There’s a breakthrough in the treatment of epilepsy that actually dates back to biblical times. Even back then, it was noted that people who were starving tended not to have seizures. Now, a diet that simulates starvation offers hope to young epilepsy patients.
Ashley Herron thinks she’s starving, and that’s just what her doctors want. Just two years ago, she suffered almost constant epileptic seizures. Her mother was at her wit’s end. “She was just to the limit that we did not know what in the world we were going to do with her,” says Shelby Brigman, Ashley’s mother.
That’s when doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina put Ashley on a ketogenic diet — a low-sugar, high-fat diet that forced her body to be fueled by fat.
David Griesemer, M.D., is a pediatric neurologist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “So from the body’s biochemical perspective, it perceives that it’s in a continuous state of starvation,” he says.
Burning fat releases acids called ketones. No one knows why, but ketones tend to calm brain seizures.
Ashley’s typical meal has a bit of meat and vegetables, but the main course is fat. At times, she has whipping cream to wash it all down. Her doctors say it helps two thirds of the patients like Ashley.
Her nurse has seen an improvement. “We started her on the diet, and she was able to increase her vocabulary. She can count now. She can do her ABC’s. She’s learning in school, and she’s happy. She’s really happy,” says GiGi Smith, R.N., a pediatric epilepsy nurse at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Replacing sugar with fat isn’t easy. Sweets are locked up in the cabinets. Ashley uses special toothpaste without sugar, and the garbage is bagged up often to keep her from digging for food. Her cholesterol is watched closely.
After two years, Ashley will be weaned back to regular food. By then, doctors think the seizures will be gone forever.
You need careful medical attention and sometimes hospitalization before trying a ketogenic diet. Right now, it’s only used on children between the ages of two and eight. However, Johns Hopkins is studying its use in adults, as well as any long term side effects.