Can a Serotonin Deficiency Trigger OCD?

How do you feel? Have you been feeling especially anxious, depressed, or aggressive? Have you been more impulsive than usual? Have you been forgetful and/or extremely tired? How is your sleep? Are you suffering from insomnia or “sleeplessness?” Have you been acting impulsively lately? And, last but not least, do you suffer from OCD?

Why does it matter? Because low levels of serotonin can affect how you feel and can trigger or worsen OCD.

Researchers have found that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety condition, is linked to low levels of serotonin. Serotonin, a hormone/neurotransmitter, performs a variety of functions in the body, which is why a serotonin deficiency can lead to anxiety-provoking OCD symptoms.

If you are wondering if your OCD symptoms are connected to low levels of serotonin (a serotonin deficiency), you have come to the right place. This article will help you connect the dots, so you have a better understanding of what could be causing your OCD.

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What is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a hormone/neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain) that is responsible for “transmitting” messages to various parts of the brain. Keep in mind that many brain cells (approximately 40 million) have serotonin receptors – receptors that regulate your bodily process and influence how your brain functions.

Serotonin can affect your mood, libido, sexual health, sleep, memory, appetite, learning, body temperature, and even social skills. It can also impact your mobility, cardiovascular system, nervous system, endocrine system, etc.

Listed below are other ways that serotonin affects your health and well-being:

  • Helps you sleep more soundly at night
  • Helps regulate the amount of calcium in your bones
  • Helps your blood clot
  • Helps balance your mood
  • Helps improve your libido (sexual desire) and sexual function
  • Helps improve digestion

What is Serotonin Deficiency?

Serotonin deficiency (low levels of serotonin) is a complex condition that is devoid of diagnostic tests and guidelines. This condition is usually diagnosed through symptoms and observation, rather than blood tests, assessments, or other labs.

Although serotonin deficiency has been linked to both psychological and physical symptoms, more research is needed to determine the exact cause(s) and role(s) in the body. Studies indicate that approximately 95% of serotonin lies in the lining of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract – with 5% of it residing in your brain.

Researchers have found that at least some of the serotonin found in your gut not only helps move your platelets (cells needed to clot your blood) through your body but also aids in other bodily processes, such as:

  • Immune System Function
  • Bone Development
  • Digestion
  • Cardiac (Heart) Function

What Causes a Serotonin Deficiency?

Truth be told, researchers are unsure as to what exactly causes serotonin deficiency. Some studies suggest that childhood stressors or early life experiences may disrupt the transfer of serotonin in the body. More specifically, researchers surmise that serotonin deficiency occurs when stress, illness, poor diet, not enough quality sleep, etc., interrupts the microbes in your gut (bacteria that help produce serotonin). However, keep in mind that most of these studies were conducted with animals, so more research is needed to determine the true cause(s) of serotonin deficiency in humans.

Listed below are other possible causes of serotonin deficiency:

  • Chronic Stress
  • Nutritional Deficiencies
  • Poor Digestion
  • Illegal Drugs
  • Prescription Medications
  • Hormonal Changes or Imbalance
  • A Lack of Sunlight
  • Inadequate Active Serotonin Receptors
  • Premature Metabolism of Serotonin
  • Low levels of L-Tryptophan, Vitamin D, Vitamin B-6, and/or Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Nutrients Needed to Produce Serotonin

What are the Symptoms of a Serotonin Deficiency

Listed below are the symptoms of serotonin deficiency:

Psychological Symptoms
  • Anxiety
  • Mood Swings
  • Irritability
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Aggression
  • Impulsivity
  • Insomnia
  • Dementia or Cognitive Decline
Physical Symptoms
  • Poor Digestion
  • Insomnia or Sleep Issues
  • Low Platelets
  • Fatigue or Low Energy
  • Glucose (Blood Sugar) Imbalance
  • Abnormal or Irregular Liver and/or Cardiac Functions
  • Overactive or Underactive Immune System Function
  • Chronic Pain
Physical, Behavioral, and Emotional Conditions Linked to Serotonin Deficiency
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Disorder and Panic Attacks
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Heart Disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Gastrointestinal Distress – i.e., Nausea, Vomiting, Diarrhea, Constipation, Upset Stomach, and/or Abdominal Pain
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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What Are the Warning Signs of Low Serotonin?

Healthy levels of serotonin in the brain help you feel happy, energetic, positive, “balanced,” rational, calm, and safe. Conversely, low levels of serotonin in the brain can cause you to feel sad, tired, negative, antsy, angry, irritable, moody, and/or worried. A serotonin deficiency can make you feel pessimistic, sad, distrustful, or even cause a panic attack. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and other health problems.

Listed below are the warnings signs of low serotonin:

  • Anxiety

    If you suffer from a serotonin deficiency, you may experience anxiety, panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or OCD.

  • Hypersensitivity

    Serotonin helps “balance” your moods. Thus, a low level of serotonin can cause you to be “super sensitive” towards things, in which any little thing can stress you out and trigger anxiety and OCD symptoms.

  • Fatigue

    When you do not produce enough serotonin it can cause fatigue, lethargy, low energy, poor motivation, and/or indifference. Grappling with obsessions and performing compulsions can be pretty tiring, especially when you are dealing with low serotonin levels.

  • Reduced Libido (Sex Drive)

    Too little serotonin can impact your libido or sex drive. Remember, serotonin is linked to happiness, sexual function, satisfaction, etc. When you have a serotonin deficiency, you do not produce an adequate amount of the hormone/neurotransmitter or your body prematurely uses up it, leading to reduced libido and/or sexual dissatisfaction.

    Sometimes people with OCD have a hard time focusing on anything besides their intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and ritualistic behaviors (compulsions) – including sex. Thus, the drive to have sex or engage in sexual activities diminishes because these individuals’ minds are somewhere else.

  • Insomnia

    It is common to experience insomnia or other sleep issues when your serotonin levels are low. It is also possible to experience nightmares or night terrors, jitteriness, an inability to fall asleep, and/or frequent nighttime wakeups. Researchers have found that people with OCD tend to have a hard time falling and staying asleep due to racing and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and urges to perform certain rituals and routines (compulsions).

    Note: Serotonin is linked to your circadian rhythm (internal clock), which means that it plays a role in how well you sleep at night.

  • Noise Sensitivity

    Low levels of serotonin can make you extremely sensitive to internal (intrusive thoughts) and external noises (ritualistic behaviors). Even the “quietest’ noises can feel overpowering when a serotonin deficiency is causing or contributing to your anxiety and OCD.

  • Mood Swings

    If you are constantly having mood swings, you could be suffering from a serotonin deficiency, primarily because serotonin is responsible for stabilizing your moods. This is especially prevalent in people, who suffer from low serotonin levels and OCD. You may also experience depression, anxiety, aggression, hypersensitivity, and/or despair.

    Note: Most of the time, these effects are temporary. Once your body replenishes the serotonin, the symptoms usually diminish or disappear.

How is Serotonin Linked to OCD?

As mentioned above, the exact link between serotonin and OCD is largely unknown at this time. However, because serotonin behaves like a chemical messenger in the brain, there is likely a psychological component that affects a person’s thoughts and behaviors. Researchers have found that people, who have low levels of serotonin and OCD tend to have more negative thoughts (obsessions) and engage in more rituals and routines (compulsions), than those without low levels of the hormone/neurotransmitter. Some researchers believe that it is OCD that triggers low serotonin levels – not vice versa.

As prefaced above, serotonin is used to transfer messages between cells. If you have little to no serotonin, there is a good chance that neurons (nerve cells) quickly reabsorbed it after your body produced it. When serotonin is prematurely reabsorbed, it is unable to properly transfer the messages throughout your brain and body. This problem can be rectified with SSRIs (antidepressants). One of the benefits of SSRIs is it helps serotonin stay in your system longer, so it can perform its duties without it being reabsorbed.

Serotonin-related OCD is treated just like other forms of OCD – with medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, and/or self-help tools.

In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new OCD treatment called “deep brain stimulation.” Deep brain stimulation involves implanting electrodes on your brain. The electrodes transmit a pulsating electrical current to your brain with the intent of stopping the intrusive thoughts that are fueling your compulsive behaviors.

Another option for OCD sufferers is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac, Paxil, Luvox, and Zoloft. However, the most common OCD treatment involves medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure-response prevention (ERP) therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), along with lifestyle changes, and self-help tools, like Impulse Therapy, an online OCD treatment program.

Note: SSRIs are usually prescribed when other treatment approaches (i.e., therapy, lifestyle changes, natural remedies, and/or self-help tools) have failed. When this is the case, a doctor may ask you to continue with the other OCD treatment methods while adding an SSRI to the treatment plan.

How Can I Naturally Boost My Serotonin Level and Ease My OCD Symptoms?

Fortunately, many natural remedies can improve your serotonin level.

Listed below are the ways that you can naturally boost your serotonin level so you experience fewer OCD symptoms:

  • Get Regular Exercise

    Exercising immediately triggers certain hormones (i.e., insulin, cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, etc.) and neurotransmitters (i.e., dopamine, noradrenaline, etc.) in your brain and body. These hormones and neurotransmitters are produced and released in your body to boost your energy and mood.

    In other words, exercise is designed to make you feel good – or at least better. And, if you struggle with OCD, exercising helps your brain form additional serotonin receptors, which are needed to ease your stress, improve your mood, and “quiet” your mind (i.e., non-stop intrusive thoughts).

  • Adopt a Healthy Diet

    Adopting a healthy diet ensures that your body receives the necessary vitamins and minerals for optimal functioning. A healthy mind and body can lead to fewer obsessions and compulsions. On the flip side, not getting enough of these nutrients often places stress on your body – stress that can lead to anxiety and OCD-like symptoms.

    To keep your stress and anxiety low and prevent low levels of serotonin, it is important to consume lots of healthy foods (i.e., whole grains, low-fat dairy, fresh fruits and veggies, legumes, lean meats, fatty fish, etc.), and remove junk, processed, fatty, salty, and sugary foods from your diet.

    Note: Foods rich in omega-3 (i.e., salmon, sardines, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, etc.) and B-vitamins (i.e., leafy greens, salmon, eggs, milk, beef, legumes, yogurt, chicken, turkey, etc.) support healthy brain development and function. Vitamin B-6 (i.e., chicken, tuna, chickpeas, spinach, squash, bananas, watermelon, pineapples, grapes, mangoes, salmon, turkey, etc.) also aids in serotonin production and release.

  • Try Nutritional Supplements

    Although foods are always better than supplements, if you are unable to receive the nutrients through your diet, nutritional supplements (i.e., 5-HTP, Vitamin B-3 or niacin, tryptophan, vitamin B-6, and/or SAM-e) may be your best option – unless you are currently taking SSRIs for anxiety, depression, or OCD. Most nutritional supplements, except for vitamin B-6, should not be combined with antidepressants.

    Listed below are the adult dosages for OCD:

    • 100mg of 5-HTP
    • 20mg of vitamin B-6
    • 50mg of vitamin B-3
    • 200mcg of folic acid
    • 200mg of vitamin C
    • 100iu of vitamin E

    Note: Children, over the age of 5, may be given half of the adult doses. You do not have to take the supplement(s) daily – as long as you take them at least 5x a week for at least 6 weeks, you should still experience a noticeable improvement in your serotonin level and OCD symptoms.

  • Get Some Sun

    Researchers have found that bright light exposure (i.e., sun, light box, etc.) may boost the amount of serotonin in your brain, possibly leading to fewer OCD symptoms.

  • Ramp Up Your Consumption of Tryptophan-Containing, Protein-Rich Foods, and Complex Carbohydrates

    Certain foods are known to naturally increase serotonin.

    These foods include:

    • Chocolate
    • Fatty Fish (i.e., salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, sardines, etc.)
    • Green Tea
    • Fermented Foods (i.e., pickles, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, sourdough bread, kefir, kombucha, etc.)
    • Turmeric

    Note: Truthfully, consuming refined carbohydrates is the quickest way to boost your serotonin levels. But, although sugar (a refined carbohydrate) can increase your serotonin levels, it can also trigger or worsen your stress and anxiety, and thereby, your OCD symptoms.

    Therefore, the most effective way to increase your serotonin levels and ease your OCD symptoms is to consume both tryptophan-containing, protein-rich foods, and healthy complex carbohydrates.

  • Invest in an OCD Treatment Program

    Online OCD treatment programs, like Impulse Therapy, can help you get a grasp on your OCD symptoms while working on your serotonin levels. These programs can provide some much-needed support and guidance as you traverse the choppy waters of OCD. Impulse Therapy offers a wide range of tools and resources designed at helping you get back on track in your life

  • Practice Mindfulness Meditation

    Mindfulness meditation can help you become more “self-aware” or aware of what is happening in and around you. This stress-management technique can improve your serotonin levels, distract you, get sound sleep, regulate your emotions, help clear your mind so you can think more rationally, and help you form new pathways in your brain – pathways that could reduce or stop your obsessions and compulsions.

  • Get Better Quality Sleep

    Getting enough good quality sleep is essential for a well-rested, healthy mind and body. Unknown to many, your body replenishes lost serotonin while you sleep. Thus, to make sure you get plenty of good quality sleep, go to sleep at the same time every night (this will train your mind and body to go to sleep at a certain time each night), eat a healthy dinner, take a warm shower or bath, turn off your electronic devices, television, music, and the lights, and turn down your thermostat to 60-70 degrees (most people sleep better when it is cooler in their bedrooms).

Note: Too much light (especially blue light), heat, or noise can “throw off” your circadian rhythm and/or interrupt your REM sleep, leaving you sluggish once you awaken the next morning. Getting a grip on your stress and anxiety by learning healthy ways to cope with your OCD symptoms can also boost your serotonin levels, so it is important to seek OCD treatment if you believe you have the condition.

References

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Author

DR. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham has a B.A. in English, an M.M.F.T in Marriage and Family Therapy (Psychology), and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She is currently a medical, health & wellness contributor, copywriter, and psychological consultant

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