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What is OCDOCD Stats & ScienceDo any natural remedies help with OCD? What experts say

Do any natural remedies help with OCD? What experts say

7 min read
Grant Stoddard

By Grant Stoddard

Reviewed by Patrick McGrath, PhD

Jul 17, 2023

The concept of natural remedies stems from the idea that nature provides us with many substances that can support our health and well-being. These remedies can take various forms, including herbal supplements, essential oils, dietary modifications, and mind-body practices like meditation or yoga. 

People often turn to natural remedies as an alternative or complementary approach to conventional medical treatments, seeking a more holistic and potentially gentler way of addressing their health concerns. 

While some natural remedies have been scientifically studied and shown promising results, it’s important to remember that not all natural remedies are supported by robust scientific evidence. 

This article aims to shed light on whether claims that certain natural remedies can reduce the symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be substantiated. We’ll look at a few studies that have investigated topics and see how they stack up against exposure and response-prevention therapy (ERP), long considered the gold standard treatment for OCD. But before we get into all that, let’s briefly take a step back and acquaint ourselves with OCD.

Understanding OCD

OCD affects tens of millions of people worldwide. While often misunderstood as a benign quirk, it’s a serious mental health disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts, urges, and images that cause intense distress. As a result, people engage in compulsive behaviors—physical and/or mental—that are intended to relieve that anxiety. 

Avoidance, checking, reassurance-seeking, and other compulsions can and often do temporarily reduce that anxiety. However, by engaging in these behaviors, people with OCD unwittingly strengthen and perpetuate a vicious and often debilitating cycle, reinforcing their fears and compulsions over time, and impairing their ability to function in various areas of life. 

The diagnostic criteria for OCD include the presence of obsessions and compulsions that take up more than an hour a day, cause distress, or impair everyday functioning. OCD is distinct from other anxiety disorders, often focusing on specific themes. The most well-known are contamination, symmetry, or order, but many people’s obsessions can be violent, sexual, and even pedophilic. 

It’s these more taboo OCD subtypes that are most often misdiagnosed by professionals who have limited familiarity with OCD. This misidentification is one of the key reasons why, on average, nearly 13 years separate the onset of OCD symptoms with a proper diagnosis, and another year and a half elapse before a person diagnosed with OCD finally receives proper treatment. 

When people are correctly diagnosed, however, OCD is highly treatable. ERP, which we’ll discuss later, is effective in about two thirds of cases. Certain medications—chiefly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—are similarly effective at reducing symptoms. However, unlike ERP, they don’t address the root cause of OCD, so once someone stops taking them, their symptoms are likely to return. Often, ERP and medication are used in conjunction, though many people can sustainably regain control of their lives with ERP alone. 

Given the effectiveness of these two first-line treatments, you might be wondering why people would want to pursue natural remedies. Well, for some people, it’s the belief that natural remedies have fewer side effects when compared to pharmaceuticals, though it’s not usually quite that simple.

“If people go beyond suggested uses and dosages, anything can be toxic,” says NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Patrick McGrath. To his point, apple cider vinegar—a fashionable treatment that’s rumored to help anything from weight loss to toenail fungus—can also cause throat burnserosion of tooth enamel, delayed stomach emptying, low potassium levels, and bone loss

“I think it’s important to emphasize that if you’re going to do any of these, talk to your prescriber about them and review the risks and benefits, even if they seem simple or natural.” 

For others, it might be the comparative ease of picking up natural remedies at a health food store or even a supermarket, forgoing the effort and/or expense of seeing a health care provider. However, given that untreated OCD is a severe, often debilitating condition that only gets worse, it’s important to research and scrutinize anything you may use to treat your symptoms. 

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Natural remedies with some evidence of efficacy

“I’ve heard people say that their OCD symptoms have improved due to a natural remedy, but these are one-offs,” says McGrath. “I’ve never seen a general trend.”

I’ve heard people say that their OCD symptoms have improved due to a natural remedy, but these are one-offs. I’ve never seen a general trend.


Dr. Patrick McGrath

That’s not uncommon for natural remedies used in medical treatment as a whole—while many people may have positive experiences using them, their effects aren’t always widely reproducible in studies. That being said, let’s look at what evidence exists to support the effectiveness of specific natural remedies. 

N-Acetylcysteine (NAC)

N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) is a nutritional supplement that has gained attention for its potential benefits in OCD treatment, thought to modulate the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is believed to be involved in OCD. A review of studies examined NAC’s effectiveness in treating OCD and Obsessive-Compulsive Related Disorders (OCRDs) in several trials and case reports. The results showed some promise but were inconsistent: one of the randomized, double-blind trials and one of the case studies showed no therapeutic effect whatsoever.

Inositol

Inositol, a naturally occurring sugar alcohol, has also been studied for its potential role in OCD treatment. It is believed to affect serotonin receptors and intracellular signaling pathways implicated in OCD. Some studies have shown promising results, with a modest reduction in OCD symptoms observed in people taking inositol compared to a placebo. However, the evidence is far from conclusive, and more research is necessary to determine its effectiveness. 

Natural remedies with little to no evidence or inconclusive results

St. John’s Wort

St. John’s Wort is an herbal remedy traditionally used for mood disorders like depression. Some people with OCD may use it due to its potential mood-stabilizing effects. However, research on St. John’s Wort for OCD is limited, and the available studies have produced inconclusive results:

One study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology showed no significant improvement in OCD symptoms compared to a placebo. 

Furthermore, if you’re taking certain evidence-based medications for OCD, there’s reason for extra caution or concern, as St. John’s Wort can interact very dangerously with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are commonly prescribed for OCD due to their proven efficacy. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil and other dietary sources, have been extensively studied for their potential benefits in mental health conditions. Some studies have explored the use of omega-3 supplementation in OCD treatment, but results have been inconclusive, with some studies showing no significant improvement in OCD symptoms. While omega-3 fatty acids offer general health benefits, their specific role in OCD treatment requires further investigation before they could be recommended as a viable option. 

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Evidence-based treatments for OCD

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a type of therapy widely regarded as the most effective psychological treatment for OCD. Developed in the late 1960s specifically for OCD treatment, ERP involves gradually exposing people to situations or thoughts that trigger their obsessions and preventing the accompanying compulsive behaviors. This therapy helps people develop healthier ways of managing their distress and anxiety, reducing their dependence on rituals or avoidance behaviors. While everyone responds to treatment differently, most see a decrease in OCD symptoms within eight to 16 weeks.

Medications can also play a significant role in treating OCD symptoms. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine and sertraline, are commonly prescribed for OCD. These medications increase serotonin levels in the brain, which helps regulate mood and anxiety. Sometimes, healthcare providers may consider prescribing selective serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSNRIs) or other medications to manage OCD symptoms. As we mentioned earlier, stopping medication is likely to result in a recurrence of symptoms if the person hasn’t undergone ERP. 

Combining these two first-line treatments can also offer several advantages. SSRIs can reduce the severity of OCD symptoms, making it easier for some people to begin engaging in ERP and actively participate in exposure exercises. The combination approach has also been found to enhance the effectiveness of ERP in some cases, leading to people being able to manage their OCD in the long term and get back to living life on their terms. 

Getting help

NOCD therapists are specially trained in delivering ERP and regularly refer members to qualified prescribers who can identify medication that may reduce their OCD symptoms. If you think that you or a loved one may be struggling with OCD, I encourage you to learn more about how a licensed therapist can help you or a loved one overcome OCD.

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Gary Vandalfsen

Gary Vandalfsen

Licensed Therapist, Psychologist

I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist for over twenty five years. My main area of focus is OCD with specialized training in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I use ERP to treat people with all types of OCD themes, including aggressive, taboo, and a range of other unique types.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

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