If you’ve been diagnosed with epilepsy, then you likely carefully monitor your sleep so you get enough each night. The foods and ingredients you eat or avoid can also play a role in your rate of epileptic episodes. Is keto helpful for epilepsy, and if so, why?
The ketogenic diet can reduce the rate of seizures in epilepsy patients, sometimes at a rate of 50 to 90 percent in children. Medical experts aren’t sure why low-carb diets work to reduce seizures, but it likely has to do with increasing fats and reducing sugars.
We have lots more information to discuss in this guide, including how the ketogenic diet can reduce seizures in epileptics and what other diets might be worth trying if you have epilepsy. Make sure you keep reading!
How Does Ketosis Help Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a disorder that causes nerve cell activity to disrupt the brain, which then leads to seizures. Whether trauma or disease causes this brain dysfunction, epilepsy is incurable.
Medications might be able to reduce the rate of seizures, as can surgery in some serious cases. Your doctor might also recommend changing your diet.
The ketogenic diet is one such recommended dietary change you can make. Infants and children who are diagnosed with epilepsy are often prescribed the keto diet to reduce their rate of seizures.
According to Cleveland Clinic, about half of children (between 40 and 50 percent) who start on the keto diet upon being diagnosed with epilepsy at their age will have a reduction in seizures. Cleveland Clinic notes that a small portion of patients–10 to 20 percent–will have 90 percent fewer seizures.
The rest will reduce their rate of seizures by about half, which is still enough to make a difference in their quality of life.
Children who start on the keto diet to control their epilepsy rarely do it for life. After several years of dietary therapy, most children who are on the keto diet can usually discontinue it.
Why does keto work for epileptics?
Even medical experts aren’t sure, as we touched on in the intro. It could be that increasing fat in one’s diet while reducing sugar could change how excitable the brain may get. In epileptics, this is what could reduce seizures.
A 2012 publication of the Harvard Gazette cited the results of a study from that year in the journal Neuron. According to the study, ketone bodies produced from the high fat in the keto diet could generate neurons to keep the brain functioning better. When combined with a potassium channel, seizures don’t happen or occur more infrequently.
Can Keto Make Seizures Worse? Is the Keto Diet Safe If You Have Epilepsy?
The keto diet is not for everyone, so you can’t help but wonder if it’s safe for epileptics.
For the most part, indeed, the keto diet is very safe. Ketosis for epilepsy has been a treatment for children (and adults) since the 1920s, so it is a long-term therapy of about 100 years.
Allow us to also reiterate the findings from the last section. Keto works for about half the patients who use it, and its seizure reduction rate is between 50 and 90 percent in most cases.
However, it’s mostly children who are recommended keto for epilepsy. The Cleveland Clinic article mentions that that’s due to the difficulties adults face in sticking with the diet. If anything, we’d think it would be harder for children to follow the diet, but we digress.
A 2015 post from Neurology Advisor states that “the dietary approaches have been tied to risk of adverse effects in both adults and children, although most are treatable and nearly all are preventable. Adverse effects include constipation, low blood sugar, and gastrointestinal reflux. Other side effects, such as kidney stones and high cholesterol, can often be improved with supplements or dietary changes. These also tend to improve over the long term.”
We’re not trying to make light of the side effects that can occur in some epileptics who try the ketogenic diet. After all, low blood sugar can cause unpleasant symptoms such as sweating, clammy skin, and an upset stomach as well as confusion and blurry vision in more serious cases.
High cholesterol elevates your risk of stroke and heart disease and thus can be potentially deadly.
When undergoing keto for epilepsy, you’re not doing it alone. You’ll be consistently monitored by doctors, dieticians, nutritionists, and other medical professionals. Should a potentially risky symptom manifest, your team of medical experts might modify your diet or discontinue it.
Keto itself can lead to some unpleasant side effects, although they’re nothing serious. At first, you might feel tired, and constipation is likely. Some keto dieters develop keto flu, which can lead to sleeping issues, nausea, moodiness, and brain fog.
Most of these side effects are part of your adjustment to keto. After several weeks or a month, many symptoms abate.
It’s for these reasons altogether that we’d say yes, keto is a safe treatment for epilepsy.
How Long Does Keto Take to Work for Epilepsy?
Your doctor has recommended the keto diet to control your seizures. You’re willing to try keto, either in conjunction with medication or without, but how long are you going to wait for relief?
Keto is not an overnight treatment. Epilepsy Society cites a 2008 study from the Great Ormand Street Hospital that involved a group of children with epilepsy who had tried anti-epileptic drugs or AEDs without success.
Four in 10 of the children or 38 percent of them had a reduction in symptoms, but it took three months.
That’s not to say that it will necessarily be that long for you to have fewer seizures on keto. It could be less time than that or even more time. We recommend speaking with your doctor or nutritionist to get a timeframe for when keto will be effective for you.
Are Carbs Bad for Epilepsy?
Carbohydrates are all around us. While at the end of the day, carbs are merely an energy source and shouldn’t be completely vilified, for people with some health conditions, that vilification is warranted. One such condition is epilepsy.
Well, it’s not so much carbs as the simple sugars in carbs. Simple sugars include two disaccharide molecules and one monosaccharide molecule. The glycemic index of simple sugars is a lot higher than other foods. This causes your body to quickly absorb the sugars, which could lead to excitability in the brain.
Examples of Simple Sugars
If you’re wondering where simple sugars exist in your diet, the answer is likely in many places. Let’s go over some examples of simple sugars so you can discontinue their consumption.
- Processed foods: The list of processed foods that could worsen epilepsy is nearly a mile long. Here’s everything to cut out of your diet:
- Granola bars
- White quick-cook rice
- White bread
- French fries
- Sweetened cereals
- Sweets: Unsurprisingly, sweets will only serve to worsen epilepsy. Avoid these foods:
- Ice cream
- Sweetened beverages: From energy drinks to soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit juices, the quick spike of sugar in your system from sweetened beverages could cause more harm than good.
- Sweeteners: Watch which sweeteners you use as well. Syrups, honey, and table sugar are poor sources of carbs.
Which Diet Is Best for Epilepsy?
Undoubtedly, keto remains the best diet for reducing epilepsy symptoms, but other low-carb diets might be appropriate as well.
If not keto, then your doctor or nutritionist might suggest that you try the Atkin’s diet. Created by Robert Atkins, the Atkins diet is high-fat and low-carb just like keto.
Rather than eat a moderate amount of protein though, Atkins requires you to consume high-protein foods as well.
You should incorporate more of these foods into your Atkins diet:
- Healthy fats such as avocado oil, avocados, coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil
- Seeds and nuts like sunflower seeds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and almonds
- Full-fat dairy, including full-fat yogurt, cream, cheese, and butter
- Eggs, especially pastured eggs or those enriched with omega-3 fatty acids
- Fatty seafood and fish like sardines, trout, and salmon
- Meats such as chicken, lamb, pork, and beef
On the Atkins diet, you wouldn’t eat these foods:
- Legumes like chickpeas, beans, and lentils
- Starches such as sweet potatoes and regular potatoes
- High-carb fruits, including grapes, pears, oranges, apples, and bananas
- High-carb vegetables like turnips and carrots
- Trans fats
- Vegetable oils such as canola oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, and soybean oil
- Grains like rice, barley, rye, spelt, and wheat
- Sugar, including ice cream, candy, cakes, fruit juices, and soft drinks
The Atkins diet might be a good one to try to ease your way into keto, but defer to the recommendations of your doctor or nutritionist.
The keto diet has been a proven therapy to reduce seizures in epilepsy patients since the 1920s. Although medical experts to this day can’t say with 100 percent certainty why keto works for epileptics, what’s clear is that it does, and that’s true for both children and adults!