Living things, from amoebas to rocket scientists, operate electrically. Each of our cells generates its own tiny amount of (wireless) electricity, but the most active part of our bodies–both electrically and chemically–is the brain. Occasionally, however, the electrical system in the brain goes awry, and an electrical storm erupts in one tiny portion of the brain. The result is an epileptic seizure. Seeing someone suffer an epileptic seizure is probably scarier than experiencing one yourself–in fact, the person loses consciousness too quickly to be aware of what’s happening. Through the ages, lots of stereotypes (good and bad) have been attached to anyone who had seizures. And it’s well worth repeating that people with epilepsy are just as smart, creative, and productive as everyone else.
The diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy lie strictly in the realm of conventional medicine. Here at WholeHealth Chicago, however, we’ve found that certain supplements and lifestyle changes–used in conjunction with your regular treatment–can be very helpful: They can reduce your chances of seizures and help your medication work more effectively.
What is Epilepsy?
In this neurological disorder, bursts of abnormal electrical activity in the brain produce seizures–sudden changes in consciousness, sensation, and muscle control. In a normally functioning brain, electrical impulses flow from one nerve cell to another in a controlled manner. But in people with epilepsy (also called seizure disorder), episodes of uncontrolled discharges from many brain cells all at once trigger seizures. There are two broad categories of seizures. Generalized seizures are the result of abnormal electrical activity throughout the brain. Partial seizures are limited to problems in a specific area of the brain. The symptoms of generalized seizures range from loss of awareness and a blank stare (known as an absence seizure) to loss of consciousness and full-body convulsions. Partial (or focal) seizures produce localized movements, such as repetitive blinking, chewing, or lip smacking, or unusual transitory sensations, such as numbness or tingling.
Seizures generally last from several seconds to several minutes, and may be preceded by warning signs, known as an aura. These signs, which vary greatly from person to person, may include sensations of strange smells, sounds, or sights; a feeling of déjà vu; or nausea. A seizure may occur once and never again. (High fevers, for example, can trigger isolated seizures in children.) Only 27% of those people who have experienced a seizure will have another within three years. Actually, a one-time seizure is not considered epilepsy, which is defined as a disorder (not as a disease) that produces recurring seizures.
Seizures can affect anyone at any age (70% of new cases develop after age 18, and 12% begin in people over age 55), although some people seem to be more susceptible than others. And while seizures can be alarming and disorienting, especially at first, they usually are not dangerous and certainly do not diminish a person’s intellect or ability to lead a full, productive life.
Although there’s no cure for epilepsy, seizures can be controlled with anticonvulsant drugs. Children who have absence seizures often outgrow them as they reach their late teens and early twenties. Adults with other types of epilepsy can often stop taking anticonvulsant medications after they have been seizure-free for two to five years. While not a substitute for prescription medications, supplements may also help control seizures and may eventually allow a doctor to reduce the dosage of anticonvulsant drugs.
- Brief episodes of confusion, blackouts, or altered memory
- Passing feelings of numbness or tingling; uncontrollable twitching of one part of the body, such as the hand; repetitive chewing, lip smacking, or blinking; possible loss of awareness (partial seizure)
- Loss of awareness, lack of responsiveness when spoken to, a blank stare (absence seizure)
- Loss of consciousness, sometimes preceded by a loud cry; muscle rigidity followed by twitching or jerking; loss of bowel or bladder control. After the seizure, fatigue, confusion, and no memory of the event.
- Some seizures are preceded by sensations of odd smells, sounds, or sights; nausea; or a sense of déjà vu. (These warning signs are called an aura.)
What Causes Epilepsy?
More than half of all epilepsy cases have no unidentifiable cause. Head injuries, strokes, brain tumors, or brain infections can sometimes be tied to the remaining cases. Heredity also seems to play a role in predisposing certain individuals to recurring seizures.
Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) and a deficiency in certain nutrients, such as B vitamins or magnesium, can trigger seizures in people with epilepsy. Other factors, such as sleep deprivation, physical stress, illness, or drinking too much alcohol, can induce seizures even in people who don’t have epilepsy.
Treatment and Prevention
Epilepsy can’t be prevented or cured, but it can be treated very effectively with prescription anticonvulsant drugs. In fact, some patients eventually reach the point where they stop having seizures and no longer require medication. Taking certain supplements and avoiding food chemical triggers may help some people. This approach is directed at correcting nutritional imbalances that may trigger seizures and by promoting brain and nerve health. Do not use supplements, however, as a substitute for anticonvulsant drugs.
If you are being treated for epilepsy (or any other serious medical or psychological condition), consult your doctor before taking supplements and never stop taking your prescribed medications or reduce the dosage on your own. If your seizures began after a head injury, evaluation and treatment from an osteopathic physician (D.O.) specially trained in a form of neck and skull manipulation called cranial osteopathy may actually lead to a reduction in the frequency and intensity of your seizures. Acupuncture, biofeedback, and massage therapy may also be helpful.
How Supplements Can Help
The B vitamins, especially vitamin B6 and folic acid, play an important role in the production of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that help transmit nerve impulses. Because B vitamins are most effective in combination, take them in the form of a vitamin B complex supplement.
Calcium and magnesium both foster brain and nerve health. If you are diagnosed with a seizure disorder or are taking anticonvulsant medication, make sure you are getting the basic amounts you need by taking a broad-spectrum daily multivitamin and mineral supplement
Add either GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) or the amino acid taurine. A deficiency of GABA (a brain chemical) seems to play a role in triggering seizures. Taurine apparently duplicates the action of GABA in the body so take one or the other. Consult your doctor before taking GABA, which can also have a tranquilizing effect. If you are taking taurine for over a month, add a mixed amino acid supplement.
To help reduce stress and anxiety, which can trigger seizures, try the herb kava.
Lack of sleep and fatigue can induce seizures. Make a point of getting enough sleep every night.
Because it can interfere with anticonvulsant drugs and may even lead to seizures, stay away from alcohol.
Cut down on chemically treated products, including foods, artificial colorings, dyes, artificial sweeteners and preservatives. Some people with chronic seizures are unusually sensitive to chemical triggers.
If you are with someone who’s having a seizure, don’t restrain the person or place a gag or anything else in his or her mouth. Try to cushion the person’s fall and clear away any sharp or hard objects that could cause injury. When the seizure has ended, roll the person on their side to prevent possible choking.
When to Call a Doctor
- If you suffer a seizure or experience any of the symptoms of a seizure for the first time. (Subsequent seizures usually do not require immediate medical attention, except in the situations listed below.)
- If you are injured in a seizure-related fall
- If a seizure is unusually prolonged (lasting for more than five minutes) or if one seizure is followed immediately by another. (Seek emergency medical assistance without delay.)
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: If you’re on anticonvulsant medication for epilepsy, don’t even think about discontinuing or reducing such drugs on your own. The following supplements are not substitutes for conventional drugs, but they can help make up for nutritional deficiencies that may lead to seizures.
For some individuals whose symptoms have responded poorly to medications, adding supplements to those medications may actually help bring their seizures under better control. In fact, when used over time, certain supplements may even allow your doctor to reduce the dosage of your anticonvulsant drugs (this may be very beneficial because some medications can have disagreeable side effects).
All these supplements can safely be taken together as well as with any of the drugs prescribed for epilepsy. Benefits should become noticeable after about a month.
How to Take the Supplements
As always, make sure you’re taking a high-potency daily multiple vitamin plus a high-quality antioxidant complex. To that, you’ll need to add a vitamin B complex, because B vitamins are important for the proper functioning of the brain and entire nervous system.
Calcium and magnesium are minerals that also aid brain and nerve health. Check the dosages given below against the amounts in your daily multivitamin or the other supplements you take routinely–you may already be getting enough.
In addition, consider adding the amino acidlike compound GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid); low GABA levels seem to be linked to seizures. For some people, taurine, another amino acid, may be an acceptable substitute for GABA. Taurine acts somewhat like GABA in that it has been shown to prevent brain cell overactivity. Taurine may also reduce seizure activity by increasing levels of GABA in the brain.
Because stress or anxiety can trigger seizures, kava may be useful for calming those emotions.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.