Comparing Natural Remedies for OCD to Standard OCD Treatment

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Last updated December 6, 2021.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

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 obsessive-compulsive disorder — 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, commonly referred to as simply OCD, is the fourth most common mental disorder, affecting more than 2% of the population worldwide.

As the name implies, OCD is characterized by obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions

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

Compulsions are behaviors that a person with OCD feels compelled to perform to try to ease their anxiety. 

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. 

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Underlying Causes of OCD

The underlying causes of obsessive-compulsive disorder are complex and almost certainly multifactorial.

OCD is believed to be caused by any combination of the following factors: 

  • genes
  • environment
  • history of psychiatric disorders
  • childhood streptococcal infection
  • brain abnormalities
  • emotional trauma

Correlations

OCD is linked to a substantial increase in brain inflammation

Interestingly, PET scans reveal that brain inflammation increases when people with OCD try to resist their compulsions.

OCD is also associated with the following dysfunctional levels of neurotransmitters: 

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. 

There’s also a correlation between OCD and higher than usual levels of the stress hormone cortisol

Knowing the underlying causes and correlations of OCD can help you better understand how both drugs and natural treatments for OCD work.

Standard OCD Treatments: Drugs and Therapy

According to the Harvard Medical School, the recommended treatments for OCD are: 

  • drug therapy (usually antidepressants)
  • psychotherapy
  • a combination of medication and psychotherapy

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The first-line standard medical treatment for OCD is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the most popular type of antidepressant.

SSRIs prescribed for OCD include fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, and sertraline.

" The most effective type of psychotherapy for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. It has been found to help 80% of those who try it.

If taking 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. 

These drugs on their own are not extremely successful and, once you quit taking them, you are back where you started.

For these reasons, some kind of psychotherapy is usually recommended as well. 

Traditional psychotherapy (talk therapy) alone is not very effective at treating OCD.

Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy

The most effective type of psychotherapy for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. 

It has been found to help 80% of those who try it.

ERP therapy requires you to face your obsessions, but then refrain from acting on your compulsions.

ERP can be extremely difficult, but if you can stick with it, it can be very effective.

When this kind of therapy works, it actually changes the structure and function of the OCD brain

You can learn more about ERP therapy in “Exposure and Desensitization”, a digital workbook for OCD patients created by the University of Michigan Medical School.

Why Consider Natural Remedies for OCD?

Not everyone who tries drugs or psychotherapy achieves long-term remission of OCD symptoms. 

Prescription drugs help only 50% of OCD patients and carry a higher risk of relapse and side effects. 

The American Psychiatric Association suggests giving any drug treatment 6 to 12 weeks to fully kick in.

If symptoms have not abated after that time, the APA suggests trying a new medication since patients who do not respond to one psychiatric medication sometimes respond to another. 

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If neither prescription medications nor therapy has helped, medical doctors have some more invasive treatments in their arsenal.

They may suggest brain surgery, or techniques such as Gamma Knife radiosurgery, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), or deep brain stimulation (DBS). 

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 psychotherapy, or are reluctant to try more invasive treatments, you might want to consider natural remedies for OCD.

The Best Supplements for OCD

There are a surprising number of supplements that can help by various mechanisms, such as balancing brain chemicals or reducing brain inflammation.

Many of these natural supplements have been studied and found to work as well as prescription medications, without the side effects.

Ashwagandha

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.

Ashwagandha increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), low levels of which are linked to OCD. 

Ashwagandha reduces obsessive behaviors at least as well as the SSRI drug Prozac (generic name fluoxetine) and, when taken together, ashwagandha enhances its effects. 

Curcumin

Curcumin is the main bioactive component in the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).

Curcumin helps OCD by normalizing levels of both dopamine and serotonin and decreasing brain inflammation

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

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Inositol

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.

Several studies have found that inositol can substantially reduce the symptoms of OCD

Inositol is considered a very safe supplement, but therapeutic dosages are high, generally in the range of 6-18 grams per day. 

This makes it virtually impossible to get therapeutic dosages from diet alone.

Milk Thistle

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.

Milk thistle’s main active component is silymarin which works by normalizing levels of both serotonin and dopamine. 

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. 

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. 

N-Acetylcysteine

N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is an amino acid that regulates glutamate and dopamine levels in the brain. 

In one study evaluating the effects of NAC supplementation, over half of the participants with OCD experienced a 35% or greater reduction in symptoms

There’s also evidence that it makes a good adjunct to SSRIs in moderate to severe cases of OCD. 

Psychobiotics

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. 

Most studies use Bifidobacterium (B. longumB. breve, or B. infantis) or Lactobacillus (L. helveticus or L. rhamnosus) bacteria.

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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

Saffron (Crocus sativus) is a prized culinary spice that is also available as a supplement.

Saffron contains crocins, compounds that show potential for reducing OCD symptoms. 

It also has potent antidepressant properties and, by acting on serotonin metabolism, works as well as Prozac for depression

When buying a saffron supplement, make sure it contains genuine Crocus sativus.

Since saffron is expensive, disreputable supplement manufacturers have been known to sell fake or adulterated saffron that contains other plants, such as marigold flowers or turmeric. 

Valerian

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a traditional relaxing herb used mainly for insomnia.

One study found that it significantly reduced the symptoms of OCD

Valerian increases the level of the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA which can be too low in those with OCD.

Take valerian in the evening since it can make you drowsy.

Bitter Orange Essential Oil

One of the most pleasant ways to reduce OCD symptoms is with the essential oil of bitter orange (Citrus aurantium). 

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 technically dietary supplements because they are rarely taken internally.

Instead, they are inhaled or applied to the skin.

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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

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) blocks the breakdown of serotonin, so theoretically, it seems that it could help OCD.

But human studies have found it to be no more helpful than a placebo

5-HTP

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 5-HTP provides any benefits for OCD. 

Tryptophan

Tryptophan is another amino acid precursor for serotonin.

According to the International OCD Foundation, there’s currently no evidence that it helps OCD.

However, it can be a useful adjunct that enhances the effects of SSRIs when taken for OCD. 

Note: 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.

Lifestyle Habits and Mind-Body Techniques for OCD

Beyond supplements, a number of lifestyle interventions can help alleviate OCD symptoms naturally.

Unfortunately, there have been few quality clinical trials on these interventions.

But here are a few techniques with some scientific evidence to support their efficacy in treating OCD.

Exercise

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. 

A 6-week walking program also reduced anxiety and symptoms of OCD. 

Caffeine

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 (less than 6 cups per day) saw a significant reduction in OCD symptoms.

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.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy with meditation.

When OCD patients participated in an 8-week program, they reported improvements in their OCD symptoms that included an increased ability to refrain from compulsive rituals, improved mood, and better sleep. 

Music Therapy

Music therapy enlists the aid of a qualified music therapist trained to address their clients’ physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs.

When used in conjunction with SSRIs and cognitive behavioral therapy, music therapy further reduced obsessions and accompanying symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Acupuncture

One study found that electroacupuncture, which passes a small electric current between acupuncture needles, was a useful complement for OCD patients resistant to standard treatments. 

A team of researchers studied the effects of traditional acupuncture, electroacupuncture, and moxibustion on OCD.

They concluded that these treatments work faster and with fewer side effects than standard medical treatments.

There’s some evidence that they work by balancing dopamine and serotonin activity. 

Neurofeedback

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. 

Emotional Freedom Technique

The Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as “tapping” or EFT, is an effective technique for reducing anxiety of all kinds.

While I’ve seen several dozen scientific studies to support tapping for anxiety, I haven’t found any studies specifically on the benefits of tapping for OCD. 

But I have read a few promising OCD case studies presented by psychotherapist David Lake, MD. 

Watch the Video

Brad Yates is an internationally recognized leader in the therapeutic use of tapping.

If you are already familiar with tapping, follow along with Yates in this YouTube video.

But if you are new to tapping, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the tapping points and sequence in our article 11 Benefits of Tapping for Anxiety Relief.”

Where to Find Drug-Free Professional Help for OCD

If you think you might 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.

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 psychotherapy.

Drugs seldom provide long-term adequate relief on their own.

Fortunately, there are many drug-free treatments and natural remedies for OCD.

Professional help is required for some of these drug-free approaches, including exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, neurofeedback, electroacupuncture, and music therapy.

However, you can start today with natural remedies that you can try on your own — supplementation, exercise, meditation, and tapping.

Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any supplements that increase serotonin levels if you are taking an SSRI.

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