Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Omega 3's and epilepsy

When I was a nutrition intern, waaaay back when, one of the special diets we had to learn about was the ketogenic diet. Epilepsy researchers were looking for a way to control seizures without medication, since so many medications have side effects worse than the problem they are designed to treat. The ketogenic diet, developed at Johns Hopkins University, is a high fat diet designed to do just that. The reason it never took off, and that you never see "The Epilepsy Diet Miracle" on the shelf at Borders, is because this diet is extremely unpalatable and impossible to follow. (Think butterballs!) It is also not nutritionally complete.

However, despite the downside, scientists were encouraged by the early success of this diet and have persisted at improving on the original model.

What seems to be coming out of this persistent research, is that it's not so much the AMOUNT of fat, but the TYPE of fat, that matters. And if your diet is high in omega-3 fatty acids (especially those that come from fish), you can better control seizures.

These omega-3's seem to raise the seizure threshold in neurons, meaning they "chill out" neurons and make it harder for them to become excited or overstimulated. Mice with a genetic ability to synthesize high levels of DHA, (which we typically get when we eat fish), have significantly less seizure activity than mice who don't have this ability.

The Atkins Diet is a moderate version of the ketogenic diet. I have often wondered if people who say they feel better on this diet are not describing the weight loss, but rather are trying to describe how it feels to finally have their brains finally relax!

There are important benefits to reducing seizure activity. (1) When neurons are relaxed, they are less metabolically active, which means they are using less energy. Since the brain prefers glucose for energy, this often means that relaxing the brain reduces carbohydrate cravings. I've seen this over and over again in clients who start to incorporate more omega-3 fatty acids into their diet. (2) Metabolic activity is oxidative activity, and oxidation is a degenerative process. I'm not saying the goal here is to be brain dead so you can live longer...but it certainly is worth considering ways to use your brain cells judiciously and not waste them on unfocused, unproductive activity.

Taha AY, Huot PS, Reza-López S, Prayitno NR, Kang JX, Burnham WM, Ma DW. Seizure resistance in fat-1 transgenic mice endogenously synthesizing high levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. J Neurochem. 2008 Apr;105(2):380-8. Epub 2007 Nov 25.

Voskuyl RA, Vreugdenhil M, Kang JX, Leaf A. Anticonvulsant effect of polyunsaturated fatty acids in rats, using the cortical stimulation model. Eur J Pharmacol. 1998 Jan 12;341(2-3):145-52.

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