Welcome to The OCD series. I’m Francesca, a Nutritionist who has lived with OCD since I was 10. In my teens and late 20s, I hit rock bottom with OCD – it was so distressing and debilitating that it almost killed me. Now, after investing time, money and effort in creating a mental health tool box, I am thriving. And I’m supporting people suffering from OCD who want to get their lives back and live free of OCD.
This article is for anyone suffering from OCD who drinks coffee, tea, cola or energy drinks. You’ll learn how caffeine impacts your nervous system. And I’ll share why I went cold turkey on caffeinated drinks for 6 years (yup!), after 19 years of suffering with OCD, and the changes I experienced as a result.
As discussed in previous articles in The OCD series, nourishing the nervous system is key to OCD recovery. However, nourishing the nervous system isn’t just about adding nourishing foods and supplements. It also requires removing foods and substances that deplete the nervous system.
Caffeine is high on the list of commonly consumed substances that deplete our nervous systems. It can be found in the greatest amounts in:
Cola (Coke, any brand of cola)
Plunger coffee and drip coffee
White tea and green tea
Decaffeinated tea and coffee
Have you ever had a coffee and felt sweaty and on edge? Felt intensely stuck in the jaws of the OCD dragon? Found that rumination seems to grip you harder? Felt panicky? And struggled (more than usual) to sleep that night?
How caffeine affects your nervous system
Caffeine easily crosses the blood brain barrier, a membrane between your brain and blood stream. Once caffeine crosses this barrier, it affects the function of your neurotransmitters – the chemical means by which nerve cells communicate with each other. Sleep, thought, calm, mood, rage and memory all reflect the activity of your neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters function as either excitatory or inhibitory. Put simply, excitatory neurotransmitters speed up nerve cell activity and decrease the pauses between nerve cell activity. Whereas inhibitory neurotransmitters slow down nerve cell activity, and increase the pauses between nerve cell activity.
GABA is one of the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitters in the body. It supports calm, relaxation and sleep. It is important to know that caffeine depletes GABA and lowered levels of GABA have been linked with anxiety, panic attacks, addiction, headaches and inflammation. Furthermore, stress also depletes GABA. So if we are already stressed out by events and situations in our lives, plus we’re regularly drinking coffee or tea, we can end up very low in GABA.
Caffeine also inhibits the reception of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in sleep and in the structural integrity of the myelin sheathing - this is the fatty, protective coating on your nerves needed for normal functioning of the nervous system.
By reducing GABA and blocking uptake of adenosine, caffeine makes it harder for the body to take the foot off the gas pedal and for the nervous system to be structurally healthy. This leaves you feeling more anxious, hyper-alert, more stressed, more prone to anger, caught up in distressing rumination spirals and unable to sleep.
But wait, there’s more… A third way in which caffeine hammers your nervous system and makes calm, sleep and freedom from OCD even more difficult is via depletion of the anti-stress mineral magnesium and the B vitamins. Because caffeine is a diuretic (i.e., it makes you pee more), it robs your body of these water-soluble nutrients, which are necessary for building GABA.
In short, consuming caffeine creates a vicious cycle of GABA depletion, adenosine inhibition and loss of nutrients needed to make GABA…resulting in less available GABA and adenosine, possible adverse affects on our myelin sheathing, and increased OCD, anxiety, rumination, insomnia, panic and hysteria.
My experience – cold turkey
As soon as I learned from my naturopath that caffeine wasn’t a friend of my nervous system (in 2010, when I began my recovery), I went cold turkey on tea, coffee and cola. I was sick of being sick with OCD and ready to go all in and make changes. OCD had been in my life for 19 years at that point and I knew if I didn’t act now, I would likely spend the rest of my life seriously ill and debilitated, and unable to fulfill my potential. Feeling better – being able to LIVE – was worth way more to me than the taste and aroma of coffee. It was time to give my nervous system the tender loving care it deserved, by both nourishing it AND taking the load off it.
I felt benefits within weeks – calmer, less rumination, less panic, and I was falling asleep more easily. I also regained normal bladder control – possibly because I was no longer losing so much magnesium. Experiencing urge incontinence in your 20s is not nice and I was thrilled to have this health problem resolve.
My new state of increasing calm – even though the OCD was still there, but now less intense - was such a relief and a sign I was on the right path. I didn’t drink a sip of coffee again until 2016. And to this day, it’s something I drink only once a month.
Three things for you to know and action to take
So now you know that if you have OCD, caffeine is not your friend. I encourage you to consider giving up caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, energy drinks, cola) for one month and see how you feel. What have you got to lose? I’m confident the benefits you feel will outweigh any desire to immediately resume drinking tea and coffee.
Quitting caffeine doesn’t have to be forever. We are all individuals and some people find that after time, once they are well, they can reintroduce caffeine and enjoy it as a treat (not a habit).
And, you don’t have to go cold turkey – you can start by reducing the amount of caffeine you drink from say three coffees a day to two a day, then one a day, and so on, until you are off caffeine.
OCD recovery is a process that involves taking the first step, then taking the next step. And then the next. If you’d like natural health support with your OCD recovery, let’s talk. I’ve been there, and I can help you learn how to move from surviving, to thriving.