If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, you already know that living with the mental illness comes with a lot of challenges. It might have gone untreated for a long time, or you faced a bumpy road finally getting a diagnosis. Or perhaps your OCD was poorly treated, and you recognized how the symptoms shrunk your life.
As a result, it may be difficult for you to do things you’d otherwise enjoy, socialize with others, or you may not want to leave the house, and even miss work and school because of your OCD.
Searching for any and all solutions for your OCD symptoms can feel empowering. You want to feel better, after all! Which is why asking Dr. Google for things that you may be able to take over-the-counter—like supplements—in addition to your other treatments, can be so appealing. Plus, you may be interested in managing your OCD in a more holistic or natural way, says Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and a Director of Clinical Programming at NOCD.
Whatever your reason for considering supplements for OCD, here’s what you need to know about whether they can really help or not, according to the research, and the best treatment for OCD.
What triggers OCD symptoms
OCD is a mental health disorder that affects 1.2% of adults in the U.S. each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. When you have the condition, you experience a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Here’s what these are in a bit more detail:
- Obsessions are intrusive, unwanted thoughts, ideas, feelings, sensations, or urges. And because they’re intrusive and unwanted, they can be extremely distressing.
- Compulsions are behaviors, whether mental or physical, that are done to neutralize the distress triggered by obsessions or prevent a feared outcome. Examples include checking, cleaning, repeating phrases, counting, and avoiding places and situations that could trigger an obsession.
The insidious thing about this mental illness is that each time you perform a compulsion, your OCD grows stronger. Your brain learns that compulsions make you feel better, although only temporarily, and then the cycle of fear and anxiety begins again.
There are lots of different subtypes of OCD. Some of them include themes such as contamination, sexual orientation, harm, and existential OCD. But the one thing that they all share is that they steal away from your life.
What to know about over-the-counter supplements
Dietary supplements can include vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes that are designed to either fill gaps in your diet (think: iron or vitamin B), or can be used to help manage certain medical conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
However, just because you can pick them up in any grocery or drug store without a prescription doesn’t mean that they’re without risk. While the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has some regulation over supplements, it does not require that they be approved. This means that it’s up to the company itself to ensure the accuracy of the label and safety of what their bottle contains. (You can see how this could be a problem, and research has shown that everything from product claims to the amount of the active ingredients on the label can be inaccurate.)
That’s why it’s important to think through any supplements you’re taking, and talk with your healthcare team to ensure that you choose a reputable brand that’s safe for you and won’t interact with any other medications or supplements you’re taking.
And overall, keep in mind that you should treat supplements as exactly what they are: as a way to supplement the other treatments you’re doing to manage your OCD symptoms—not as a replacement for evidence-based treatment, says Dr. Farrell. What’s more, much of the available research on supplements and OCD is limited, inconclusive, contradictory, or funded by the manufacturer.
Supplements that may help with OCD
So which vitamins, minerals, and supplements may be worth looking into and discussing with your health care provider if you have OCD? Here’s a rundown. Remember: Using them alone will not treat your OCD, and doing so could also delay your efforts to improve your symptoms. But they could be a part of your overall treatment plan.
Selenium and zinc
There are some nutrient deficiencies that appear to be common among people with mental health disorders, according to a 2020 study published in General Psychiatry that reviewed the research on supplements for OCD. Two of these deficiencies include selenium and zinc, and the evidence suggests that supplementing with these minerals may be associated with a reduction in OCD symptoms, possibly because they affect antioxidant processes in the body that could influence the development of the disorder. Talk to your doctor about if your levels of these, or other, nutrients should be tested.
There is a potential link between low levels of vitamin B12 and OCD, according to a meta-analysis of studies published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. B12 is necessary for certain biochemical processes that affect neurotransmitters—chemical messengers in the body that can impact mood regulation. The study authors found that inadequate B12 in the blood vastly increases OCD symptoms, suggesting that physicians should keep tabs on levels of this vitamin in patients with OCD.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that popping B12 supplements will get rid of your obsessions and compulsions, but it may be worth talking to your doctor. A simple blood test can measure your levels and start a conversation about whether it’s a good idea to supplement, whether for OCD or your general health.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)
NAC is a compound that’s traditionally been used to treat cystic fibrosis, acetaminophen overdose, and chronic obstructive lung disease. One of NAC’s functions is to break up mucus, as well as act as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. However, it also may aid in the treatment of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and OCD, according to research published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, as NAC may improve your mitochondria’s resilience against stress. (Mitochondria is the energy powerhouse inside each cell.)
The study’s authors also note that randomized clinical trials have shown that when used alongside antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), NAC may help reduce the severity of OCD symptoms, and also improve anxiety in people who have treatment-resistant OCD. However, the research—while promising—isn’t conclusive, and more studies are needed.
Adaptogens, like ashwagandha or rhodiola, are medicinal herbs that are believed to improve the body’s response to stress. Since OCD creates a lot of anxiety within a person, finding something you can take as a supplement—or drink as a tea—can be a relief. And, indeed, a small randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial found that people on SSRIs who were assigned to take an ashwagandha extract for six weeks reported fewer OCD symptoms compared to a placebo group. These adaptogens were also found to be safe.
Again, this was considered to be a supplemental treatment for OCD and was not intended to be used alone to manage the disorder. “Many folks with OCD end up over relying on products or substances like adaptogens to try to downregulate their stress and anxiety. And these are seldom a long-term viable solution,” says Dr. Farrell. “You can never rid yourself of your body’s ability to experience anxiety and fear—nor should you want to. That distinction is really important to understand for long-term recovery.”
The best treatment for OCD
The bottom line about supplements is that they might not hurt, but they might not help either, especially as a front-line treatment. If you’re looking for a natural, research-backed way to manage your OCD, it’s a therapy called exposure and response prevention, or ERP.
This type of treatment involves confronting your obsessions or fears related to OCD—with the help of a licensed therapist—by putting yourself in situations that you’re trying to avoid. Then, you’ll make the choice not to engage in compulsions in order to neutralize the distress you feel.
“ERP encourages more natural—or normalized—behavior in response to common triggers or stimuli,” says Dr. Farrell. By withstanding the distress, rather than trying to fix it with a compulsion, you will learn that you can push through the discomfort and are stronger than you think. Eventually, this process will habituate your brain to your OCD triggers so that they’re no longer something to fear. Your obsessions may even become boring.
“We don’t know of any literature that supports a ‘natural remedy’ that’s anywhere near the volume of science that supports frontline interventions like ERP and pharmacological strategies,” says Dr. Farrell.
What’s important is that you should undergo ERP with a therapist who is specially trained in the treatment. Your therapist will teach you response-prevention skills so that you can avoid performing your compulsions. Sometimes, ERP is all that’s needed to treat OCD.
In some instances, medication is used in OCD treatment, the most common being SSRIs. The combination of ERP and a prescribed medication is often more effective than either one of them alone. As one study found, people with OCD who added medication to their ERP treatment experienced more than three times the reduction in symptoms compared to another group who took the medication alongside stress management training. Starting these medications doesn’t mean you’ll be on them forever. In fact, many people find that they’re able to decrease or stop taking their antidepressant after a year or two (under the care of their health care provider or psychiatrist).
It’s important to talk to your therapist and doctor and discuss any supplements you’re taking—or are interested in trying. If you have questions or concerns about any treatment, don’t hesitate to share them, so you can understand why they’re being recommended. And if you’re interested in a natural approach to OCD, know that you can’t get more natural than ERP.
OCD can lock you into a place of anxiety and distress. If you’re ready to break free, learn how ERP can help your symptoms at NOCD. We provide virtual, live ERP treatment with therapists who are licensed in this science-backed type of treatment.
So where to start? You can begin with a free, 15-minute phone call with NOCD to learn if it may be right for you. If so, you’ll complete a comprehensive assessment, and your therapist will work on individualizing a plan that’s specific to your OCD. Even if you don’t meet the criteria for OCD, the clinician will guide you to finding help. Because everyone deserves to feel better again.