High fat, low carb diets can help treat epilepsy

A new study suggests that dietary changes could be helpful for patients with epilepsy. The condition causes seizures that happen when the electrical signals between brain cells are interrupted. It can be triggered by a brain injury, infection or alcohol abuse, but in most causes the cause is unclear. It affects around 50 million people worldwide, more than 500,000 of them in the UK. Seizures can usually be controlled or reduced by medication, but it doesn’t work for 35% of people, so researchers are looking into alternatives. One solution, as simplistic as it sounds, could be diet.

Specialist diets are often recommended for children with epilepsy, but are less likely to be considered for adults. Yet a new paper published in the journal Neurology® suggests that changing eating habits could help to reduce seizures, especially in adults who have found other treatments ineffective. Researchers found that the results of studies involving two specific diets were especially promising: the ketogenic diet and the modified Atkins diet. Although they differ slightly in the nitty-gritty, both are high-fat, low carb plans.

After reviewing five studies of the ketogenic diet and five of modified Atkins, the scientists, led by Pavel Klein from the Mid-Atlantic Epilepsy and Sleep Center in the U.S, found that 32% of people with epilepsy on the ketogenic diet and 29% on modified Atkins had a reduction in their symptoms of 50% or more. Although this is obviously a minority of patients, the significant change – as much as a 90% reduction in seizures for 9% in the ketogenic group and 5% for Atkins – offers hope to people who haven’t found other treatments effective. And it only took a few days or weeks to notice a change, meaning patients can quickly see if it works for them.

However, if it does work, it needs to be a permanent change. While children on this type of diet often still benefit from it after they stop following it, adults need to keep going. Unfortunately, this means many find it too hard to stick to, with around half of the participants for both diets dropping out. Says Klein, ‘Most people eventually stop the diet because of the culinary and social restrictions. However, these studies show the diets are moderately to very effective as another option for people with epilepsy.’

Image via stu_spivack’s Flickr.

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