The Links Between OCD and Serotonin Deficiency

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

The Links Between OCD and Serotonin Deficiency

Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, is an anxiety disorder which, like many anxiety disorders, is marked by low levels of serotonin. Serotonin, a type of neurotransmitter, has a variety of functions that make a deficiency a serious and anxiety producing issue.

This article will discuss the various functions of serotonin in the body and how they can affect obsessive compulsive disorder.

Serotonin Levels Can Be Controlled

Serotonin is the chicken/egg argument in anxiety. It's impossible to tell which came first - the anxiety, or the low serotonin. But what science does know is that you can cure both at the same time with proper coping tools and techniques.

The Many Jobs of Serotonin

Serotonin is a highly useful neurotransmitter to have in your brain and body. It has all kinds of important jobs that, all together, help to make us the balanced and healthy people we are - or want to be. People suffering from anxiety disorders like OCD are often low in serotonin.

Serotonin is thought to be at least partially responsible for regulating the following functions within your body:

  • Mood Specifically thought to improve mood in higher quantities, serotonin levels play a key role in whether we feel happy, sad, anxious or angry. When low serotonin levels are experienced by someone with OCD, it can make them edgier and more hyperaware of their environments than usual, resulting in increased OCD-related behaviors such as obsessive hand-washing, counting or organizing.
  • Aggression Serotonin is believed to responsible in part for controlling aggressive reactions. Though aggression is not a big part of OCD, irritability is a side effect of anxiety, which can more easily lead to aggression if not enough serotonin is present in the body.
  • Learning Our learning abilities are regulated by serotonin, meaning that we process new information more quickly and effectively when our serotonin levels are in balance. When they are out of balance, learning becomes more difficult, which can lead to frustration and poor performance in work and/or school environments.
  • Memory Memory has also been shown to be affected by serotonin. Memory problems can result from serotonin deficiency, which can cause unnecessary stress and disrupt performance in a variety of relationships and environments.
  • Appetite Appetite is also regulated by serotonin in the body, much of which resides in the gut rather than in the brain. Excess serotonin actually reduces appetite, while a serotonin deficiency can increase it.
  • Sleep Serotonin plays a role in regulating our circadian rhythms, or the regularity with which we fall asleep and wake up again. Both anxiety disorders such as OCD and the medications associated with it tend to be associated with sleeplessness.

Serotonin clearly affects a variety of different functions, and when you suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, any of these issues may be affected.

How Serotonin Causes OCD

Unfortunately, the exact way that serotonin to cause OCD isn't known. All that's known is that low serotonin and OCD are related. But since serotonin acts as a chemical messenger in the brain, there is likely some component of the mind that is being told to have more negative thoughts and engage in compulsive behaviors.

It's also possible that obsessive compulsive disorder leads to lower serotonin levels. Since controlling OCD can raise serotonin, this is also something to consider.

Antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed medications for OCD.

SSRIs increase serotonin in the brain by limiting their reuptake or reabsorption by neurons, or brain cells. Serotonin normally leaps between cells to transmit various messages having to do with its many jobs. In people with naturally low or depleted levels of serotonin, too much of this serotonin is reabsorbed by the neurons, preventing it from transmitting messages between the neurons as it should.

SSRIs cause serotonin to linger between neurons in the spaces called synapses so that they can do their jobs without being reabsorbed.

How to Naturally Increase Serotonin

However, medications are not the ideal treatment for any anxiety disorder - even one caused by low serotonin. Serotonin can be naturally increased and mood regulated through engaging in the following activities:

  • Exercising When you exercise, your body automatically produces hormones and neurotransmitters to compensate for the hard work that your cardiovascular and muscular systems are having to undergo, making you feel better than you otherwise would. Regular exercise will encourage the brain to create additional receptors for serotonin, allowing for more serotonin to be processed and promoting better moods and lower stress.
  • Eating Healthy Foods Eating healthy foods means ensuring that your body has all the vitamins and nutrients that it needs to run smoothly, thereby putting you in a better frame of mind. Eating unhealthy foods, by contrast, causes your brain to alert you to your body's lack of essential nutrients by increasing stress and discomfort. In order to keep your stress levels as low as possible and your serotonin levels high, focus on getting a wide variety of nutrients and cutting out junk food from your diet.
  • Getting More and Better Sleep Getting enough sleep is very important in keeping your body well-rested and healthy, which, by turn, will help you to maintain a healthy mind. Your body actually replenishes serotonin when you sleep. To ensure that you get enough sleep, even when anxiety makes it difficult for you, there are several strategies you can employ. First, you can choose a regular bedtime. Doing so will eventually train your brain to automatically get tired at that time. Second, you can make sure that all lights in the room are either turned off or covered when you go to sleep, and all electronics turned off. Light and noise will disrupt your REM sleep and cause you to feel less refreshed upon waking. Lastly, you should try and do any non-sleeping activities, such as working, reading, texting or surfing the web anywhere but your bed. If your brain associates activities with your bed other than sleeping, it will be less likely to sleep there.

Also, remember that controlling your anxiety in general by learning the right ways to cope with it has also been shown to be successful at raising serotonin, so make sure you treat your anxiety and don't just focus on serotonin levels.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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