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Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes seizures. Though researchers still don’t know exactly what triggers it, they do know that it’s characterized by unusual activity in the nerve cells of the brain.
Epilepsy affects millions of Americans.
Each and every year, 150 000 people across the United States receive an epilepsy diagnosis.
A lot of people believe that epilepsy first appears during childhood. But in fact, it can affect anyone at any age. One out of every 26 people will be diagnosed with epilepsy over the course of his or her lifetime.
You might be wondering what all of this has to do with a keto lifestyle.
WHAT DOES EPILEPSY HAVE TO DO WITH KETO?
The first thing to understand is that keto isn’t a fad diet, like raw food or alkaline.
It’s been around for almost a century. In fact, keto was first developed in the 1920s as a diet-based therapy for kids with epilepsy.
At that time, it was clear to researchers that fasting was an effective way to reduce seizures. Indeed, people have known that fasting had certain health benefits since ancient times. Unfortunately, avoiding food was neither the most realistic, nor the safest treatment option for epileptic patients.
As a result, doctors set out to develop a diet which mimicked the anti-seizure properties of fasting. And guess what they came up with? The ketogenic diet.
The keto diet imitates the effects of fasting in the body by safely removing carbohydrates from the body’s energy equation.
Limiting carb consumption forces the body to turn to fats and proteins—but mostly fats—as its main energy source.
With a decade or so, the keto diet had become the main therapeutic treatment prescribed to children suffering from severe cases of epilepsy.
But when modern anticonvulsant drugs were introduced in the late 1930s, the keto diet was largely abandoned.
By the end of the twentieth century, keto was only being used as a form of natural treatment for epilepsy in a handful of children’s hospitals in the United States and around the world.
Since then, we’ve seen a 180-degree shift. In the past two decades, scientific research into the use of a ketogenic lifestyle as a form of epilepsy treatment has exploded.
Today, the Ketogenic diet for epilepsy is steadily regaining ground as a form of therapy for children suffering from difficult-to-control epilepsy.
A keto diet for epilepsy is most often prescribed alongside anti-epileptic drugs as a form of complementary therapy. In many cases, maintaining a strict keto diet can improve symptoms of epilepsy to the point that medication dosages can be reduced.
The ketogenic diet is most likely to be prescribed in hard-to-treat cases of generalized epilepsy among children. For instance, Lennox-Gastrault syndrome is a form of generalized epilepsy marked by drop or tonic-clonic seizures.
It tends to occur alongside other developmental disabilities or neurological conditions, including developmental delays. It’s highly resistant to standard, medical treatment.
Astoundingly, among children with Lennox-Gastrault, the keto diet can be nearly as successful as medication in treating symptoms of epilepsy.
Keto may also be effective in treating partial seizures.
SO, HOW DOES IT WORK?
In spite of the longstanding success of the keto diet as a form of dietary therapy for children with epilepsy, researchers are still trying to understand the complex metabolic and neurological mechanisms at work.
A number of current studies are focused on the role of ketone bodies, which could have anti-seizure properties.
Ketone bodies are a product of ketosis. Normally, the body relies on glucose from carbohydrates—including grains, bread, pasta, and cereal—as its main source of energy. When carbohydrates are reduced or eliminated altogether from the diet, the body turns to dietary fat as its primary source of energy. Fat metabolism results in the creation of ketone bodies, also known as ketones, in the liver.
After synthesis in the liver, ketones are released into the bloodstream and make their way to the brain.
Ketones, and other by-products of ketosis seem to play a role in the reduction of seizures among people with epilepsy. These compounds are natural, safe, and have been shown to have additional protective effects, especially for the brain.
New studies suggest that the presence of ketones can reduce an individual’s risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Other current research is investigating the effectiveness of the keto diet as a form of treatment for other neurological, developmental, and psychiatric disorders, including depression, narcolepsy, migraine headaches, autism, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
WHO SHOULD USE KETO TO TREAT EPILEPSY?
Over two-thirds of people with epilepsy can control their seizures using anticonvulsant drugs, also known as antiepileptic drugs. In severe cases—often in children—seizures continue.
In these cases, the Ketogenic diet for epilepsy can be useful. In medical settings, keto is usually only considered after several medications have been tried without success.
The lifestyle doesn’t work for everyone. But it has been used to treat an extensive variety of both epilepsy syndromes and seizure types. Some of these include myoclonic astatic epilepsy, infantile spasms, Dravet syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, and others.
Keto is fairly easy to adapt to other dietary needs and preferences, such as allergies or ethnic diets. For instance, it can be adapted to suit a gluten-free or dairy-free diet.
Though the diet’s effectiveness is most established as a treatment for children who have epilepsy, there is new research to suggest that adults may also benefit.
A recent study into the diet’s effectiveness among adults found that after three months on a modified version of the keto diet, 45% of patients with epilepsy experienced a 50% decrease in the number of seizures experienced. Another 20% were seizure free on a modified keto lifestyle.
ARE THERE SIDE EFFECTS?
Constipation is one of the most commonly reported side effects of a keto lifestyle.
This is a natural effect of increased fat consumption. Fat takes longer to break down than carbohydrates and therefore stays in the digestive system for a longer period of time.
Most of the time, constipation is easily remedied through the addition of dietary fiber.
THINKING OF USING KETO TO TREAT EPILEPSY?
You should never try using the keto diet as a natural treatment for epilepsy without first seeking advice from a medical professional. The keto lifestyle has to be followed fairly strictly if it is to elicit a favorable result.
In clinical settings, neurologists or pediatricians often prescribe a supervised fasting period to trigger ketosis. This usually takes place in a hospital or specialized clinic, so that the patient can be monitored for any potentially harmful side effects.
Once ketosis is underway, a two-month trial period is used to determine whether the diet helps. If it does, it’s usually prescribed for a period of two years and monitored closely by a doctor, nurse, dietitian, or nutritionist.
To ensure that the body continues to produce ketones, medical professionals may use urine analysis or blood tests to check for the presence of ketones.
If improvements occur, the doctor may also decide whether to lessen the patient’s seizure medication. Parents often report that their children seem both happier and more alert on the diet, even when there’s no change in their medication.
In addition, after an initial adjustment period, children on a keto diet report increases in overall energy.