Epilepsy and Nutritional Guidelines

Epilepsy is a fairly common condition that can cause repeated or prolonged seizures. These seizures can cause a number of different sensations, depending on the type of seizure that is involved and the severity of the epilepsy. It is important to note that not everyone who has a seizure has epilepsy and that not all seizures will be repeated. Because of some negativity surrounding the term epilepsy, some doctors now prefer to use the more neutral term seizure disorder.

There are two main categories of seizures: partial or generalized. In a partial seizure, there is a focus and only a small part of the brain is affected, while in a general seizure, more of the brain is involved. A simple partial seizure may cause a change in consciousness but not a loss of consciousness. Complex partial seizures typically involve unconsciousness.

The most serious and severe type of seizure is the grand mal seizure, a generalized seizure that involves the motor systems in the brain and involves convulsions. The grand mal seizure is marked by a tonic phase (forceful contractions of the muscles) and a clonic phase (slow, jerking movements). In addition, there are less severe types of seizures, including the petit mal seizure, which is also called the absence seizure and may be dismissed simply as daydreaming unless the actual diagnosis is made.

Epilepsy may be related to another problem, including a head injury, a brain tumor, a brain infection or a stroke. However, less than half of the people who have been diagnosed with epilepsy or seizure disorder even know why they have it at all. It is important that the disorder be recognized and diagnosed so that treatment can be started – without proper care, the seizures will become progressively more frequent and may become more severe. The doctor will typically rule out other disorders and diseases before diagnosing epilepsy because in its mild or early stages it can mimic other disorders.

The Symptoms of Epilepsy:

– You may notice strange smells or sounds. You may also have double vision.

– You may lose control of your muscles

– You may fall, twitch or jerk.

– You may stare-off into space and be unaware of it.

– You may faint.

In most cases, epilepsy is treated with medication that is meant to reduce or control the seizures. Some of the medications can cause other side effects, so the doctor must experiment with different types and different dosages so that the right control with the fewest side effects can be found. There are other treatment options for seizure disorders, including a special diet, surgery which is meant to remove the damaged tissue in the brain and the implantation of a device which is called a vagus nerve stimulator. This sends signals in the neck to help control the seizures.

The Special Diet

The diet suggested by doctors is called the ketogenic diet, which is high in fat and low in carbohydrates. In a ketogenic diet, the body does not burn carbohydrates for energy like it normally would, but burns fats instead. When the body burns these fats, it produces a carbon substance that is called ketones. In a seizure disorder, the ketones are thought to help suppress seizure activity. (Around 30% of the children who were put on the ketogenic diet have complete seizure control, while another 40% have enough control to continue with the diet).

The ketogenic diet is typically prescribed for a period of around two years and then carbs and other nutrients are gradually added back in. During the time spent on the diet, vitamins and minerals will have to be supplemented because the diet is deficient in a number of these nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin C. The diet has been criticized by a number of health groups because of the high fat content, however, there have not been any problems noted with heart disease or growth retardation for the children. Because childhood obesity is a major concern and there are so many children who have diabetes and other weight-related conditions, the possible benefits of the ketogenic diet must be weighed against its risks.

Other Dietary Considerations

Children and adults who have seizure disorders must try to avoid the artificial sugar called aspartame if it increases seizure activity. Aspartame does cause seizures in people with a metabolic disorder called phenylketonuria. This disorder does not allow the amino acid phenylalanine to be digested and used properly. (Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid which must be supplied by food and supplement sources. It is converted in the body to the non-essential amino acid tyrosine).

People with seizure disorders may also have some food sensitivities and food allergies that they should be aware of. In some cases, these foods may even trigger the seizure activity in the first place. Common foods that can trigger these reactions include dairy foods, including cheese, citrus fruits, wheat and food additives like tartrazine and benzoic acid. The level of food sensitivities can vary from person to person and the person can be eating these foods every day without knowing that they are sensitive to them. It is important to find out if there are food allergies that can trigger or have triggered seizure activity.

Protein supplements may be suggested in the ketogenic diet, however, supplements should only be started at the advice of a doctor. It is important to find the right supplement, especially if there are food sensitivities or other issues as well. Whey protein, for instance, may be difficult to digest if there is any problem with lactose intolerance. Soy or rice protein may be better suggestions in this case; rice protein is considered to be hypoallergenic and may be the best solution. Egg protein may be acceptable as a supplement as well. Protein bars may be suggested, however, the ingredients should be read carefully so that they do not contain any of those that might be considered to be problematic for the person with seizure disorders.

Doctors also suggest supplementing vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that fights the damages of free radicals that may increase seizure activity by interfering with normal brain cell activity. Selenium is a mineral that is also beneficial in controlling seizures. Good food sources of selenium include mushrooms, broccoli, cabbage, fish, garlic, onions and whole grains. If lactose is not a problem, whey protein helps by supplying the enzyme glutathione, which is an antioxidant that is important for the immune system. Folic acid should be included because some of the medications that are used to treat seizures may deplete many of the B complex vitamins. Folic acid is the supplemental form of the naturally occurring folate.