Fits, Convulsions and Epilepsy

  • 10 Jun 2013
  • Reading time 10 mins
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Epilepsy is a mysterious condition, characterised by occasional fits, technically called convulsions. It affects almost half a million people in Britain.

The convulsions, which last for seconds or minutes, are thought to be caused by a temporary upset in the brain’s chemistry, causing neurons to fire off faster than usual and in bursts.

Convulsions can be brought on by neurological problems such as a brain injury, a stroke, an infection and less frequently, a tumour. High levels of stress and panic attacks can also trigger a convulsion. So too can heart disease, especially irregular heartbeats, and blood sugar problems. Whatever the triggers, convulsions indicate that the brain is out of balance. An obvious place to start is to ensure an optimal intake of the brain’s best friends – nutrients. The optimum nutrition approach can be highly effective, as Francis’s story illustrates.


While teaching classes in Oxford, Francis had a bad car accident. This left him with severe headaches, poor memory and concentration, severe depression but most of all, epilepsy. So bad was his epilepsy that he complained of what he called ‘epileptic storms’, sometimes daily. During the night he would often have five or six fits, despite being on anti-epilepsy drugs. His memory had so deteriorated he could no longer teach, and being epileptic, he found it hard to get work. Naturally he became depressed.

After years under medical supervision he decided to try some alternatives and was referred to me. He promised to avoid tea, coffee and sugar and we discussed how to eat a balanced diet, with plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains – the ‘optimum’ diet.

I wanted to give him every chance to change and included high levels of supplements, including B3, B5 and B6, choline, calcium, zinc, magnesium and manganese as well as other nutrients. Magnesium and manganese have both been shown to help epilepsy, while B5 and choline have a specific effect on memory.

When he came back after one month, he had made tremendous changes to his diet and had reaped the rewards of his efforts. ‘I am amazed at how well I feel,’ he commented and went on to tell me how he hadn’t had a single muscle tremor or panic attack. Three months later, he had still only had one epileptic ‘storm’. His brain is working better, his depression completely gone and he can sleep straight through the night, without any fits or muscle tremors.[*]

Differences in the nutritional status of those with convulsions or epilepsy and those without has been demonstrated by many researchers. The key nutrients that have frequently been shown to be deficient are folic acid, the minerals manganese and magnesium, and essential fats.

Finding What Helps

B Vitamins

Folic acid, a vitamin that is often low in those with mental health problems, is depleted by convulsions. This suggests that it is somehow involved. Ironically, anticonvulsant drugs such as phenytoin, primidone and phenobarbital further deplete folic acid. Combining a drug such as phenytoin with folic acid works better than giving the drug alone. In one study, epileptics were given the drug with either folic acid or a placebo and after a year, only those on folic acid reported substantially less fits.

However, folic acid could be a double-edged sword. Some uncontrolled studies suggest that folate supplementation may create epileptic fits in a minority of people. Several controlled studies, however, have failed to confirm this observation, suggesting that this effect must be very rare. With the guidance of your doctor, folic acid supplementation is well worth trying, although don’t expect immediate results.

Also worth supplementing is vitamin B6. Unlike folic acid, high doses of vitamin B6 can produce almost immediate results. The first research to identify a role for B6 in the treatment of epilespy in children took place in Japan in the 1980s. More than half the children with ‘infantile spasms’ responded very well to B6 supplementation, although the doses used were very high and caused side-effects in some of them.

In a more recent study at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, 17 children were given high doses of vitamin B6 (300 mg/kg/day orally). Five out of the 17 had immediate relief within two weeks, while after four weeks all patients were more or less free of seizures. No serious adverse reactions noted. Side-effects were mainly gastrointestinal symptoms, and were reversible after reduction of the dosage.

Magnesium, Manganese and Zinc

The mineral manganese is completely essential for proper brain function and, to date, four studies have shown a correlation between low levels and the presence of epilepsy, suggesting that as many as one in three children with epilepsy have low manganese levels. Supplementing manganese helped to reduce fits. In one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, one child who was found to have half the normal blood manganese levels didn’t respond to any medication, but on supplementing manganese had fewer seizures and improved speech and learning. Dr Carl Pfeiffer was the first to report the successful treatment of epilepsy with manganese. At the Institute for Optimum Nutrition we have frequently found that patients with convulsions or fits are manganese deficient and have no or fewer fits once supplementation is started.

Magnesium is another mineral well worth checking. Magnesium is also vital for proper nerve and brain function, and, once again, a number of researchers have found low levels in patients with epilepsy and reported fewer fits on supplementation. In animals, magnesium injections have also been shown to instantly suppress convulsions.

If a child is found to have low blood levels of magnesium, as many as 75 per cent respond, with fewer fits, according to research from Romania. Supplementing this mineral is especially helpful to those with ‘temporal lobe’ epilepsy. ......

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