OCD and Gluten Free

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While we are lucky there are good treatment options for those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, there is still much we don’t know about OCD. What causes it? Will it ever be curable? Is it preventable? Big questions that often leave us searching for answers.

And if you’ve ever scoured the Internet looking for these answers, you’ve likely come across not only helpful information, but questionable “theories” as well. How do we sort it all out?

I recently received emails from several of my readers asking what I thought of the theory that those with OCD should eat a gluten-free diet. No doubt the #1 New York Times bestseller, GRAIN BRAIN, has a lot to do with these questions. The book is written by David Perlmutter, MD, a renowned neurologist, who argues that wheat, carbs, and sugar negatively affect our brains. I have not yet read the book, but hope to soon; it looks fascinating.

For the record, I have been eating a gluten-free diet myself for a year and a half. I don’t have celiac disease, but feel eating this way has improved my overall health. This doesn’t mean I believe eating a gluten-free diet can cure, or even reduce the symptoms of, OCD. The truth is I just don’t know.

But really, what does anyone have to lose? Changing eating habits for the better can be beneficial even if there is no effect on one’s OCD. And there are no side-effects to worry about!

My concern about the various theories and claims out there is that some people with OCD might focus too much on these “cures.” For example, if OCD sufferers believe that changing their diet will greatly reduce their symptoms, they might feel it’s not necessary to tackle Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. Let’s face it. ERP therapy can be scary. If there’s a “legitimate” way to avoid it, many people might do just that.

As I’ve said before, those with OCD should have an entire toolbox filled with all sorts of things to help them fight their OCD. The most important tool, I believe, is ERP therapy. Certainly other things might help as well, and everyone’s tool box will differ. It’s up to those with OCD, as well as their health care providers and the people who love and care for them, to figure out what belongs in their own tool boxes. Carefully weighing the pros and cons of each choice is critical to creating the best possible toolbox. So while giving up gluten, trying medication, or focusing on mindfulness might all be good additions, I don’t think they should ever replace the most essential tool, ERP therapy.

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29 Responses to OCD and Gluten Free

  1. Rose says:

    I think you addressed your readers’ questions well. I think it is dangerous to claim any treatment, therapy, medication, diet, exercise routine, etc can “cure” any mental health issue. Help reduce symptoms, maybe…cure, highly unlikely. When someone I know goes off their meds or stops treatment altogether, I worry.

  2. I totally agree, Rose. I also don’t like to advise people because I’m not a therapist or an expert on what is going on with them. But I can share my own experiences and hope that information can help people. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I agree that we can have a lot of things in our toolbox, but we can’t depend on any one thing to “cure” us. Good treatment is still key. I have been working on a more gluten-free diet because of digestive issues, but if it helps me with OCD/depression, all the better! 🙂

  4. C says:

    This is awesome! I’ve never heard of this before and am doing research on it ASAP! I wonder how long gluten stays in your system, if a trial run for x amount of time could be done to see if it helps…

  5. 71º & Sunny says:

    Totally agree with you, Janet. If someone wants to improve or change their diet, I say go for it. But, unfortunately, I don’t really believe it will do much for OCD. But hey, if it works for someone, then I’m certainly happy for them.

  6. We’re on the same page here, Sunny! Thanks for commenting.

  7. I don’t eat gluten because my digestive system doesn’t tolerate it, but eliminating gluten had no effect on my OCD symptoms. If anything, they have been worse, but that is unrelated.

  8. Travis says:

    I went on a high fat low carb diet , while also subsequently getting rid of gluten (as I stopped consuming grains and high glycemic foods.) Also managed to get rid of diary and processed junk and I’ve never felt better.. but one small slip up like caving into a carb load, or eating processed junk and I have a relapse.

    • Hi Travis, So glad to hear you’ve had such good results with a change in your diet! It’s also interesting that you notice a big different if you slip up. I wish you continued good health!

  9. Christine says:

    Hi Janet, My 20 year old son has recently recovered from debilitating, sudden onset acute OCD thru intensive treatment using ERP and medication. Miraculous! None of us likes the idea of him staying on meds long term so have been exploring alternatives with the help of my brother (medical Dr and alternative medicine practitioner) and his wife, a chinese medicine specialist. We have discovered epigenetic nutritional medicine which ‘turns on’ your genes so that your own body ‘remembers’ how to make its own neurotransmitters, effectively improving the brain’s functioning. A woman PhD researcher we are working with has reversed both her children’s autism using special probiotics along with targeted nutritional supplementation and diet. Gut health is everything! 100% tied into brain function and health. They have both been ‘kicked out’ of the autism stream at their school and back into the main stream, they’re doing so well after only a couple of months! She has seen improvement in people coming to her clinic with OCD as well since it involves most of the same neurotransmitters, so our whole family is now making diet adjustments according to our genetic markers. If you’re interested I can post her website, I’m not here to sell anything, just want to help others and say that there’s more to it than just gluten free, but that certainly helps as a start.

    • Amy says:

      Thank you for this! Diet changes are so much more than just gluten-free. And I’m sorry but yes, I do believe that gut health can “cure” a lot of mental health problems, including OCD!! I don’t know why that’s so hard to believe. I have even seen some people becoming worse from ERP

      • Thanks for sharing, Amy. I do know of some people who have not had success with ERP therapy and in most cases, it seems to be because either their therapist was not qualified, or the person with OCD was not committed to the therapy. While the premise of ERP is simple, the its execution can get quite complicated and people can indeed get worse if they are not getting the right help. I found Dr. Seth Gillihan’s article on common mistakes ERP therapists make a real eye opener (https://ocdtalk.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/erp-therapy-so-simple-yet-so-complicated/).Thanks again and I hope all is going well for you.

  10. Christine says:

    BTW, Janet, I forgot to say what a great blog you have and that I’m grateful you’re sharing your experience and spreading the word. I’m trying to do the same, tho not in such an organised fashion yet. Still new to this OCD game, but feel like I have a degree in mental health after all the reading I’ve done in the last 8 months! Wish I’d found your site back in December when we were just discovering what OCD was.

    • Hi Christine, Thank you so much for your kind words and for your information. I am so glad to hear your son is doing so well! As you probably know from perusing my blog, I don’t really “endorse” any OCD treatments aside from ERP therapy. That being said, I always like to keep my readers updated as to what’s “out there” so they can do their own research and be informed. If you’d like to reply to this comment with your link, that would be fine. Thank you so much for sharing and I wish you and your family all the best!

  11. jessica says:

    I found this posting via a quick Google search “gluten and obsessive compulsive disorder”, because I was curious to see whether there was any clinical research on the subject. Because it doesn’t seem like any of your other commenters have had the same experience, I just wanted to let you know that since I stopped eating gluten, I have seen a marked improvement in my OCD.

    On a normal diet, I couldn’t climb stairs without counting them, had to go back down and do it again if I lost count/got the count wrong, I didn’t eat white or purple foods, wouldn’t touch specific materials (including newspaper of course)… and more all while on medication and therapy for the disorder.

    I began not eating gluten for other health-related reasons, and found (gradually, and after some months… I know that someone asked the duration gluten stays in the body and though I don’t technically know the answer to this, I know all dr.s I’ve spoken to have said that a fair trial run is no shorter than one month. They however suggest this length of time in order to feel relief from physical symptoms; mental symptoms -if related- would most likely be caused by vitamin and mineral mal-absorbtion and would therefore take longer to notice) incidentally that many of my obsessive compulsive behaviours were becoming less urgent and then disappearing altogether.

    I still consider myself – and am considered by my psychiatrist – OCD… I still hate to touch newspaper or wet dishes, and if you sit in my spot on the couch I’ll have a fit. But I can eat any color food, don’t count stairs (much) and am not currently on any medication or specific behavioural therapy for OCD.

    So far, my opinion about gluten and OCD is the same as my opinion about gluten and many other disorders – it is not a cause and therefore not a cure, but if you do have a gluten intolerance/allergy, it will exacerbate just about every problem you’ve ever had.

    • Hi Jessica, Thank you so much for sharing your story and I’m happy to hear you’ve seen improvements in your OCD by eliminating gluten from your diet. I think your last paragraph sums it up perfectly: “it is not a cause and therefore not a cure, but if you do have a gluten intolerance/allergy, it will exacerbate just about every problem you’ve ever had.” Wishing you all the best and hope to hear from you again!

  12. Shelby says:

    Thank you for not pushing medication as a “cure” for OCD. I am just starting to embark on my OCD treatment journey, and I find that ERP is crucial. I am not a fan of pharmaceutical drugs, and I am trying to treat my OCD with ERP, a gluten and sugar-free diet, exercise, and a variety of supplements and probiotics. The side effects and dependency of SSRIs scare me, and I am willing to try whatever I need to in order to avoid them. I just thank you for not prescribing that SSRIs can cure your OCD.

    • Hi Shelby, Sounds like you are well informed and on the right track toward recovery. While many people with OCD do take meds, there are also many who successfully overcome the disorder without medication. ERP therapy is the first line psychological treatment for OCD and it works. It saved my son’s life. Wishing you all the best as you move forward!

  13. David Doull says:

    I know this a very old post but I came across it via google and just thought Id add my comment in case it helps anyone. I used to have severe ocd and a gp did a number of blood tests on me and it came out that I had very high gluten antibodies. So he suggested I try removing gluten. This was all about ten years ago when not eating gluten was pretty unusual. My ocd / anxiety decreased a little at first and just kept reducing over time so that after about 5 years I would say I had almost no ocd symptoms. Obviously this isnt a miracle cure for everyone but in my case it made a massive difference.

    • Hi David, What a story! Thank you so much for sharing and I’m so glad that cutting out gluten had such a positive effect on your OCD. What I find interesting is that your GP thought to even check for gluten antibodies. Thanks again and I’m sure your comment will help others.

  14. Hey,
    my name is Jimmy, im 31 and I live in Sweden. I’ve got OCD and it’s really, really bad.
    The appartment I live in looks like shit (looks better now though!). I can’t do anything anymore…I wanna play guitar, sing, study (film, which I might soon..).
    I do “workpractice” at a grocery store 12 hours per week. But that is very difficult, because I engage in alot of rituals. I always need to go back and make prayers and rethink and reFEEL everything and there’s also MANY other things I need to do.

    Today, for example, I took a blood test at the healthcenter and I thought and/or felt something bad.. So now I need to go back to that place, which is hard, I don’t know what they’ll say about me going back into that chair only for doing my thing.. I don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve had obsessive thought’s since I was about 14-15, (well before too, but not so much I guess..), then it got alot worse when I was around 16-17. I guess i’ve had ocd for a long time. But I didnt get help at first. I have done alot of dumb things due to my obsessive thoughts, and I’ve also selfinjured. Lately i’ve been starting to bite myself alot because I wanna “feel the right things”, or NOT the wrong things and (instead pain) while doing my prayers (that I need to do many many times per day).

    I don’t know, I just can’t take all these bad thoughts about, for example, people. My therapist said I should take a break from the psychiatric place, since im not doing the exposure and we couldnt seem to get into it. He said it could be bad to just come there and not do the work, like a false security. I’ve also tried other theraphists but often returned and I somehow would “fix” what I did during exposure. I’m on homeopathic medicine and I also try to change the way I eat, actually inspired by stuff ive seen from the aouther of wheat belly and other people. But yeah the thing is, I still do as so much rituals obsessive ones.. and I can’t break the pattern. Im desperate. What do you guys think? I dont know how to handle this horror. Thanks.

    • Hi Jimmy, I’m so sorry you are having such a tough time with your OCD. I’m not a therapist but the evidence-based psychological treatment for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Of course you need a competent therapist and you need to fully commit to the therapy yourself in order to improve. I don’t know about the availability of good ERP therapists in Sweden but perhaps start out by checking out the IOCDF website and even talking with someone there. There are some therapists who will even do Skype sessions. There are also lots of self-help books and workbooks to help you get started on ERP….it’s not easy but you can get better. You sound pretty fed up with your OCD at this point so I hope you will pursue good ERP. Good luck and please keep us posted!

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