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Epilepsy

Also indexed as: Convulsions, Falling Sickness, Seizure Disorders

Illustration

A sudden seizure is the most clear and common sign of this brain disorder. According to research or other evidence, the following self-care steps may help you manage epileptic episodes:

What you need to know

  • Get some extra E
  • Improve treatment results in children by supplementing with 400 IU of vitamin E a day
  • Check out Chinese herbal formulas
  • Try 2.5 grams a day of sho-saiko-to or saiko-keishi-to in tea or capsules
  • Consider a Ketogenic diet
  • To help reduce seizures in children, consult a specialist trained in initiating and supervising this special diet
  • Uncover food sensitivities
  • Work with a knowledgeable professional to find out if eliminating certain foods reduces seizure frequency

These recommendations are not comprehensive and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or pharmacist. Continue reading the full epilepsy article for more in-depth, fully-referenced information on medicines, vitamins, herbs, and dietary and lifestyle changes that may be helpful.

About epilepsy

Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which abnormal bursts of electrical activity occur in cells of the brain, resulting in seizures.

There are many types of epilepsy, usually categorized by the symptoms that occur during seizures. The cause of many types of epilepsy is unknown, and frequently no cure is available. Rather, treatment focuses on reducing the frequency and severity of seizures.

Product ratings for epilepsy

Science Ratings Nutritional Supplements Herbs
3Stars

Vitamin E (for children)

 
2Stars

EPA and DHA

Bupleurum in combination with peony root, pinellia root, cassia bark, ginger root, jujube fruit, Asian ginseng root, Asian scullcap root, and licorice root

1Star

Folic acid

Melatonin

Taurine

Vitamin B6

Vitamin E (for adults)

Bacopa

3Stars Reliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2Stars Contradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1Star For an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support and/or minimal health benefit.

What are the symptoms?

There are many types of seizures in epilepsy. They are categorized as either partial or generalized, depending on how much of the brain is involved. Some types of epilepsy involve seizures characterized by convulsive muscle contractions of all or some parts of the body. Other types can involve momentary loss of consciousness, amnesia, unusual sensations or emotions, and other symptoms. Symptoms that indicate an imminent seizure (called auras) may occur. Similarly, non-convulsive symptoms, including deep sleep, headache, confusion, and muscle soreness (called a postictal state), may follow a generalized seizure.

Medical options

Prescription drug therapy focuses on reducing the frequency and severity of seizures. Agents prescribed depend on the type of seizures experienced by the patient. Multiple drug therapy might be necessary for some individuals. Commonly prescribed drugs include benzodiazepines, such as clonazepam (Klonipin), clorazepate (Tranxene), and diazepam (Valium), as well as phenytoin (Dilantin), lamotrigine (Lamictal), carbamazepine (Tegretol), oxcarbazepine (Trileptal), valproic acid (Depakene, Depakote), gabapentin (Neurontin), levetiracetam (Keppra), pregabalin (Lyrica), topiramate (Topamax), and phenobarbital.

About 10 to 20% of epilepsy patients do not respond to drug therapy and may require surgery.

Dietary changes that may be helpful

The ketogenic diet was developed in the early twentieth century when few drug treatments for epilepsy were available; until recently, it had been used only when drug therapy was ineffective. The dietary approach was based on the observation that ketosis (increased blood levels of chemicals called ketones) is associated with reduction of seizures.1 Ketosis can be produced by a diet high in fat and very low in carbohydrate and protein. The ketogenic diet has been evaluated in several preliminary and a few controlled trials. According to a 1996 review, the ketogenic diet appears to be very effective in one-third to one-half of epilepsy cases in children, and partially effective in another one-third of cases.2

Recent trials continue to support this success rate;3 4 5 one preliminary trial demonstrated a 50% reduction in seizure activity in 71% of children in a group after 45 days on the diet. There is little research on the effects of the ketogenic diet in adults, but it may be effective in those who are able to comply with the strict dietary guidelines.6 7 The diet is usually initiated by fasting under close medical supervision, often in a hospital, followed by introduction of the diet and training of the family to ensure successful maintenance.

Possible side effects of the ketogenic diet include gastrointestinal upset, dehydration, anemia, low blood protein levels, high blood levels of fat and acidity, kidney stones, and signs of liver toxicity.8 9 Vitamin and mineral supplementation is necessary due to the many deficiencies of this unusual diet.10 The ketogenic diet should not be attempted without the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional. Practical information about the ketogenic diet is available in recent texts 11 and articles,12 as well as on the Internet.13

The Atkins diet is similar to the ketogenic diet, in that they are both high in fat and very low in carbohydrate. The Atkins diet, however, is easier to follow than the ketogenic diet, as it allows more liberal amounts of protein and has fewer calorie restrictions. Since the Atkins diet can produce ketosis, it has the potential to benefit people with epilepsy. In a preliminary study, three of six individuals with treatment-resistant epilepsy experienced marked improvement on the Atkins diet; two of these people became seizure-free.14

Allergic reactions to food have been reported to trigger epileptic seizures in individual cases,15 16 some of which were proven with double-blind testing.17 One report found people with epilepsy to have significantly more biochemical evidence of allergy than do non-epileptics.18 A study of children who suffered from both epilepsy and migraine headaches found that a diet low in potential food allergens reduced seizures in the majority of cases; however, children who had epilepsy alone without migraines did not respond to the diet.19 Another report confirmed that children who have epilepsy without migraines do not improve on a low-allergen diet.20 Some doctors recommend that people with epilepsy and other allergic symptoms, such as asthma or hay fever, should be checked for food allergies that may be causing seizures.21

Vitamins that may be helpful

Vitamin E has been studied as a possible add-on to conventional drug treatment for epilepsy. A double-blind trial found that adding 400 IU per day of vitamin E reduced seizure frequency in children without side effects.22 Other preliminary trials23 24 have reported similar results, and, while some preliminary research suggested this effect might also be achieved in adults,25 a double-blind trial found no effect of vitamin E supplementation on adults with epilepsy.26

Folic acid supplementation (5 mg per day) was reported to reduce epileptic seizure frequency, though the effect was not significantly better than with placebo.27 Folic acid supplementation of as little as 800 mcg per day has also been reported to interfere with the action of anticonvulsant medications, resulting in an increase in the frequency and/or severity of seizures;28 29 30 31 this effect occurs only in a small number of cases.32 33 People taking anticonvulsant medications should consult with the prescribing physician before deciding whether to use folic acid.

Vitamin B6 has been used to treat infants and small children who have seizures related to a genetic enzyme defect.34 35 36 37 However, this condition is not considered true epilepsy, and whether people with epilepsy would benefit from taking vitamin B6 supplements is unknown.

Taurine is an amino acid that is thought to play a role in the electrical activity of the brain; deficits of taurine in the brain have been associated with some types of epilepsy. However, while some short-term studies have suggested that taurine supplementation may reduce epileptic seizures in some people, the effect appears to be only temporary.38

Case reports have suggested that evening primrose oil may worsen symptoms in people with temporal lobe epilepsy.39 Until more is known, people with this type of epilepsy should avoid using evening primrose oil supplements, except perhaps under the supervision of a qualified physician.

In a preliminary study, supplementation with 3.25 grams per day of a mixture of omega-3 fatty acids (primarily eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]) for six months markedly reduced the frequency of seizures in five severely retarded epileptic patients.40 Additional research is needed to confirm this report and to identify which people with epilepsy are most likely to benefit.

A small, preliminary trial found that 5 to 10 mg per day of melatonin improved sleep and provided “clear improvement of the seizure situation” among children with one of two rare seizure disorders.41 More research is needed to determine whether or not melatonin could benefit other people with epilepsy.

Two elderly individuals with well-controlled epilepsy reportedly developed recurrent seizures within two weeks of starting Ginkgo biloba extract.42 Individuals with epilepsy should not, therefore, take Ginkgo biloba without medical supervision.

Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual supplement for information about any side effects or interactions.

Herbs that may be helpful

The Chinese herb bupleurum is included in two similar Chinese herbal formulae known as sho-saiko-to and saiko-keishi-to; these combinations contain the same herbs but in different proportions. The other ingredients are peony root, pinellia root, cassia bark, ginger root, jujube fruit, Asian ginseng root, Asian scullcap root, and licorice root. Both formulas have been shown in preliminary trials to be helpful for people with epilepsy.43 44 45 No negative interactions with a variety of anticonvulsant drugs were noted in these trials. The usual amount taken of these formulas is 2.5 grams three times per day as capsules or tea. People with epilepsy should not use either formula without first consulting with a healthcare professional.

One older preliminary trial in India found an extract of bacopa, an Ayurvedic herb, reduced the frequency of epileptic seizures in a small group of people.46 However, another similar preliminary trial gave inconclusive results.47 Controlled research is needed to properly evaluate whether bacopa is helpful for epilepsy.

Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.

References:

1. Wilder RM. The effects of ketonemia on the course of epilepsy. Mayo Clinic Proc 1921;2:307–8.

2. Prasad AN, Stafstrom CF, Holmes GL. Alternative epilepsy therapies: the ketogenic diet, immunoglobulins, and steroids. Epilepsia 1996;37:S81–S95 [review].

3. Vining EP, Freemen JM, Ballaban-Gil K, et al. A multicenter study of the efficacy of the ketogenic diet. Arch Neurol 1998;55:1433–7.

4. Freeman JM, Vining EP, Pillas DJ, et al. The efficacy of the ketogenic diet-1998: a prospective evaluation of intervention in 150 children. Pediatrics 1998;102:1358–63.

5. Neelam GK, Koehler AN, McGhee B, et al. The ketogenic diet in refractory epilepsy: the experience of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Clinical Pediatrics 2000;39:153–9.

6. Barborka CJ. Results of treatment by ketogenic diet in one hundred cases of epilepsy in adults. Assoc Res Nerv Ment Dis 1929;7:638–58.

7. Ballaban-Gil K, Callahan CM, O’Dell C, et al. The ketogenic diet in the treatment of intractable epilepsy in adults. Epilepsy 1996;37:92 [abstract].

8. Ballaban-Gil K, Callahan CM, O’Dell C, et al. Complications of the ketogenic diet. Epilepsia 1998;39:744–8.

9. Prasad AN, Stafstrom CF, Holmes GL. Alternative epilepsy therapies: the ketogenic diet, immunoglobulins, and steroids. Epilepsia 1996;37:S81–95 [review].

10. Barron TF, Hunt SL. A review of the newer antiepileptic drugs and the ketogenic diet. Clin Pediatr (Phila) 1997;36:513–21.

11. Freeman JM, Kelly MT, Freeman JB. The epilepsy diet treatment. New York, NY: Demos, 1994.

12. Carroll J, Koenigsberger D. The ketogenic diet: a practical guide for caregivers. J Am Diet Assoc 1998;98:316–21.

13. http://www-leland.stanford.edu/group/ketodiet

14. Kossoff EH, Krauss GL, McGrogan JR, Freeman JM. Efficacy of the Atkins diet as therapy for intractable epilepsy. Neurology 2003;61:1789–91.

15. Stevens H. Allergy and epilepsy. Epilepsia 1965;6:205–16 [review].

16. Campbell M. Neurologic manifestations of allergic disease. Ann Allergy 1973;31:485–98 [review].

17. Crayton JW, Stone T, Stein G. Epilepsy precipitated by food sensitivity: report of a case with double-blind placebo-controlled assessment. Clin Electroencephalogr 1981;12:192–8.

18. Cunningham AS. Allergy, immunodeficiency and epilepsy. Lancet 1975;11:975 [letter].

19. Egger J, Carter CM, Soothill JF, Wilson J. Oligoantigenic diet treatment of children with epilepsy and migraine. J Pediatr 1989;114:51–8.

20. Van Someren V, Robinson RO, McArdle B, Sturgeon N. Restricted diets for treatment of migraine. J Pediatr 1990;117:509–10 [letter].

21. Crayton JW, Stone T, Stein G. Epilepsy precipitated by food sensitivity: report of a case with double-blind placebo-controlled assessment. Clin Electroencephalogr 1981;12:192–8.

22. Ogunmekan AO, Hwang PA. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial of D-alpha-tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E), as add-on therapy, for epilepsy in children. Epilepsia 1989;30:84–9.

23. Hom AC, Weaver RC, Aldersen JJ. Efficacy of D-alpha tocopherol acetate as adjunctive antiepileptic agent in patients with refractory epilepsy and profound developmental disability. A prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Epilepsia 1991;32(suppl 3):63 [abstract].

24. Sullivan C, Capaldi N, Mack G, Buchanan N. Seizures and natural vitamin E. Med J Aust 1990;152:613–4 [letter].

25. Tupeev IR, Kryzhanovskii GN, Nikushkin EV, et al. The antioxidant system in the dynamic combined treatment of epilepsy patients with traditional anticonvulsant preparations and an antioxidant—alpha-tocopherol. Biull Eksp Biol Med 1993;116:362–4 [in Russian].

26. Raju GB, Behari M, Prasad K, Ahuja GK. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial of D-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) as add-on therapy in uncontrolled epilepsy. Epilepsia 1994;35:368–72.

27. Gibberd FB, Nicholls A, Wright MG. The influence of folic acid on the frequency of epileptic attacks. Eur J Clin Pharmacol 1981;19:57–60.

28. Guidolin L, Vignoli A, Canger R. Worsening in seizure frequency and severity in relation to folic acid administration. Eur J Neurol 1998;5:301–3.

29. Lewis DP, Van Dyke DC, Willhite LA. Phenytoin-folic acid interaction. Ann Pharmacother 1995;29:726–35 [review].

30. Berg MJ, Rivey MP, Vern BA, et al. Phenytoin and folic acid: individualized drug-drug interaction. Ther Drug Monit 1983;5:395–9.

31. Reynolds EH. Effects of folic acid on the mental state and fit frequency of drug treated epileptic patients. Lancet 1967;1:1086.

32. Eros E, Geher P, Gomor B, et al. Epileptogenic activity of folic acid after drug induces SLE (folic acid and epilepsy). Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol 1998;80:75–8.

33. Ueda S, Shirakawa T, Nakazawa Y, et al. Epilepsy and folic acid. Folia Psychiatr Neurol Jpn 1977;31:327–37.

34. Bankier A, Turner M, Hopkins IJ. Pyridoxine dependent seizures—a wider clinical spectrum. Arch Dis Child 1983;58:415–8.

35. Baxter P, Griffiths P, Kelly T, et al. Pyridoxine-dependent seizures: demographic, clinical, MRI and psychometric features, and effect of dose on intelligence quotient. Develop Med Child Neurol 1996;38:998–1006.

36. Jiao FY, Gao DY, Takuma Y, et al. Randomized, controlled trial of high-dose intravenous pyridoxine in the treatment of recurrent seizures in children. Pediatr Neurol 1997;17:54–7.

37. Goutieres F, Aicardi J. Atypical presentation of pyridoxine-dependent seizures: a treatable cause of intractable epilepsy in infants. Ann Neurol 1985;17:117–20.

38. Durelli L, Mutani R. The current status of taurine in epilepsy. Clin Neuropharmacol 1983;6:37–48.

39. Vaddadi KS. The use of gamma-linolenic acid and linoleic acid to differentiate between temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia. Prostaglandins Med 1981;6:375–9.

40. Schlanger S, Shinitzky M, Yam D. Diet enriched with omega-3 fatty acids alleviates convulsion symptoms in epilepsy patients. Epilepsia 2002;43:103–104.

41. Fauteck J, Schmidt H, Lerchl A, et al. Melatonin in epilepsy: first results of replacement therapy and first clinical results. Biol Signals Recept 1999;8:105–10.

42. Granger AS. Ginkgo biloba precipitating epileptic seizures. Age Ageing 2001;30:523–5.

43. Yarnell EY, Abascal K. An herbal formula for treating intractable epilepsy: a review of the literature. Alt Compl Ther 2000;6:203–6 [review].

44. Narita Y, Satowa H, Kokubu T, et al. Treatment of epileptic patients with the Chinese herbal medicine “saiko-keishi-to” (SK). IRCS Med Sci 1982;10:88–9.

45. Nagakubo S, Niwa S-I, Kumagai N, et al. Effects of TJ-960 on Sternberg’s paradigm results in epileptic patients. Jpn J Psych Neur 1993;47:609–19.

46. Mukherjee GD, Dey CD. Comparative study on the anti-epileptic action of some common phyto-products. J Exp Med Sci 1968;11:82–5.

47. Mukherjee GD, Dey CD. Clinical trial on Brahmi. J Exp Med Sci 1966;10:5–11.

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