Welcome to the first article in The OCD Series!
This article will discuss a nutritional tool that has helped me recover from OCD and start LIVING. OCD nearly killed me. I understand the hell this illness can be and how hard it can be to find help for it.
I’m going to explain the importance of protein foods for making neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, dopamine and more. Eating more protein-rich foods was one of many nutritional tools that helped me recover when I'd been suffering from OCD for 19 years and it had got to the point where I was struggling to leave my house.
A side note: I don't claim nutrition is the sole answer to OCD, yet it is a powerful tool that helps you establish the foundations of your mental and physical health. Because when you're suffering with OCD and:
-your fears and obsessions bring you to the point of hysteria
-you’re struggling to leave your house / work / socialize
-just the thought of ERP therapy is terrifying (let alone actually doing it)
-and you have all kinds of other health issues going on (such as insomnia, acne, PMS, migraines, digestive troubles and bladder weakness – at age 29, for me)
nutrition is an excellent tool for helping to reduce your symptoms and reclaim the foundations of your mental and physical health.
When I began seeing my naturopath in 2010 for support with OCD recovery, one of the first things I learned from her was the importance of eating enough protein foods for the body to be able to make neurotransmitters. Protein foods such as eggs, fish, meats and beans are made up of amino acids (think of these as the building blocks of protein) and it’s these amino acids that make neurotransmitters like GABA, serotonin and more.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that aid communication within your brain and between your brain and body. They play a big role your thoughts, emotions, sleep, and ability to feel calm, focused and relaxed. In particular, the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA – which literally slows down brain cell activity – is important for calm and anti-anxiety effects. In scientific studies, decreased levels of GABA in the brain and blood have been linked to anxiety, panic attacks, OCD and sleeping problems.
So, for the person with OCD, it would appear to make sense to provide your body with an abundance of neurotransmitter building blocks, in the form of protein foods.
If you have followed me on social media, you may know that I was an ethical vegetarian for 15 years, from age 15 to age 30. While I did eat mostly whole foods – fruit and veges every day, home-grown herbs, home-cooked meals, olive oil, whole grains, free range eggs a couple of times a week, very little fast food – the reality is that fruit and yoghurt smoothies, toast/bread, Japanese noodles, pasta and veges were the foundation of most of my meals. There was very, very little protein (and fat) in my food choices.
The thing is, if you’re not eating enough dietary protein, your body will have a harder time building neurotransmitters. It’s a classic case of we are – or aren’t – what we eat. And interestingly, protein-rich foods such as eggs, chicken, lamb and beef contain good amounts of vitamins B6 and B12 and the mineral zinc, which are also necessary for building neurotransmitters.
After I stopped being vegetarian in late 2010, I experienced great benefits to my physical and mental health – increased sense of calm, better sleep, reduced OCD, thicker and shinier hair, clearer skin, more energy, less bloating. Happier periods and no more migraines. It may not have been solely my switch to eating meat again and eating more eggs that caused these positive changes. Yet eating more protein and animal foods certainly seems to have been a contributor to the positive changes I’ve experienced in my mental and physical health.
I still support animal welfare in other ways and am selective about the meat and eggs I buy. Being honest, during the last few years I was vegetarian, I had been craving meat. And feeling guilty about it – I was good at being really hard on myself back then. When I started eating meat again and started feeling better, I realized my intuition had been trying to tell me something. My body knew what I needed and was giving me signals.
I acknowledge that some people feel fine on a vegetarian diet, yet it seems that being vegetarian doesn't suit everyone. In my case, being vegetarian seemed to exacerbate my health issues. It may be that I am undermethylated – a not uncommon genetic issue that increases the need for certain nutrients found more abundantly in animal foods. I haven't yet embarked on having genetic testing done but may do in future.
I feel it's important to address the argument that a person can obtain all their protein by eating nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. A large handful of nuts or seeds provides about 2-3 g of protein and one cup of cooked lentils or beans provides about 12g of protein.
Given humans need .8g of protein per kilo of our body weight every day (or more if you are pregnant, growing, healing from injury or surgery or very active), you would need to be eating many handfuls of nuts and numerous cups of beans or lentils every single day to meet your daily protein requirements.
Let me be clear – I’m not saying don’t be vegetarian, I'm saying be an informed vegetarian. Seek support from a nutritionist to make sure you're covering your macro and micronutrient bases – especially if you’re still growing, play a lot of sport or are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
And regardless of whether you are vegetarian or eating meat, if you’re suffering from OCD and striving to improve your health, completing a 5-day food diary noting how many grams of protein you’re eating each day (in the form of pea protein powder, eggs, beans, lentils, fish or meats) would be an excellent step to take.
Protein is also important for structural repair in the body (think wound healing, cellular repair, recovery after exercise, surgical healing) and for maintaining stable blood glucose levels, stable mood and energy. Notice how you feel when you eat scrambled eggs for breakfast compared with a bowl of cereal or toast and jam. Does one of these scenarios leave you feeling famished and irritable an hour later? Refined carbs deliver rapidly digested glucose that spikes and then leaves our blood glucose plummeting, increasing anxiety (think of a rollercoaster here). Whereas protein is gradually digested and helps you feel fuller for longer and more grounded emotionally because it delivers a steady rise in blood glucose.
The amino acids in protein are also necessary for your liver to carry out detoxification processes. Without adequate protein, liver detoxification processes won’t be optimal, which can lead to health conditions like PMS, migraines, headaches, acne and excess estrogens (all of which I experienced). And a malnourished liver may struggle with its many other jobs, such as producing the bile needed to break down fats, which are also vital for your mental health.
Which fats nourish and support your nervous system and your mental health and which fats harm will be the subject of my next article.
Increasing the amount of good-quality protein you're eating makes sense if you are seeking to reduce the symptoms of OCD. Because protein supports nervous system function, and nourishing the nervous system is key in recovery from a mental health problem.
As a Nutritionist specializing in helping people with OCD, I tailor nutrition and lifestyle advice to Your personal health history and symptoms. This takes out the guess work for you, getting you results faster. And working with me means you have a support person in your corner who truly understands OCD.
If you’d like to have a chat about how nutrition can support your OCD recovery, I invite you to get in touch for a chat.