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The Ketogenic Diet for Epilepsy

Updated on September 8, 2018
Marie Flint profile image

Marie began studying nutrition in 1964 and continues this interest. She formerly worked on staff at Hippocrates Health Institute in Boston.

In some of the East Indian islands they think that epilepsy can be cured by striking the patient on the face with the leaves of certain trees and then throwing them away.

— Sir James George Frazier (The Golden Bough, 1922)

Disclaimer: This hub is intended for educational purposes only and is not offered as a cure for any disease. Persons suffering from epileptic symptoms should consult their health care provider before attempting any dietary change. A ketogenic diet may be contraindicated for preexisting heart and kidney problems.

What is epilepsy?

By simple definition, epilepsy is a nerve disorder characterized by recurring seizures that can be generally categorized either as a petit mal or a grand mal. The word is derived from the Greek language, with the suffix epi- meaning "on" or "upon" and lambánein, to seize. Generally, the causes of seizures are unknown, but are often described as abnormal electrical activity in the brain. (Low blood sugar or a stroke are sometimes preludes to a seizure.)

A Grand Mal Seizure (viewer discretion advised)

What is a ketogenic diet?

Ketogenic means "originating ketones,' which are what the liver produces when blood sugar levels are low. The word "ketogenic" comes from the German word Keton, meaning acetone, a chemical that easily breaks down fat,

The main characteristic of a ketogenic diet is one that is high in fat, an adequate level of protein and low in carbohydrates. This type of diet causes the body to metabolize as if one were fasting. A metabolic state, known as ketosis (not to be confused with ketoacidosis, a dangerous condition) results in the body and acts as a muscle anticonvulsant.

The Makeup of a Ketogenic Diet
The Makeup of a Ketogenic Diet | Source

The ratio of food types in the ketogenic diet are 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbohydrate calories. In other words, the fat in grams to the combined weight of proteins and carbohydrate is roughly 4:1.

Foods typical in this diet are avocados, cold-pressed oils, free-range-grown animal fats, black olives, and sparingly used nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate.

Not allowed or to be avoided are sugar (except occasional artificial ones), grain, starchy vegetables, fruit and their juices, beans, beer and wine, sodas, milk, and processed foods.

Proteins are eaten in moderation and include lean meats, fish, and some dairy products.

Dr. Robert Coleman Atkins (1930-2003)
Dr. Robert Coleman Atkins (1930-2003) | Source

The best known ketogenic diet is the Atkins diet that was popularized by Dr. Robert Atkins through his book Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution around 1972 and has continued in recognition to the present day.

History of Epilepsy and the Ketogenic Diet

Recorded symptoms of epilepsy, though not known at the time by that name, go back as early as Socrates. Studies of the Shakespeare might include a reference to Caesar's epilepsy. Several baseball players suffered from it; whether there is a common denominator of ketosis and insufficient water intake among athletes, one can only theorize the cause. In the United Kingdom, one in every 103 persons has epilepsy. The condition has caused social and political embarrassment to those suffering from the condition, and, as in the case of Prince John, a life of exclusion.

In the mid-90's, Hollywood Producer James Abrams experienced his young son's severe epilepsy that was untouched by prescribed medications. After much heartache, resolution came with application of the ketogenic diet. Consequently, Mr. Abrams started the Charlie Foundation to educate the public about the diet as an alternative to ineffective medications. His movie "First Do No Harm (1997)" 'is included below as a YouTube video. The Foundation sponsored research study, spurring scientific interest since 1996.

The Inspirational Movie Behind the Hub (1 1/2 hours)

Some Well Known Persons Who Suffered Epilepsy

(Names are listed chronologically by birth date.)

Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), childhood epilepsy

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Russian writer; inherited condition, but with pleasant preludes

George Inness (1825-1894), American landscape painter; suffered since childhood

Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), 1st premier of Soviet Union; developed the condition during last few months of life

Grover Alexander (1887-1950), major league baseball pitcher with Ty Cobb

Prince Erik (1889-1918), son of Sweden's King Gustav V

Ward Bond (1903-1960), actor; was rejected from WWII draft due to the condition

Prince John (1905-1919), son of UK's King George V; had to live in seclusion

Neil Abercrombie (born 1937), governor of Hawaii; onset at age 30 and campaigner for epilepsy research

Neil Young (born 1945), Canadian singer-songwriter, opted for self control due to dislike of medication

Margaux Hemingway (1955-1996),, actress-model, onset since age 7; death speculated as overdose of phenobarbital (anticonvulsant)

Florence Joyner (1959-1998), female track athlete; onset in 30s, died in sleep from condition

Wally Lewis (born 1959), Australia's rugby player and sports announcer

Author's Note: Napoleon and George Gershwin were also suspected of having epilepsy.

Digesting the Facts

Epilepsy is a debilitating condition of nerve dysfunction and uncontrolled muscular contraction that has caused deteriorating health, embarrassment, and even death among its sufferers throughout history.

Anticonvulsant medication replaced diet as a means of controlling the symptoms around 1920. This became the accepted medical treatment because the rigors of diet require self discipline on the part of the patient, who sometimes is incapable of adapting a ketogenic diet for health concerns.

The Charlie Foundation, created by Mr. Abrams in response to his son's illness and recovery, provides education and support for persons, especially children, suffering from epilepsy. Other foundations providing help are The Epilepsy Foundation, nationally based in Landover, Maryland, and the American Epilepsy Society, based in Hartford, Connecticut. These organizations have chapters throughout the United States.

While a ketogenic diet may not necessarily be a solution for every epileptic sufferer, it is something worth considering.

The following book Eating for Life is well organized into categories: dinners, desserts, breakfasts, lunches, mid-meals, nutrition shakes, and meal plans. Phillips even provides a grocery guide. Colorful photographs of the featured meal accompanies each recipe. Informative and inspirational for weight loss and muscle toning. While this is not a ketogenic diet, The Body for Life method can serve as a transition. The recipes are flavorful and easy to do.

Another Low Carbohydrate Diet

Eating for Life: Your Guide to Great Health, Fat Loss and Increased Energy
Eating for Life: Your Guide to Great Health, Fat Loss and Increased Energy
A worth-while program for transitioning to a ketogenic diet. I helped my daughter, who was interested in weight-loss and muscle toning, do meal planning from this book and actually made some of the recipes for her. She did very well with the entire program, which included exercises.

Credits and Resources (Extensive Information with Basic Menus) (Statistics on Epilepsy)


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    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      Thank you, Dora and Miz, for visiting and commenting. Special thanks for the vote. Yes, I also came across the possibility of the epilepsy being inherited or associated with brain trauma, MizBejabbers. If I were faced with the situation, I certainly would try the diet before going ahead with any surgery. My elder daughter suffers migraines, too. She's an ambitious Scorpio who creates a lot of stress for herself. She seems to get a little relief from a cup of coffee. She roughly follows the Body for Life Diet, but doesn't count her fat intake and just assumes she gets enough. (The Body for Life Diet is not a high fat diet per se, but a low carbohydrate one.) Personally, I think all fats, or as many as possible, should be quality, natural oils, like from the avocado or virgin olive oil. These are easier on the liver. One staff member used a liver flush (organic citric juice, pure water, olive oil, and cayenne) for a couple of weeks. He said he was exhausted from it--and that's what diet changes can do. The body needs time to adjust. Usually once one is through that "healing crisis" stage, goods results are easily maintained thereafter. Blessings to you both!

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      6 years ago from Beautiful South

      Marie, very good education here. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it is my impression that some cases are hereditary and some result from accidents. I also read somewhere that migraine headaches are related to epilepsy. My uncle had epilepsy but outgrew it in his mid-teens. He was the only one in the family to have it, but several of us have migraines.

      Strange Eric should mention a lawyer who had to take public transportation. I worked with a lawyer who for several years had to take the bus because of his epilepsy. I mention him mainly because his started in his twenties after an automobile accident. He had a small part of his brain removed on one side, I forget which. It relieved the epilepsy in that side, but then the other side started acting up and was just as debilitating. I don’t think he knew about this diet or he would have tried it. He would have given anything to have gotten back to a normal life. (He was killed in an accident unrelated to his disease.) You got my votes on this one.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for the information how the ketogenic diet might help epilepsy patients. This is the kind of article we can all learn from.

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      God bless him, Eric. I do hope this information does some good. Death rate is high among epileptics. I wouldn't have written this, but I came across the movie on YouTube (I like to watch a movie while I quilt). I found the movie so inspirational that I felt I should write something about the subject. Thank you for taking time to read and comment.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very interesting, thank you. Just sent off a lawyer to court who must take public transport due to his epilepsy. I will suggest the diet.

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      This diet would be difficult for me to maintain. I love my fruits and grains. I have learned something from researching this topic, though, as the ketogenic diet has been useful for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, autism, brain trauma, and stroke--pretty much anything where a faulty nervous system is involved.

      When I had control over my younger daughter's diet, I used a gluten-free, casein-free diet for her symptoms of autism. I was unaware of fat-protein-carbohydrate ratios, however. This may be an avenue worth pursuing for her benefit. I also wonder if it would help my vision, which includes the optic nerve. Excessive carbohydrates also lead to inflammation.


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