Alternative Therapies for Epilepsy: Exploring Holistic Health Approaches

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Aug 13, 2022
Last updated:
May 21, 2024

Epilepsy affects about 1 in every 100 Australians, which adds up to around 250,000 people. That might not sound like a lot, but it's the fourth most common neurological disorder worldwide, making epilepsy a big deal for public health and the wellbeing of individuals.

Living with epilepsy comes with its own set of challenges for both those who have it and their families. Seizures, the main sign of epilepsy, can happen in different ways, from how often they happen to how severe they are. Managing and treating epilepsy can be complicated, even with regular medication. Some people still have seizures even when they take their meds properly.

Lately, more attention has been given to alternative treatments for epilepsy. These are different ways to help manage epilepsy, reduce seizure frequency, improve quality of life, or minimise side effects from conventional medications. They range from changing what you eat to trying treatments with substances like CBD. As researchers and people with epilepsy look for new ways to deal with the condition, it's essential to understand the pros and cons of these alternative treatments.

Let’s explore the world of alternative therapies for epilepsy and look at how they work, what evidence supports them, and how they might fit into epilepsy treatment. From the usual medicines to newer options, including cannabinoid-based therapies like CBD, we want to give a complete picture of what's out there for people living with epilepsy. By shining a light on alternative therapies, we hope to provide people with epilepsy and their families the knowledge they need to make intelligent choices about their treatment and find ways to control seizures and feel better overall.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a condition where people have repeated and unexpected seizures. These seizures happen because of sudden bursts of unusual electrical activity in the brain. Depending on which part of the brain is affected, they can cause different symptoms. It's important to know that having one seizure doesn't always mean someone has epilepsy. Doctors diagnose epilepsy when a person has two or more unexplained seizures that are likely to happen again.

Seizures linked to epilepsy can show up in different ways. They can be brief moments of not being fully aware or more intense episodes involving uncontrollable movements and passing out. The type of seizure someone has depends on what's happening in their brain and which part is affected.

Some types of epilepsy are tied to certain ages, and the seizures might stop as someone gets older. But for others, epilepsy develops later in life, even after the age of 65.

Classifying Epileptic Seizures

Epileptic seizures come in various forms, each with its own set of characteristics:

Tonic-Clonic Seizures

Formerly known as "grand-mal" seizures, these are perhaps the most recognisable type. They start with a sudden loss of consciousness, followed by the body stiffening (tonic phase) and then rhythmic jerking movements (clonic phase). These seizures usually last 1-3 minutes, and afterwards, the person may feel confused or tired.

Absence Seizures

Also called "petit mal" seizures, these are brief episodes marked by a sudden, temporary loss of awareness. During an absence seizure, the person may seem to stare blankly into space and then have no memory of the episode afterwards. These seizures are more common in children but can also occur in adults.

Focal Seizures

Focal seizures, also known as partial seizures, start in a specific area of the brain and may or may not involve losing consciousness. Depending on which part of the brain is affected, these seizures can cause various symptoms, such as unusual movements, sensory changes, or emotional and cognitive shifts.

Febrile Convulsions

Febrile seizures happen in infants and young children with a high fever, often due to viral infections. While these seizures are usually harmless and stop on their own, children who have them frequently may be more likely to develop epilepsy later in life.

The frequency and intensity of seizures can differ significantly among people with epilepsy. Some may experience additional issues like injuries during seizures or other conditions like depression and anxiety. Getting diagnosed early and managing seizures is essential for improving the quality of life for those living with epilepsy.

Understanding the Causes of Epilepsy

Epilepsy can develop due to various factors affecting the brain's electrical activity and function. While the exact cause may not always be identified, several common factors and underlying conditions are associated with an increased risk of developing the disorder. Exploring these potential causes can offer valuable insights into the diverse nature of epilepsy and inform efforts in diagnosis and treatment. However, it's important to note that while these factors may elevate the risk of epilepsy, not everyone exposed to them will develop the condition. Additionally, epilepsy can also develop without identifiable risk factors, highlighting the complexity of the condition.

Genetics

Genetic factors play a significant role in epilepsy development. Specific forms of epilepsy have a clear genetic basis, with particular gene mutations or inheritance patterns increasing the risk. Individuals with a family history of epilepsy are more likely to develop the condition themselves, underscoring the influence of genetic predisposition.

Brain Abnormalities

Structural abnormalities or lesions in the brain can disrupt normal function and raise the likelihood of seizures. These abnormalities may stem from developmental disorders like cortical dysplasia or acquired conditions such as brain tumours, strokes, or traumatic brain injury. Any alteration to the brain's structure can potentially lead to abnormal electrical activity and seizures.

Head Trauma

Traumatic brain injury, including concussions and penetrating head injuries, can trigger epilepsy, especially if the injury damages brain areas involved in regulating electrical activity. The risk of post-traumatic epilepsy is higher in individuals who have experienced severe or repeated head trauma, such as military personnel or athletes involved in contact sports.

Infections

Certain infections of the central nervous system, like meningitis or encephalitis, can elevate epilepsy risk, particularly if they cause inflammation or brain tissue damage. Infections disrupting brain function can lead to long-term neurological complications, including epilepsy.

Prenatal Factors

Exposure to prenatal factors during fetal development can influence epilepsy risk later in life. Maternal infections, substance abuse, inadequate prenatal care, or exposure to toxins can negatively affect brain development, increasing the likelihood of epilepsy or other neurological disorders in offspring.

Developmental Disruptions

Specific developmental disruptions, such as autism or neurodevelopmental syndromes like Down syndrome or tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), elevate epilepsy risk. Underlying genetic and neurobiological abnormalities in these disorders can predispose individuals to seizures and epilepsy from an early age.

Environmental Triggers

Certain environmental factors can trigger seizures in susceptible individuals. These triggers include exposure to flashing lights or patterns (photosensitivity), sleep deprivation, stress, or specific medications or substances. While these triggers may not directly cause epilepsy, they can worsen existing seizure activity or raise the risk of seizure recurrence in individuals with epilepsy.

It's important to understand that epilepsy is a complex disorder influenced by various factors, including genetics, environment, and neurological factors. Identifying the underlying cause or contributing factors for an individual's epilepsy can guide treatment decisions and improve seizure management and long-term outcomes. 

Ongoing research into the genetic and neurological basis of epilepsy offers hope for developing more targeted therapies and interventions for individuals with the condition.

Epilepsy can develop years after a head injury or infectious disease, which can make it challenging for doctors to pinpoint the cause. While epilepsy is not a mental disorder, individuals living with the condition are at higher risk for depression and anxiety due to the nature of the condition.

Diagnosing Epilepsy

Diagnosing epilepsy involves a thorough evaluation by healthcare professionals to determine if a person's symptoms are due to seizures and, if so, what type of seizures they are experiencing. The diagnostic process typically includes medical history assessments, physical examinations, and various tests to confirm the presence of epilepsy and identify its underlying cause.

Medical History Assessment

Healthcare providers begin the diagnostic process by taking a detailed medical history, which involves gathering information about the individual's symptoms, seizure experiences, past medical conditions, family history of epilepsy or other neurological disorders, medication use, and potential seizure triggers. This information helps clinicians understand the nature and frequency of the seizures and identify any risk factors or underlying conditions that may contribute to epilepsy.

Physical Examination

A comprehensive physical examination is conducted to assess neurological function and look for signs of abnormalities or underlying conditions that may be associated with epilepsy. During the examination, healthcare providers may evaluate factors such as muscle strength, coordination, reflexes, sensory perception, and cognitive function to identify any neurological deficits or abnormalities that could be related to seizures.

Diagnostic Tests

Doctors may perform several tests to confirm the diagnosis of epilepsy and identify its underlying cause. These tests may include:

  1. Electroencephalogram (EEG): An EEG is a non-invasive test that measures electrical activity in the brain using electrodes attached to the scalp. It records the brain's electrical patterns and can detect abnormal spikes or patterns indicative of epilepsy. EEG findings, along with the individual's symptoms and medical history, help clinicians classify the type of epilepsy and determine appropriate treatment strategies.
  1. Imaging Studies: Imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans may be used to visualise the brain's structure and identify any structural abnormalities, lesions, or brain injuries that may be causing seizures. These imaging studies help healthcare providers pinpoint the location of abnormal brain activity and assess the underlying cause of epilepsy.
  1. Blood Tests: Blood tests may be conducted to rule out other medical conditions that may mimic or contribute to seizures, such as metabolic disorders, infections, or electrolyte imbalances. Blood tests can also assess liver and kidney function and evaluate medication levels to ensure optimal treatment management.

Consultations with Specialists:

In some cases, individuals may be referred to neurologists or epileptologists, who are specialists trained in diagnosing and managing epilepsy. These specialists have expertise in interpreting EEG findings, evaluating imaging studies, and developing comprehensive treatment plans tailored to the individual's needs. Collaborating with specialists can ensure accurate diagnosis and optimal management of epilepsy.

By combining medical history assessments, physical examinations, diagnostic tests, and consultations with specialists, healthcare providers can establish a definitive diagnosis of epilepsy, determine its underlying cause, and develop personalised treatment plans to help individuals manage their condition effectively.

Treatments for Epilepsy

Managing epilepsy involves using different methods to reduce the number and severity of seizures while also improving overall quality of life. Treatment options for epilepsy include medicines, surgery, and other therapies, giving people various ways to manage their condition based on their needs and preferences. Understanding these treatment options is vital for creating personalised care plans that work best for each person.

Antiseizure Medications (Antiepileptic Drugs, AEDs)

Antiseizure medications are the primary treatment for epilepsy. They help control seizures and prevent them from happening again. Antiseizure medications work by calming down the brain's electrical activity. The right medicine and dose depend on factors like the type of seizure, age, other health issues, and any side effects. Finding the best medicine and dosage might take some time, and adjustments may be needed over time.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS)

Vagus nerve stimulation is a treatment option for people whose seizures don't improve with medicines alone. It involves implanting a small device under the skin near the collarbone. This device sends electrical signals to a nerve in the neck called the vagus nerve, which helps control brain activity and reduce the number and severity of seizures. VNS is often used along with medicines and can offer extra help in controlling seizures for some people.

Ketogenic Diet

The ketogenic diet is a special diet that has been shown to help reduce seizures, especially in children with epilepsy. It's high in fats and low in carbohydrates, which causes the body to produce ketones, a type of fuel that helps calm the brain's electrical activity. This change in how the body gets energy can help reduce seizures. The ketogenic diet might be recommended for people with epilepsy who haven't responded well to medicines or as an extra treatment to improve seizure control.

Surgical Intervention

Surgery may be an option for people with epilepsy who still have seizures despite trying medicines and other treatments. There are different types of epilepsy surgery. Some involve removing or disconnecting the part of the brain where seizures start, while others use devices implanted in the brain to help control seizure activity. Surgery is usually considered for people with focal epilepsy, particularly those who haven't responded to medication, where seizures begin in one area of the brain and can offer a chance to stop seizures or reduce their impact.

Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapies encompass various treatments that individuals may explore alongside or in place of conventional medicines and surgical interventions. These therapies can range from practices like acupuncture, yoga, and relaxation techniques to more recent developments like cannabidiol (CBD) oil.

CBD, a compound derived from cannabis, has garnered attention for its potential anticonvulsant properties. It is one of the few conditions for which a medical cannabis treatment has received full recognition by regulatory bodies like the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Epidyolex, a TGA-approved CBD product, serves as an alternative treatment for seizures associated with rare forms of childhood epilepsy, including Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

While CBD has shown promise in reducing seizure frequency in some individuals with epilepsy, further research is needed to understand its effectiveness and long-term safety fully. Healthcare providers should be involved in the decision-making process to create a tailored treatment plan that considers the individual's seizure type, frequency, medication side effects, and overall health status.

By collaborating with healthcare providers and exploring various treatment options, individuals with epilepsy can take a holistic approach to manage their condition effectively and enhance their overall wellbeing.

Living with Epilepsy

Living with epilepsy brings its own set of challenges that need continuous management and support. Even though epilepsy involves recurrent seizures, with the proper treatment and lifestyle changes, individuals with epilepsy can live fulfilling lives and minimise the impact of seizures on their daily routines. Understanding epilepsy and adopting strategies to cope with its challenges is crucial for improving quality of life and overall wellbeing.

Education and Awareness

Learning about epilepsy and spreading awareness is vital for dispelling myths and misunderstandings about the condition. Increasing awareness helps reduce stigma and encourages understanding and acceptance in the community. People with epilepsy can empower themselves by understanding their condition, recognising their triggers, and knowing how to respond during and after seizures. Educating family members, friends, and colleagues about epilepsy can create a supportive environment and foster empathy.

Medication Management

Taking medications as prescribed is crucial for managing epilepsy and preventing seizures from happening. People with epilepsy should follow the instructions from their healthcare provider and report any concerns or side effects promptly. Regular check-ups with healthcare providers help monitor medication effectiveness, adjust dosages if needed, and address emerging issues. Using reminder tools or keeping a medication log can help individuals stay organised and stick to their medication schedules.

Seizure Preparedness

Being prepared for seizures can boost confidence and help individuals feel more in control of their condition. Creating a seizure response plan outlining steps to take before, during, and after a seizure can provide reassurance and ensure timely care. This plan may involve informing trusted individuals about the person's epilepsy, carrying identification indicating their condition, and having emergency contacts readily available. Making environments at home and work safe for seizures can minimise the risk of injuries.

Lifestyle Modifications

Making healthy lifestyle choices can contribute to better seizure control and overall wellbeing. Prioritising sufficient sleep, eating a balanced diet, staying physically active, and managing stress through relaxation techniques or mindfulness practices can reduce seizure triggers and promote optimal health. Avoiding alcohol, drugs, and risky activities during seizures, like swimming alone, can further enhance seizure management and prevent accidents.

Emotional Support and Self-Care

Coping with epilepsy can evoke various emotions, including fear, anxiety, and frustration. Seeking support from loved ones, support groups, or mental health professionals can provide validation and encouragement. Self-care activities like hobbies or relaxation techniques can help individuals cope with stress and improve emotional wellbeing. Developing healthy coping mechanisms and practising self-compassion are essential for navigating the emotional challenges associated with epilepsy.

Empowerment and Advocacy

Empowering individuals with epilepsy to advocate for themselves and others can drive positive change and raise awareness about the needs of the epilepsy community. Encouraging self-advocacy skills, participating in advocacy efforts, and advocating for epilepsy-friendly policies can help assert the rights of people with epilepsy and promote inclusivity. By sharing their experiences and raising their voices, individuals with epilepsy can contribute to a more supportive and understanding society.

Living with epilepsy requires resilience, determination, and proactive self-care. By building a supportive network, prioritising health and wellbeing, and advocating for their needs, individuals with epilepsy can overcome challenges and lead fulfilling lives. With the right resources, support, and mindset, living with epilepsy can be empowering and enriching, enabling individuals to thrive despite the obstacles posed by their condition.

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