I lived with moderate to severe OCD for 20 years. It eventually became so debilitating that leaving my house became a struggle. After finally deciding enough was enough and committing to working on all aspects of my mental and physical health in my early 30s, I experienced 80–90% reduction in my symptoms of OCD.
Nutrition was one of the tools that helped most.
This led to me studying to become a nutritionist, and eventually writing my ebook, Nutrition for Your OCD Recovery. It’s available in Kindle and pdf formats here.
This article discusses a nutrition and lifestyle change that my clients routinely report leads to reduced frequency, intensity and duration of their OCD spikes: taking a break from caffeinated 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 one of the most commonly consumed substances that stimulates your central nervous system. It can be found in:
Cola (Coke, any brand of cola)
Plunger coffee and drip coffee
White tea and green tea
Decaffeinated tea and coffee (though in small amounts)
Ever had a coffee and felt sweaty and on edge? Felt intensely stuck in the jaws of the OCD dragon? Found that obsessions seem to grip you harder? Noticed your thoughts racing? And struggled (more than usual) to sleep that night?
How caffeine affects your nervous system
Caffeine crosses your blood brain barrier, the 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 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 (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is one of the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitters in your body. It supports calm, relaxation and sleep. People with OCD, take note: caffeine decreases GABA levels and lowered levels of GABA in the brain and blood serum have been linked with anxiety disorders, panic disorder, addiction, migraines and inflammation. Furthermore, stress also depletes GABA by increasing the metabolism of nutrients such as vitamin B6, which is a building block for GABA. So, if you’re already stressed out by situations in your life, plus you’re regularly drinking coffee, tea or energy drinks, you can end up low in GABA and more vulnerable to feeling anxious, panicked and experiencing OCD spikes.
Caffeine also blocks uptake of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in sleep and maintaining the structural integrity of your myelin sheathing – the fatty, protective coating on your nerves that supports efficient transmission of nerve impulses. It’s worth noting that medical imaging studies have found people with OCD have abnormalities in their brain myelin when compared with the brains of people who don’t have OCD. This is not to say caffeine is what causes myelin abnormalities in people with OCD. But given caffeine is an adenosine inhibitor and adenosine plays a role in maintaining myelin integrity, drinking caffeine regularly isn’t likely to support the health of your myelin.
Finally, a third way caffeine affects your nervous system is via depletion of the anti-stress mineral magnesium and the B vitamins. When consumed in greater amounts, caffeine has a diuretic effect – it makes you pee more. This leads to loss of water-soluble nutrients like the B vitamins and magnesium, which are necessary building blocks for GABA, the calming inhibitory neurotransmitter discussed above.
In short, regularly drinking caffeinated beverages causes reduced brain and blood GABA, adenosine inhibition and loss of nutrients needed to make GABA. This leads to less available calming GABA and sleep-supporting adenosine, possible adverse effects on your myelin sheathing and increased anxiety, rumination, insomnia and panic.
My cold turkey experience
In 2010, when I began my OCD recovery, I learned from my naturopath that caffeine wasn’t a friend of my nervous system.
So, 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. I knew if I didn’t act now, I would likely spend the rest of my life seriously ill and unable to fulfil 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 experienced benefits within the first month of quitting caffeine and making other changes to my diet and lifestyle. I felt calmer, OCD spikes were less intense, and I was falling asleep more easily. My new state of increasing calm was such a relief and a sign I was on the right path. I didn’t drink a sip of coffee again until 2016. These days, I drink coffee about once a month. I favour plunger coffee but if I do have a café coffee, I’m that rare person requesting “single shot, as weak as possible, please”.
So now that you have a better understanding of how caffeine impacts your nervous system and mental health, 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 the loss of caffeinated drinks.
And, you don’t have to go cold turkey. You could start by reducing the amount of caffeine you drink from, say, three coffees a day to two a day, and then one a day, then half a cup a day, until you are caffeine free.
If you’d like to learn more about how nutrition can support your OCD recovery, check out my ebook - it's the world's first evidence-based guide to Nutrition for Your OCD Recovery.