In early 2018, Illinois sixth-grader Ashley Surin won a major legal victory: the right to have access to medical marijuana at school. The middle schooler had been suffering daily seizures since undergoing treatment for leukemia. And standard antiseizure medications hadn’t worked well for her.
But Ashley’s parents say that since starting a regimen of cannabis drops combined with the ultra-restrictive ketogenic diet, her seizures have dwindled to about one a month. Research reveals that for people like Ashley, marijuana and the keto diet may be better at controlling severe seizures than mainstream pharmaceuticals are.
What Causes Seizures?
Seizures can have a variety of causes, and people of any age can experience just one or many seizures. Common conditions that can contribute to seizures include:
- Abnormal levels of sodium (salt) or glucose (sugar) in the blood
- Congenital brain defects that predispose a person to lifelong seizures
- Head injuries
- High fevers
- Very high blood pressure
- Toxin accumulation in the bloodstream
- Withdrawal from alcohol or drug use—including some prescription drugs
Epilepsy is the term used for a variety of disorders that are characterized by recurring seizures. Epileptic seizures can range from very minor episodes that cause symptoms like sudden blinking, all the way to the very debilitating grand mal seizures that have a severe impact on all aspects of a person’s life.
In all of these cases, seizures have a common cause: abnormal electrical signaling in the brain, particularly the hippocampus. A number of medications have been developed to control seizures and stop the disruption of electrical impulses within the brain. But these medications can have serious side effects, and in some cases, they simply don’t work.
The Ketogenic Diet Protects the Brain
In the early 1930s, doctors noted that fasting—extended periods without food— could reduce seizure activity. Until the widespread development of today’s antiseizure medications, diet was widely used to treat epilepsy.
Now, research supports these early protocols. There’s evidence that the ketogenic diet—a highly restrictive diet that gets most of its calories from fat—can reduce the incidence of seizures in children by at least half. The keto diet also has benefits for adults with epilepsy.
The keto diet gets its name from the result it produces. Normally, the body gets most of its energy from protein and carbohydrates. The body needs some fats, but the typical “healthy” diet usually restricts them, especially the saturated fats that come from animal products.
But the ketogenic diet turns these recommendations upside down. For those following the diet, 90% of their calories come from saturated and other kinds of “unhealthy” fats. Carbohydrates are virtually nonexistent on the keto diet.
When the body burns fat for energy, it produces molecules called ketone bodies. It’s these bodies that hold the key to the antiseizure properties of the ketogenic diet. Research on the antiseizure effects of ketones suggests that ketone bodies can increase the number of mitochondria in the brain’s hippocampus. Mitochondria are responsible for energy production on a cellular level. And increasing energy output in the hippocampus appears to help stabilize neurons and strengthen neural pathways. In this way, the brain can better withstand episodes of abnormal electrical activity that are associated with seizures.
Cannabis Supports the Brain’s Own Seizure Control
The cannabis compound responsible for supporting seizure control in the brain appears to be cannabidiol (CBD). Some studies indicate that the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can actually stimulate seizure activity, especially in people who already have a seizure disorder. But CBD has a long list of properties that support cellular and neural health throughout the body.
Research has revealed that CBD:
- Can be a powerful neuroprotectant that can help preserve brain cells even in cases of head trauma and stroke
- Supports endogenous, or natural, brain chemicals that inhibit seizure activity
- Increases the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a powerful inhibitory neurotransmitter that suppresses seizure activity
- Supports the production of adenosine, a natural anticonvulsant brain chemical that’s activated by the abnormal electrical activity that marks a seizure
This research hasn’t been lost on the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), which has cautiously granted approval to a distillate of pure CBD oil called Epidiolex. This is meant as a last resort when all other treatments fail.
Looking at all of this data, it’s no wonder that epilepsy patients turn to both cannabis and the keto diet to help treat their seizures. With the keto diet, the ketones produced kick-start a process that raises energy in the hippocampus, stabilizing the brain and neural pathways. Meanwhile, cannabis supports other chemicals that inhibit seizures and supports good cell health.
For epilepsy patients who consume cannabis and a keto diet, it means they’re taking a two-pronged treatment approach: altering body chemistry to protect the brain and supporting the brain’s own defenses against seizures.
Standard Epilepsy Medications Can Reduce Seizures
That said, standard medical treatments for epilepsy such as antiseizure drugs also appear to work well. These medications usually:
- Target the various pathways that regulate energy
- Affect transmission between neurons
- Boost the activity of natural anticonvulsants like GABA
Similar to cannabis and the ketogenic diet, these drugs affect the same mechanisms that trigger—or inhibit—seizures. But these medications can have severe side effects, and for many epilepsy patients, they aren’t effective. For these individuals and others like Ashley, nonpharmaceutical alternatives like cannabis and the ketogenic diet offer a different route to the same result: fewer seizures and better health.
Photo credit: Markus Spiske