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Diet Might Help Epilepsy Patients Rather Than Medication

Most doctors will prescribe you an assortment of drugs to help control your epilepsy. But new research shows that your diet might be more helpful than most drugs. How is that possible?

CBS news reports on your diet’s ability to control yours or your children’s seizures. What can you do when you or your child are having thirty seizures a day? Does your doctor prescribe you various drugs that do not necessarily work?

Some experts say that it is better to try to control your seizures via your diet. “When Jackson began having seizures at 7, his parents hoped and assumed at least one of the many epilepsy drugs on the market would be enough to get things under control. But one seizure quickly spiraled to as many as 30 a day,” according to CBS news.

What did Jackson’s parents do to try to control it?

They gave him a number of medications prescribed by his doctor, but none of them were effective. “He would stop in his tracks and not be aware of what was going on for 20 or 30 seconds or so,” according to Shana, Jackson’s mother. Jackson’s parents then brought him to NYU’s Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center for treatment.  

What was to be done at NYU?

Experts were ready to suggest various types of foods that they have found to be extremely helpful in treating different forms of epilepsy. Some of these types of foods include: heavy cream, eggs, sausage, mayonnaise, bacon, and a ton of butter.

What is the pattern among all of these foods? They are high in fat, low in protein, and have basically no carbohydrates. This is called a ketogenic diet. What is the purpose of it though? How does it help?

This diet is known to be an effective way of treating patients with difficult forms of epilepsy. Experts say doctors should recommend the diet if patients try two or three medications and they do not work.

How does this diet plan help? CBS explains,

“The diet works by putting the body in a ‘fasting’ state, known as ketosis. ‘When we're fasting the body needs to find fuel so our body will break down fat storage and break down their own fat and enter a state of ketosis,’ Mrs. Glick, the registered dietician who coordinated and fine-tuned Jackson's diet plan, told CBS News. ‘But with this diet, instead of breaking down the body's fat, the body breaks down dietary fat’.”

What does the diet consist of mostly? Experts say the ketogenic diet is made up of as much as 90 percent fat. Some epilepsy patients who feel they can't make such a drastic change adopt a modified Atkins diet, which is between 65 and 70 percent fat. Experts find that this can be nearly as effective for controlling seizures, but every patient has a unique case.

The journal Neurology recently examined almost twelve studies that examined the benefits of ketogenic and Atkins diets on epilepsy patients. What were the results?

“The researchers found that overall, 32 percent of people treated with the ketogenic diet and 29 percent of those on the modified Atkins diet experienced improved seizure control by as much as 50 percent. In some patients, the results were even more dramatic: Nine percent in the ketogenic treatment group and five percent in the modified Atkins group saw a 90 percent or greater reduction in seizures,” according to CBS.

Experts do have trouble pinpointing exactly why these diets work well for controlling seizures. But they do know that eating mostly fat causes the body to fuel on ketones rather than glucose. This practice eventually lowers insulin levels. This process can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and may prevent seizures by relaxing the brain.

One of the studies (which was led by researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School) found that a child's ability to ward off seizures is connected to a protein that affects metabolism in the brain. CBS explains, “The protein, called BCL-2-associated Agonist of Cell Death, or BAD, also regulates metabolism of glucose. The researchers discovered that by modifying this, they switched metabolism in brain cells from glucose to ketone bodies, which are fat byproducts.”

What progress has Jackson seen?

The diet plan did not work for Jackson until he started the most strict version, which was a 4 to 1 ratio of fat to protein and carbohydrates. Each day, Jackson consumed around 160 grams of fat, 8 to 10 grams of carbohydrates and 30 grams of protein, all of which accumulated to around 1,700 calories per day.

The results were exciting. Jackson was seizure free just four months into the program. He stayed on the strict diet for two full years with no return of seizures.

“His mother prepared foods from special recipes such as ‘keto’ pizza made with a macadamia nut crust or chicken nuggets with coconut flour. Over the summer, after receiving a green light from his doctors, Jackson, now 10 years old, began to wean himself off the diet, and his mother has slowly introduced foods such as breads and ice cream. He has maintained seizure-free and takes very little anti-seizure medication,” according to CBS.

Do the results last in the long run even after the child changes his or her diet. Experts say that their research has found that for pediatric patients the anti-seizure effects of the diet often move forward long after the child discontinues following the food plan.