When “Alternative” Isn’t Anymore – The Ketogenic Diet in Epilepsy

I hang out sometimes on a forum for parents of children with epilepsy. It’s a heartbreaking place. If there are kids whose seizures are controlled by medication and who are doing well — or even making it through the day — in school, their parents are posting somewhere else.

The forum’s purpose is to let parents know about ‘alternative’ treatments for epilepsy. We’re not talking about flower essences, mega doses of vitamins, or Reiki, either. The treatment that parents tell each other about most often is the ketogenic diet — and its cousins, the modified Atkins, low glycemic index, and specific carbohydrate diets.

The ketogenic diet has been tested repeatedly — including a recent RCT that demonstrated its efficacy at helping children with intractable seizures despite multiple medications. But, as far as I can tell, most parents still learn about it from each other, not their physicians.

Complex Partial SeizureMost of the kids I know about from this site have multiple types of seizures, and they’re on at least two, and commonly three, anti-epilepsy drugs. These drugs have significant side effects, and more than one parent believes that their child’s medications have increased the frequency of seizures, brought about a new type of seizure (myoclonic or drop seizures, for instance, in a child with absence seizures), or caused developmental delays.

The ketogenic diet induces long-term ketosis, a condition in which the body converts fat into energy instead of carbohydrates, by extreme dietary modifications. The mechanism behind its effectiveness might be an increase in leptin. This has only been demonstrated in animal studies so far, but the parents on the forum don’t really care why it works. They only care that it does.

Reponses to the ketogenic diet can sometimes be dramatic. One mother posting on the forum indicated that her son went from having roughly 90 seizures a day to none within three weeks. Sometimes, it takes longer to work, and, in some children, it helps to a minimal degree. It’s not without risks, but its effect can be nothing short of miraculous.

Most epileptologists are well aware of the diet’s potential to help children who are otherwise trapped in a body that’s out of their control. But many other physicians aren’t, even though prominent specialists recommend that the ketogenic diet should be second-line or even first-line treatment for certain types of seizure disorders.

If ever there was an ‘alternative’ treatment that doesn’t deserve the label, it’s the ketogenic diet.

I’m not blaming individual physicians. The Institute of Medicine estimates that it takes 17 years for a proven therapeutic technique to become the standard of care. 17 years. That’s enough time for a child with infantile spasms to become a disabled young adult.

How can we increase the speed at which treatment paradigms in medicine shift? Because that’s what we’re talking about here. If the ketogenic diet were a new medication, it would have the support of Big Pharma. But it doesn’t make money for anyone, least of all the companies whose drugs these kids are often finally able to discontinue.

It’s just an alternative — no, a better — way of treating some children with epilepsy.


Lin Xu, Nicholas Rensing, Xiao-Feng Yang, Hai Xia Zhang, Liu Lin Thio, Steven M. Rothman, Aryan E. Weisenfeld, Michael Wong, Kelvin A. Yamada (2008). Leptin inhibits 4-aminopyridine– and pentylenetetrazole-induced seizures and AMPAR-mediated synaptic transmission in rodents Journal of Clinical Investigation, 118 (1), 272-280 DOI: 10.1172/JCI33009

E NEAL, H CHAFFE, R SCHWARTZ, M LAWSON, N EDWARDS, G FITZSIMMONS, A WHITNEY, J CROSS (2008). The ketogenic diet for the treatment of childhood epilepsy: a randomised controlled trial The Lancet Neurology, 7 (6), 500-506 DOI: 10.1016/S1474-4422(08)70092-9

  • I guess the problem is certainty. To control for all the factors and show that the ketogenic diet (or any other intervention in a complex situation) works is a big undertaking.

    How about in the funding applications preference is given to those which don’t use drugs but options that are readily available to people? Preference being given to non-drug interventions and treatment. I think that would help!

  • Karen Gilmore

    My son has Tuberous Sclerosis, his seizures are well controlled under heavy medication. We have made the decision to put him on the Ketogenic diet. He started it on Monday so we will see what the results are soon enough. You are right in regarding side effects of anti-epileptic medication they can be quite severe.

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  • Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular article! It is the little changes that produce the most important changes. Thanks for sharing!

  • I love this article. My 7 year old son was diagnosed with atypical benign partial epilepsy. The prognosis for this type is good in the sense that the seizures usually go away in adolescence regardless of treatment…but their development is impaired about half of the time.

    My son was prescribed levetiracetam (keppra). I said I would think about it. AFTER thouroughly researching it and the ketogenic diet… I had decided thay the diet has a better success rate with fewer side effects.When I told then my decision they said the diet had a very long wait list and a minimum of 2 drugs needed to be tried. I said to put me on the list.. in the meantime i began the modified atkins diet. Actually i got an appointment pretty quickly…and by then i was doing a hybrid of the modified atkins and the ketogenic witj a ratio of 3:1. They said that it was dangerous what i was doing and the diet needed to be medically supervised. i said please supervise then.

    Today he is seizure free with only cognitive improvement as a side effect. I beg the parentse e that read this to try it first. dont be dissuaded by talk of difficulty…it is no more difficult than drugs and side effects.

  • I would like to add that he did not have developmental delay before the onset of seizures at 7 years old… But after seizure onset … reading improvement stopped… and towards the rnd he started to pronounce some things wrong. After the seizure improvement… learning improvenent. BUT although they can sometimes achieve seizure control with meds.. there seems to be a cost.

    My argument is.. that the diet should be a choice

Jennifer Green, MS

Jennifer Green, MS, is a freelance health care writer. A former nurse and college professor, she now writes about health care for clients around the world. She’s particularly interested in research into the mind-body connection.

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