Moderate physical activities and a diet rich in vegetables and fish oil can contribute to the control of obsessive-compulsive symptoms

Moderate physical activities and a diet rich in vegetables and fish oil can contribute to the control of obsessive-compulsive symptoms

A study coordinated by IDOR aimed to understand how lifestyle affects symptoms within the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, such as OCD and body dysmorphic disorder.

Published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, a new study pointed out that symptoms of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum can be reduced through the adoption of a healthier lifestyle, incorporating an anti-inflammatory diet (rich in vegetables, oily fish, and regular moderate physical activities). The research was coordinated by the D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in partnership with Monash and Deakin universities in Australia.

We already know that a healthy lifestyle, with good sleep routines, nutrition, and physical exercise, is widely recommended by doctors for preventing chronic diseases, especially heart problems, and also influences the longevity and quality of life of individuals. When it comes to

mental health, the relationship between lifestyle and symptoms of psychological and psychiatric disorders is still relatively unexplored, but the topic is gradually gaining attention in the scientific community.

Although there is already evidence that lifestyle interventions can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, there are not many studies addressing how different habits can impact symptoms of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, characterized by subclinical repetitive behaviors or diagnoses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), hoarding disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, trichotillomania (compulsive hair and hair pulling), and dermatillomania (compulsive skin picking).

Lifestyle and Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms

Some expressions above may seem rare because we don’t hear these terms in our daily lives, but compulsive behaviors are more common than we might think. It is estimated that 13 to 21% of the population experiences obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and even if these traits do not qualify for a diagnosis, they are significantly burdensome for people’s lives, causing distress and problems in personal and professional aspects.

To learn more about how elements of lifestyle can affect the clinical population affected by these issues, the study authors analyzed responses from over 800 people in the community, with or without symptoms of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum. These data were collected in two stages through online questionnaires, assessing the intensity of symptoms and daily habits of participants with a 3-month gap between the first and last responses. The questions focused on four aspects of participants’ routines: sleep quality, social support, nutrition, and physical exercise.

The IDOR group and other researchers had previously shown that people with obsessive-compulsive symptoms tend to engage in less physical exercise and have cardiovascular and metabolic comorbidities, as well as shorter lifespans compared to those without mental health disorders. According to the researchers, these tendencies were a starting point for the hypothesis that the habits of these individuals could worsen or alleviate their symptoms.

The assumption was correct. The questionnaire results confirmed that a low-quality diet, poor sleep, lack of physical activity, and insufficient social support were associated with greater severity of obsessive-compulsive symptoms in the long term. However, nutrition and physical exercise proved to be even more relevant than other habits for this clinical population.

Healthy Eating Reduces Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms

Questionnaire responses revealed that excessive consumption of fatty foods was associated with an increase in repetitive and intrusive behaviors among study participants. Additionally, low consumption of vegetables and oily fish (such as tuna, salmon, and trout) was also related to greater severity of obsessive-compulsive symptoms, while the recurrent presence of these foods in the diet showed a reduction in the same symptoms.

The researchers note that this relationship supports other scientific findings advocating an anti-inflammatory diet as a resource for reducing symptoms in people with obsessive-compulsive spectrum symptoms. An ideal diet for these individuals would, therefore, be essentially natural, rich in vegetables, and healthy fats such as those found in fish and avocado, and low in red meats and processed foods high in sodium and sugar.

The research indicates that mental health professionals do not always consider dietary changes as a relevant intervention for reducing symptoms in their patients, and results like these can serve as encouragement for incorporating support for a healthy lifestyle into the prescription and treatment of people with the problem.

Moderate Physical Exercise Is More Effective Than Intense Exercise

If people who did not engage in physical activities showed more severe obsessive-compulsive symptoms, does that mean that the more intense the exercise, the milder the symptoms, right?

According to the research, that’s not exactly how this relationship works. In the case of this clinical population, moderate-intensity exercises, such as walking, dancing, and water aerobics, are more recommended than intense activities like running or high-intensity cycling.

Scientists explain that, although all these activities bring health benefits, vigorous activity has the characteristic of causing more stress to the body and greater caloric loss, while moderate activity improves cognitive functions, blood flow to the brain, and impulse inhibition, which are more relevant aspects for reducing symptoms of the obsessive-compulsive spectrum. The responses showed that the duration of these moderate activities was also important, as participants who engaged in these exercises for a longer time during the week reported an even greater reduction in their symptoms in the second questionnaire, conducted at the end of 3 months.

Lifestyle Changes Can Be Part of Treatments

The research reveals its limitations, one of them being the reduction of participants in the second stage of the questionnaire, resulting in a 30% smaller sample after 3 months of the study. Nevertheless, the publication’s results have significant clinical implications and emphasize the importance of healthy eating and physical exercise habits as interventions to be considered in controlling obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

It is always important to remember that blaming individuals for their lifestyles is an unfair action, as it disregards the particularities of each person’s reality, including financial conditions, time availability, and factors such as environmental safety and accessibility to various resources.

The study does not aim to impose ideal behavior patterns for people already suffering from obsessive-compulsive problems. According to the authors, its main goal is to raise awareness among health professionals about the importance of lifestyle interventions, as they show real results without adverse effects, which can be an additional resource to traditional treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and the prescription of serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which are common therapies for diagnoses like OCD.

Written by Maria Eduarda Ledo Martins de Abreu.

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