By Kymberlee Smith
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is, put simply, a disorder in the brain that causes a misfire or overreaction among certain nerve cells, causing unprovoked seizures. How the body responds beyond that largely depends on the type of epilepsy you have. Epilepsy can be brought on by trauma or injury, although over half the people suffering from this condition have no idea what caused it. Beginning to research treatment options for epilepsy and epileptic seizures can seem overwhelming: there are about a dozen types of epilepsy, and they can all cause different “types” of seizures, meaning, the seizures look or feel different from one another. Some seizures last a few seconds, other types can last a few minutes. Treating and managing seizures from epilepsy starts with an accurate diagnosis from one or more medical professionals. After proper diagnosis, it’s especially important to actively work on preventing and managing the symptoms of epilepsy. Studies have shown that experiencing just one severe episodic seizure can cause significant brain damage, and generalized seizures can cause brain dysfunction over time. But even without the danger of long term cognitive impairment, living with uncontrolled seizures can affect every aspect of your life. Day-to-day activities become more difficult when you are always on the edge of an impending attack. Many people with epilepsy give up simple things like driving their car and family outings for fear that they might be caught up in an episode at the wrong place and wrong time. Taking properly dosed medication just prior to an attack can help ease or stop the seizure completely, but how do you know when to anticipate one?
Many people who battle epileptic seizures begin to notice little “warning signs” before an attack. These are called “auras,” and they are actually quite common for people who experience epileptic seizures and chronic migraines. These signs can manifest themselves as Sensory auras or Experiential auras.
Sensory auras are warning signs that trigger a physical sensation that would be considered unusual for the present situation. They can cause things like:
- Numbness, tingling, or pain
- Vision impairment: seeing spots, flashes of light, or things that aren’t actually there
- A buzzing or ringing in the ears, more extreme cases might even hear voices or a single tone
- Unusual smells, typically unpleasant
- Acidic, bitter, salty, or sweet taste in the mouth
- A tightness or anxious feeling in the chest or throat
- Lightheadedness or headache
Experiential auras can be:
- An unwelcome or unexpected feeling of depression, fear, joy, or anger
- Feeling deja vu (feeling of familiarity when there shouldn’t be one) or jamais vu (feeling of unfamiliarity when you should feel familiar)
- Hallucinations (visual or audible) with no change in awareness
- Altered state of perception without change in awareness
Recognizing these warning signs can make all the difference. Although there is no known cure for epilepsy, it is possible to manage the symptoms by getting to medication in time.
Another way many people prevent and manage seizures is by practicing mindfulness, especially when they are hit with a warning sign that a seizure is around the corner. This requires self-control and extreme focus, but with practice has been found to be extremely beneficial in preventing or decreasing the intensity of an oncoming attack.
- Meditation: “Interestingly, four randomized control trials concluded that mindfulness meditation can increase telomerase activity in white blood cells, suggesting that meditation might promote cell longevity and slow aging. Therefore, mindfulness is likely to be particularly helpful in epilepsy. Like most chronic illnesses, epilepsy can be worsened by modifiable lifestyle factors. Therefore, strengthening the patients’ moment-by-moment awareness of measures that optimize their health is of key importance. Equally important is improving the patients’ attitude toward their seizures and the lifestyle that is shaped by epilepsy. Coping with stress can lead to proper education about seizures and epilepsy, avoiding seizure triggers, and strict adherence to the antiseizure medication regimen.” (US National Library of Medicine). You can practice different forms of meditation, like deep breathing exercises, chanting mantras, transcendental, and verbal affirmations.
- Low impact movement like walking or tai chi: There’s a lot of talk in the webisphere about slow, methodical physical movement combined with controlled breathing to help manage epilepsy. Much like meditation, it is thought to help calm the overactivity of neurons in the brain, either preventing or lessening the severity of an epileptic attack.
- Neurofeedback: Much like meditation, neurofeedback (or biofeedback) is a mind-over-body mentality, where patients are taught to control bodily functions that would otherwise be regulated automatically (like temperature and heart rate). The American Health Care Policy Review Board gave this method the highest possible effectiveness rating level when it comes to treating conditions such as migraines, ADHD, and yes, even epilepsy. Neurofeedback is relatively easy to learn, and is believed to successfully help the patient either eliminate seizures or reduce the amount of medication required to manage them.
Some people choose to stay ahead of the seizure game with a support animal. Dogs have awesome natural self-preservation instincts: this is what has kept them safe in the wild for centuries. While scientists aren’t quite sure how they do it, some dogs are born with an incredible ability to sense danger in their owners: even to the point of recognizing a seizure a few seconds to a few hours (or more!) before it happens. This gives the owner extra time to get proper medication. You can’t train a dog to have these skills, according to Sharon Hermansen of the non-profit organization Canine Seizure Assist Society: “I can train a dog to sit, lay down, and fetch,” she said, “but I can’t teach a dog to alert.” These special seizure alert dogs show an alerting ability early on, and this behavior is encouraged with treats and rewards, prompting more alerting behaviors in the future. There is no way to breed this type of animal — many are even shelter dogs. An alert dog will warn you of an oncoming seizure, usually with attention-seeking behaviors like whining, spinning in circles, or barking. Some seizure alert dogs can even be trained to call 911, in the case you didn’t get to medication in time. Another type of support animal is a seizure response dog, which is different from an alert dog. A seizure response dog will not leave your side prior, during, and after the episode. Many doctors believe that the calming and supportive nature of a response dog can help lessen the severity and length of an epileptic seizure. Although scientists don’t believe the dogs can actually sense a change in their owners brainwaves, many lives have been saved because of seizure assist dogs. Not only that, but a support animal is believed to ease the anxiety and stress that having an emotionally difficult condition like epilepsy can cause. These dogs are not guaranteed 100%, and their accuracy largely depends on a proper diagnosis of epilepsy. People suffering from PNES (psychogenic non-epileptic seizures) will not typically find success in using these dogs, as PNES is not caused by a misfire in brain nerve cells, it’s caused by severe psychological distress, making the symptoms and triggers for this condition vastly different from epileptic seizures.
150,000 new cases of epilepsy are diagnosed each year in the United States alone. Epilepsy is most commonly treated with anticonvulsant (antiepileptic, or AED) drugs. There are about 20 of them prescribed regularly today, and they can help inhibit the brain from having an epileptic seizure by reducing the excessive electrical activity within the brain prior to and during an episode. There are three types of side effects associated with this type of medication:
- Common/predictable side effects can be expected in anyone taking AEDs because they affect the central nervous system. These side effects include blurry/double vision, drowsiness, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, weight gain, hair loss, etc.
- Neurotoxic side effects are rare and can include skin rashes, low blood cell counts, behavioral changes, sleep disturbance, tremors, hyperactivity, and problems in the liver.
- Unique side effects are rare, unpredictable, and unique to specific medications. It can include serious side effects that should be discussed with your doctor in depth before introducing into your treatment plan.
Choosing the right type of epilepsy medication depends on what type of epilepsy you have, what side effects you can tolerate, and what medications you are currently taking. About a third of those diagnosed with epilepsy live with uncontrollable seizures because they have no response to AEDs at all: “Some people try all of them, and still continue to have seizures.” Says a doctor at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, “In cases that fail two drugs, the odds of getting control with the third to twentieth drug are very low, less than 10%.”
Many people are turning to more alternative routes to manage their epilepsy, skipping brain surgery and incorporating specific vitamins or following a strict ketogenic diet instead. There are few clinical studies proving the effectiveness of these herbs and diet plans, and much evidence tends to be anecdotal. However, phytomedicine was the first type of medicine ever practiced, and it has centuries of data and reports that lead naturopaths to believe that in many cases, herbs and plants have just as much fighting power as pharmaceuticals.
What we do know is that most vitamins and herbs are used in addition to AEDs, as many of them aren’t strong enough to treat epileptic seizures on their own, but are known to assist in treating the symptoms. They work by helping to calm the brain activity that sparks episodes, therefore lowering the number of seizures experienced and easing their length and severity. In many cases, these alternative remedies help to heal and balance out the unprovoked activity in the brain to the point that AEDs can be reduced or completely eliminated. Look for things like:
Vitamin E: A powerful antioxidant, Vitamin E has proven to hold its own in lowering the frequency of epileptic seizures: this study indicated that Vitamin E administered along with an AED showed significant improvement in seizure control and decrease in seizure frequency.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA): This study on fish oil and epileptic seizures in children concluded that an elevated intake of Omega-3s elevated the seizure threshold and aided in seizure control.
CBD oil: This plant extract has both Vitamin E and EFAs and has been shown to stop epileptic seizures in its tracks, with very few or no side effects at all.
Can any one method promise to eliminate your seizures completely? The answer is no. But there are many alternative treatments and methods that can help manage symptoms of epilepsy and have potential to keep the seizures at bay. Consult with your trusted medical professional before changing any medications or incorporating new treatments into your regimen. It’s important to pay attention to your symptoms and listen to your body when trying to find a treatment for epilepsy. Honor your body and you are well on your way to an easier, safer, and seizure free life.
For more reading on the ways CBD can help treat Epilepsy, read What You Need to Know About How to Treat Epilepsy With CBD and Cannabis.
Kymberlee Smith is a writer by day, musician by night, and still finds time to knit sweaters for her dog, Dexter. She is passionate about educating herself and others regarding cannabinoids and hopes to be a voice in rebranding them along with other alternative methods for medicine. Follow her on Twitter @kymsmithter