What is the Ketogenic Diet?
The ketogenic diet is a recognised and proven therapy for epilepsy since the 1920’s. It has primarily been used in children with poorly controlled seizures but can be used for any age group. It works better with certain epilepsy syndromes, and can help reduce seizures in two out of three children and may prevent seizures completely in one out of three.
Essentially about half the children who follow the Ketogenic Diet have a significant drop in seizures with some having seizures stop completely.
It is a strict diet high in fats and low in carbohydrates. This makes the body burn fat for energy instead of glucose – mimicking a fasting state, which causes process called ketosis.
The diet is rigid, mathematically and individually calculated, and medically monitored. Supplements must be taken to provide adequate vitamins and minerals.
No single mechanism is likely to explain the antiepileptic effects of the ketogenic diet, but they are mostly related to complex metabolic changes in the body associated with the diet. It takes a strong commitment from the whole family. It is a form of treatment that, like other therapies for epilepsy, has side effects that have to be watched for.
Following the ketogenic diet requires a team approach – including doctors, nurses, and especially dietitians specifically trained in the management of people on this diet.
How the diet affects the body
Our bodies usually run on energy which we get from glucose in food. Our body can’t store large amounts of glucose, and we only have about one days supply.
Sometimes the ketogenic diet is started with a period of fasting, so our body uses up any stored glucose. What happens then is the body begins to run on energy from our fat supplies. When our body burns fat, it creates molecules called ketones. Scientists have understood that these molecules somehow cause a change in metabolism leading to a strong anticonvulsant effect.
The ketogenic diet keeps this process going. It forces the body to burn fat for energy.
There is also some suggestion that changes in gut microbiota and anti-inflammatory effects whilst on this diet are also important in reducing seizures.
The diet provides most (80 percent) of its energy from fat. The rest comes from carbohydrates and protein. Each meal has about four times as much fat as protein or carbohydrate.
Who is the diet for?
The ketogenic diet is predominantly used in children with poorly controlled seizures (but can be used in adults). The diet may help to reduce the number or severity of seizures and can often have positive effects on behaviour.
Starting the diet
This process may differ in different institutions. The diet is started under close medical supervision in the hospital. It begins gradually and is increased to the full amount over a 3 to 4 day period. During this time blood sugar and ketone levels are monitored. Some hospitals may use a fasting period.
More specific information can be found at the Children’s Epilepsy Program
How soon does it to work?
It is difficult to predict. The diet may become effective immediately or can take several months. Each child is unique and has different seizure patterns and frequency. However, there is usually some improvement within the first few weeks on the diet. Improvement in behaviour will be also seen in some children.
Will medications be stopped?
Medications will continue as normal unless changed by the neurologist. There may be a review of the medications if the diet is successful in controlling the seizures.
Are there any side-effects?
Any beliefs that the diet is “holistic” or “all-natural” are incorrect. The diet is not without side effects. Gastrointestinal complaints are most common and include constipation and worsening of reflux, diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. Weight loss or gain may also occur. Speak to the doctor about various side effects of this diet.
The diet alone is inadequate in many vitamins and minerals. Supplements will be prescribed for your child while on the ketogenic diet.
Discontinuing the diet
Children for whom the diet has been effective usually stay on the diet for about two years. The diet may also be discontinued if the side effects are intolerable, the family does not feel that the diet is worth the effort, or it is difficult to maintain.
Like discontinuing medications, the diet must be gradually weaned with the supervision of your doctor and dietitian. Some children remain seizure free after transitioning back to a regular diet.
Regardless of the effectiveness of the ketogenic diet, many people discontinue it because of its unpalatable and restrictive features. There is no question that the ketogenic diet can be difficult to follow, or you may want to transition to a less structured diet.
Dietary options for epilepsy have expanded in recent years to include:
- The Modified Atkins Diet (MAD): which is a less restrictive variation of the ketogenic diet and can be started at home without a fast. There is unlimited protein and fat intake, and does not restrict calories or fluids.
- The Low-Glycemic Index (Low GI) treatment diet: which does not necessarily cause ketosis, and may instead reduce seizures by lowering glucose levels in the blood and possibly in brain cells.
While still restrictive compared to a “normal” diet, these diets are easier to incorporate into normal life and easier to follow when eating out. The scientific evidence for their effectiveness is still in early stages and varies greatly between studies.
Speak to your neurologist if you want any further information about dietary therapies for epilepsy.
EAA Videos – Dr Andrew Bleasel – Diet Therapies for Epilepsy
Factsheet – Ketogenic Diet
The Charlie Foundation – Set up by Charlies parents whose seizures were successfully controlled by the diet.