supplement, but therapeutic dosages are high, generally in the range of 6-18 grams per day. (31)
This makes it virtually impossible to get therapeutic dosages from diet alone.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is an herbal remedy used mainly to protect and detoxify the liver.
One human trial found it to work as well as fluoxetine to manage OCD symptoms. (32)
Fluoxetine is the generic name for the popular SSRI Prozac.
Milk thistle’s main active component is silymarin which works by normalizing levels of both serotonin and dopamine. (33)
Minerals for OCD
Several mineral imbalances have been linked to OCD.
OCD patients typically have lower than normal levels of iron, magnesium, and zinc and higher than normal levels of manganese and calcium. (34)
This indicates that proper mineral balance is important for OCD.
One study found that a combination of zinc and fluoxetine controlled OCD symptoms better than fluoxetine alone. (35)
In one study evaluating the effects of NAC supplementation, over half of the participants with OCD experienced a 35% reduction in symptoms or more. (38)
There’s also evidence that it makes a good adjunct to SSRIs in moderate to severe cases of OCD. (39)
Psychobiotics are probiotics that specifically deliver mental health benefits.
A review of 38 studies found that psychobiotics effectively reduced the symptoms of OCD, anxiety, and depression, while also improving several cognitive parameters. (40)
Most studies use Bifidobacterium (B. longum, B. breve, or B. infantis) or Lactobacillus (L. helveticus or L. rhamnosus) bacteria.
These are the same species that occur in abundance in your gut and are the mainstays of most probiotic supplements.
They also naturally occur in probiotic foods such as traditionally fermented dairy products, soy products, and pickled vegetables.
Saffron (Crocus sativus) is a prized culinary spice with potent antidepressant properties.
Saffron contains crocins, compounds that show potential for reducing OCD symptoms. (44)
When buying a saffron supplement, make sure it contains genuine Crocus sativus.
Since saffron is expensive, disreputable supplement manufacturers try to pawn off fake or adulterated saffron that contains other plants, such as marigold flowers or turmeric.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a traditional relaxing herb used mainly for insomnia.
One study found that it reduced the symptoms of OCD by up to 25%. (45)
Valerian increases the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA which can be too low in those with OCD.
Supplements That Probably Won’t Help OCD
There are a few popular supplements that claim to be helpful for OCD, but their benefits have not held up to scientific scrutiny.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) blocks the breakdown of serotonin, so it seems possible that it could help OCD, but human studies have found it no more helpful than a placebo. (46)
5-HTP is an amino acid precursor for serotonin.
It’s commonly taken for depression, sleep, and anxiety disorders, including OCD.
But there’s no clinical evidence that it provides any benefits for OCD. (47)
Tryptophan is another amino acid precursor for serotonin.
While there’s no evidence that it helps OCD on its own, it can be a useful adjunct that enhances the effects of SSRIs taken for OCD. (48)
Talk to your doctor before taking any supplement that works on serotonin if you are taking an SSRI.
Together, they can cause serotonin levels to elevate, resulting in potentially serious serotonin syndrome.
Other Natural Substances That Can Benefit OCD
The next two remedies are naturally occurring substances that can offer some benefits, but are not considered supplements.
Bitter Orange Essential Oil
One of the most pleasant ways to reduce OCD symptoms is with the essential oil of bitter orange (Citrus aurantium). (49)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
Learn more about how to use bitter orange essential oil in our article on essential oils for anxiety.
Also known as the Seville orange, this is the variety of orange usually used to make marmalade.
Essential oils, including that of bitter orange, are not generally taken internally, but are inhaled or applied to the skin.
Caffeine is notorious for making anxiety worse, and yet there’s some evidence that it can sometimes lessen the symptoms of OCD.
In one study, participants who moderately consumed caffeine saw a 55% reduction in OCD symptoms. (50)
You may already be successfully self-medicating with caffeine.
But if you suspect that it aggravates your anxiety, it may not be worth the side effects.
Lifestyle Activities and Mind-Body Techniques for OCD
Beyond supplements, a number of lifestyle interventions can help treat OCD naturally.
Unfortunately, there have been few clinical trials on these interventions and those that have been done are not of great quality — either very small studies or not reproducible. (51)
But here are a few techniques with some science to support their efficacy for OCD.
Physical exercise is one of the best remedies for mental health in general.
During a 12-week program of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, study participants reported fewer obsessions and compulsions. (52)
A 6-week walking program reduced anxiety and symptoms of OCD. (53)
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
When OCD patients participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program, they reported improvements in their OCD symptoms that included an increased ability to refrain from compulsive rituals, improved mood, and better sleep. (54)
When used in conjunction with SSRIs and cognitive behavioral therapy, music therapy further reduced obsessions and accompanying symptoms of anxiety and depression. (55)
One small study found that electroacupuncture, which passes a small electric current between acupuncture needles, was a useful adjunct for those resistant to standard treatments. (56)
It’s yet to be seen whether traditional acupuncture provides similar benefits.
Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that lets you gain greater control of your mind by changing your brainwave state.
Hyperactivity in certain areas of the brain is consistently correlated with OCD symptoms.
Researchers at Yale School of Medicine found that neurofeedback normalized brain activity in the brains of OCD patients. (57)
Tapping, also known as Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT, is an effective technique for reducing anxiety of all kinds.
While I’ve seen dozens of scientific studies to support tapping for anxiety, I haven’t found any studies specifically on the benefits of tapping for OCD. (58)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
11 Benefits of Tapping for Anxiety Relief
But I have read a few promising case studies presented by health care professionals. (59)
Brad Yates is an internationally recognized leader in the use of tapping.
If you are already familiar with tapping, you can follow along in this video now.
But if you are new to tapping, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the tapping points and sequence in our article above.
Where to Find Drug-Free Professional Help for OCD
If you think you can benefit from professional help, the International OCD Foundation has a directory where you can find therapists, clinics, and support groups that specialize in treating OCD with therapy.
Also, check out our Mental Health Resources Guide where you’ll find directories of alternative mental health resources that specialize in drug-free protocols for OCD and other mental health disorders.
You’ll find complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) health care professionals who do more than prescribe drugs.
Some rely on time-honored traditions such as Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine, while others address underlying causes such as nutritional deficiencies or neurotransmitter imbalances.
Natural Remedies for OCD: Take the Next Step
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by obsessions and compulsions.
The standard medical treatments are antidepressant drugs and behavioral therapy.
Drugs seldom provide long-term adequate relief on their own.
Therapy, especially exposure and response prevention (ERP), can be very helpful, but is not easy.
However, there are many drug-free and natural remedies for OCD.
While professional help is required for some of these natural remedies, supplementation, exercise, and tapping are remedies you can try on your own.
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