By: Roger French
Q. Our son has a form of focal epilepsy with partial and absent seizures. We have had no success using drugs and wish to have him drug-free. Can you tell me what natural alternatives are available?
From M.O. and N.0, Cranebrook NSW
A. I am making this a general discussion of epilepsy. The primary defining characteristic is the occurrence of seizures, which occur when many nerve cells in the brain become overexcited and discharge at the one time. The prevalent theory of the cause is an excess of excitatory neurotransmitters (such as glutamate or aspartate) and/or a deficiency of inhibitory transmitters (such as gamma-amino butyric acid or taurine).
Types of Epilepsy. Seizures are either generalised or partial. Generalised seizures involve many nerve cells throughout the brain, while partial or focal involve only nerve cells within one area of the brain. With generalised seizures there may be loss of muscle tone, in which the person falls to the floor, possibly remaining conscious. Or there may be a stiffening of the body followed by convulsions and often loss of consciousness, referred to a ’grand mal’. Also generalised are absence seizures in which consciousness is maintained but the person loses awareness and may stare into space or twitch slightly. This is ’petite mal’.
Petite mal is the most common form of epilepsy in children, while partial seizures are the most common in adults.
Diagnosis. Doctors use a number of devices to diagnose epilepsy. Those that measure the electrical activity of the brain are the electroencephalogram (EEG), the magneto- encephalogram (MEG), positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Scans that provide three-dimensional images of the brain are computerized axial tomography (CAT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The former uses X-rays and the latter uses the body’s own magnetism and radio waves.
Causes of Epilepsy. The cause of generalised epilepsy is probably an imbalance of brain chemicals, whereas with partial epilepsy it is often microscopic damage to the brain. If epilepsy is associated with a known health condition, it is secondary epilepsy, whereas if the cause is unknown it is idiopathic.
The wide range of possible causes include the following: traumatic birth, head injuries, meningitis, viral encephalitis, hydrocephalus, neurocysticercosis, hardened arteries, stroke, heart attack, brain tumour, Alzheimer’s disease, alcoholism, drug abuse, drug withdrawal, lead poisoning, reactions to allergens, low blood sugar or fluctuations in blood sugar, exposure to toxic fumes, coeliac disease, cerebral palsy, autism and others. A genetic predisposition may make the person more susceptible.
Medical Treatment. The basic treatment is antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) or anticonvulsants. These require strict monitoring until the dose is determined, and must be taken regularly. If the drugs are not effective, surgery is usually considered.
If surgery is not appropriate, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is often recommended for adults and children over 12.
Another technique is Transcranial Magnetic Simulation (TMS) which alters brain activity through the use of magnetic fields. However, the effects wear off after six to eight weeks.
PREVENTION — REMOVING CAUSES, SELF HEALING
Few health writers have much to offer about dealing with epilepsy. However, the United States-based Life Extension Foundation gives a lot of suggestions in their monumental work, Disease Prevention and Treatment. All the following information is abridged from the Life Extension Foundation.
Allergies. Seizures can be triggered by allergens, and may occur immediately or within hours or days of exposure. It is important to be alert for any food or substance that may be triggering seizures. A health professional can provide thorough allergy testing. Three substances that commonly cause allergy are milk, wheat and petrochemicals.
Diet. The ketogenic diet is sometimes prescribed because it avoids wild fluctuations in blood sugar level which affect the brain. Being high-fat and low-carbohydrate, the diet forces the body to burn fat (raising levels of ketones in the blood) instead of sugar, and avoids foods that rapidly raise blood sugar.
However, this is an unhealthy diet overall and certainly not recommended in Natural Health.
A safe diet is described under Natural Health Dietary Guidelines, summarised in the Autumn 2004 issue of NVNH and explained in detail in the Natural Health Society’s book, The Man Who Lived in Three Centuries. Modify this eating pattern by omitting high-sugar foods, such as honey and dried fruit.
Fibre is important because is slows the absorption of sugar. Being essentially plant based and free of refined carbohydrates, the Natural Health way of eating is high in fibre. A fibre supplement such as psyllium hulls could be advantageous.
Caffeine, as in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate and some medications causes an adrenalin rush which can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar. Caffeine can also constrict blood vessels in the brain.
Alcohol, smoking and aspartame can also trigger seizures.
Toxic pesticides can be particularly risky, so minimize chemical exposure and seek organically-grown foods. Especially avoid chlorinated hydrocarbons such as lindane and dieldrin.
Behavioural Techniques. Obviously a person subject to fits needs to be protected from situations which could damage themselves or others, including swimming, cycling and driving a car. Wear rubber gloves when washing glassware, take showers instead of baths, and decide whether it is safe to climb ladders or trees.
Lack of sleep is widely recognised to promote seizures, so adequate sleep is essential.
Similarly, stress poses a considerable risk for seizures. For epilepsy sufferers, relaxation techniques are more important than ever. They include regular physical activity, yoga, relaxation tapes, deep breathing and meditation. By learning to relax, the normal beta state of the mind, which facilitates seizures, is shifted to the alpha state which greatly reduces the risk.
Seizure Interruption. Epilepsy sufferers are sometimes aware when a full-blown seizure is about to happen. The person may hear sounds that aren’t there, or smell an unpleasant odour that is not there. It is possible that the seizure process can be interrupted with mental imagery, by imagining pleasant music or some pleasant aroma, or by actually hearing or smelling something pleasant.
For women oestrogen increases excitability whereas progesterone decreases it, so fits are more likely when oestrogen is at its highest level just before a period. The only suggestion here is that women can be aware of these times of greater risk. After. menopause, with the drop in oestrogen, seizures are likely to decline.
Women with epilepsy have a higher risk of producing children with birth defects, and this is where folic acid can help, its best source being a high intake of vegetables and fruits, perhaps with the addition of supplements.
Nutritional Supplements. The following supplements are suggested by the Life Extension Foundation. They give dosages which I don’t include here because supplements, especially with a problem like epilepsy, are best taken with professional guidance. If taken without supervision, it would be wise to stay within the manufacturer’s recommendations. The Foundation suggests that for children and adolescents over age six years, dosages should be half the adult dosages, and for children under six, one quarter the adult dose.
B-complex vitamins benefit some people with epilepsy. Supplements of folic acid (folate or B9) sometimes help reduce seizures and sometimes make them worse. For this reason, B-vitamin supplementation should be closely monitored. Note that the whole B-complex should be taken, not just individual B-vitamins which could create deficiencies of other B-vitamins.
Certain amino acids have been found to be beneficial for some sufferers. These include taurine, glycine and alanine, probably because they are inhibitory amino acids, normalizing glutamate levels in the brain.
Anti-epileptic drugs can inhibit the uptake of calcium, so a child or adult taking these may be wise to supplement with calcium. Deficiency of magnesium has in some cases increased the severity of seizures, so magnesium supplements should also be included, at half the level of calcium by weight. Unless the sufferer has moderate regular exposure to sunshine, a vitamin D supplement is desirable.
Manganese aids sugar metabolism and helps stabilize blood sugar levels.
Zinc has been found to help decrease seizures, especially in children with severe forms.
Selenium has been helpful in some children not responding to AEDs. The chelated form, seleno-methionine, is preferred.
Evening primrose oil has helped some people and provoked seizures in others, so close monitoring is necessary.
Vitamin E has produced significant improvement in some children and adults who did not respond to medication. Dosages even at high levels were well tolerated.
If herbs are taken, professional guidance is recommended. Herbs listed by Life Extension are:
Coleus forskohlii extract — decreases neurotransmitter activity.
Black cohosh has relaxant properties that may be effective, particularly for women whose epilepsy is connected to menstrual failures. It should not be taken by pregnant women.
Lobelia, also called pokeweed, has relaxant properties and a depressing effect on the nervous system.
Epilepsy is a serious condition and needs professional guidance. Proper diagnosis in the first place is essential for best results. For those who want to use drug-free methods, it is then a matter of looking at allergies, dietary changes and behavioural techniques. If these fail to bring improvement, it may be desirable to try the supplements and herbs that are suggested.