A question that many people ask is whether or not caffeine has an impact on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And if it isn’t something you have thought about, it should be! Diet plays a big role in mental and physical health, and I wanted to look into the link between caffeine and OCD.
OCD can be intensified by caffeine consumption, increasing heart rate, anxiety and obsessive thinking. One study however showed that caffeine consumption reduced compulsive behavior in those tested. It would still be wise to stop consuming caffeine with an anxiety disorder to see if this helps, and limit the intake to see if any positives are seen.
With OCD being such a vast disorder with wildly varying symptoms, caffeine affects everyone differently. But correlations can still be found, with many people having similar experiences after consumption.
Caffeine and it’s effects
Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the Central Nervous System. In 2014 a study showed that 85% of Americans consumed some kind of caffeine, with 96% in the form of coffee, tea and soft drinks (1). That was up slightly compared to the decade before and I am sure it hasn’t changed too much since.
We drink that morning coffee to give us a much needed boost. We feel more alert, more motivated and happier. This is because caffeine blocks Adenosine to the brain, a molecule that brings on drowsiness.
It is important to feel tired and rest to recharge. Sometimes though we need to fight it off with a beverage or food, this drowsiness isn’t good on a car journey or in a job interview. A burst of energy is great, but can have the opposite affect later on when we experience a caffeine-crash.
People with OCD also need to stay awake when needed. However there are some reasons why this drug may have worse side effects compared to the rest of the population.
With the increase in alertness, there is also an increase in heart rate. This increases oxygen to the brain and the rest of the body, ready for battle. The problem is, there isn’t often a battle. Adrenaline is released and our brain tries to make sense of what that adrenaline is needed for.
Our ancestors have used adrenaline to stay alive and keep reproducing. Due to evolution these mechanisms are still at work, even if our lives have changed drastically over time. What our ancestors needed adrenaline for may be completely different to what we need it for.
Why does caffeine make OCD worse?
OCD is an anxiety disorder, meaning this boost of adrenaline can really raise our stress levels. Imagine you’re at a desk reading emails. You sip that coffee and the effects slowly start to kick in. An increase in oxygen leading to increased awareness, the release of adrenaline, a rise in heart rate. Our body is getting ready to fight and our brain, reading emails, is thinking ‘What an earth is going on? Am I about to be attacked!?’
For most, it doesn’t reach that level of stress. But for those with anxiety issues (including OCD) this is what is happening.
The brain looks for things that are a threat. It doesn’t register anything obvious. So maybe it looks internally at the thoughts and worries you have on a daily basis.
Did I leave the oven on?
Is my headache a brain tumour?
Does that person hate me?
If I step on the cracks in the pavement will my family die?
The brain views these thoughts as a potential threat the body is preparing for, and starts obsessing more. This, along with the fact you cannot relax and unwind until the effects start to subside, gives a feeling of helplessness and inability to escape. Panic attacks may occur and an increase in obsessive thinking and compulsive actions are almost guaranteed.
Are there positives to consuming caffeine?
As an OCD sufferer myself, I love the taste of coffee. Some days I feel I can handle coffee better than others, and the side-effects can vary in severity. My most recent caffeinated coffee experience wasn’t good however. My local cafe ran out of decaf and I decided to take the plunge. I drank it at a reasonable pace (actually slower than my colleagues) and shortly afterwards experienced shaking, a lack of concentration and inability to sit still.
I have also been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome and ADHD, and these could be more of the problem. If I was to only have OCD, the benefits of coffee could be seen. I certainly do enjoy the buzz on occasions when the negative effects aren’t so apparent.
To back this up, one study focused on the contamination aspect of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Contamination is one of five main types of OCD people experience. Those conducting the research made patients touch wet diapers for 60 seconds and after a ten minute no hand-washing rule, assessed how long they could go without washing their hands. Half of the group consumed caffeine and the other half a placebo (2).
Those that consumed caffeine were less stressed, able to resist the urge to carry out compulsions and wait almost 50% longer before washing their hands. It seems for some, caffeine works in their favor.
Although this focused on one type of OCD (contamination), it may indeed help those with other types, such as checking, hoarding and intrusive thinking. But without further assessment of the study I really wouldn’t want to guess how consumption would effect OCD sufferers across the board.
So, does caffeine make OCD worse?
As is true with so many mental health disorders, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that benefits everyone. It really is down to how the disorder affects you personally, and tailoring your diet around it.
Caffeine can be a huge catalyst in raised stress levels. Even if you feel caffeine isn’t a problem, it would do no harm in cutting it out for a week or two and seeing how you function without it. Insomnia and other sleeping disorders can be worsened by caffeine, even if your last cup was well before bedtime. Lack of sleep can contribute to anxiety and depression, and opting for decaf may still give you that ‘kick’ needed to get you through the day.
Cut intake down as much as possible and see the results. You can always go back to it if it does indeed improve your performance, however the results may surprise you.