A ketogenic diet has been used for years as a form of therapy for epilepsy in place of seizure medication. Several medical organizations support it, and it is the very way I cured my own seizures 10 years ago after having suffered for nearly 10 years of my life. There are various ketogenic diets that can be used to treat epilepsy and seizures. While the traditional diet contains large amounts of animal fats and very little vegetables, this wasn’t the approach I used. I have been pill and seizure free for 10 years. Here’s how I started eating a higher fat, protein-rich diet in place of sugar, gluten, and all refined carbs.
Epilepsy: my story
Though the cause of epilepsy is unknown, it can develop in anyone at any time. For me, it happened around age 14. I was in middle school and began experiencing what is known as grand mal seizure (or absence seizures). Instead of going into a state of shaking, I would go into a coma-like state. I would stare as if in a dream and though I could hear everyone around me, I could not communicate or talk until the episode was over. Some would last 5–10 seconds while others would last up to 5 hours.
I had been a sugar and carb addict since I was a child. When I say “carb” I am referring to processed carbs, not vegetables. Bread, cookies, cake, ice cream, French fries were the foods I craved and regularly ate. I didn’t like vegetables and always preferred sweets over savory foods (unless it was pasta or pizza!). I ate this way my whole life and started noticing around age 16 (two years after the seizures started) that my episodes always occurred after eating high-sugar foods.
So, at age 18, I finally took control and decided to go on the Atkins diet. Admittedly, weight control also played a role in my decision, since it was said to get rid of excess weight and sugar addictions. This was the starting point for me in linking my seizures to gluten and sugar. After three weeks on the Atkins diet, I started noticing a clearer mood. I had trained myself to eat vegetables, lean protein and stay away from sugar, starch and fried foods. I felt so much better, not to mention lost weight and had clearer skin.
However, being a sugar and gluten addict at age 18 wasn’t easy, nor was I interested in natural medicine at the time. So I binged regularly, which I referred to as my “cheat days,” enjoying ice cream, bread or whatever else I wanted. My seizures would follow with full force as did the cravings, and in one episode at Disneyland after high school graduation, I experienced the longest seizure I’ve ever had: 10 hours.
It was at this point I knew I had to do something. So I changed my medication by recommendation of my doctor (I was already on three different kinds). However, within two months I had clinical depression and had gained 50 pounds; I was miserable and desperate for a change, yet unable to even think clearly enough to make one. I had to quit college my freshman year, and I had taken a year off before I realized what the real issue was. My epilepsy and sugar addiction were now taking over my life — literally. I had been a straight A student all my life and was now unable to focus through a single college class.
I spent a year in depression before finding a natural solution. By chance, I came across some research from Johns Hopkins University while reading a health magazine one day. I knew nothing about health but suddenly became very interested. I read research for weeks and discovered that a ketogenic, high-fat diet could be used as a natural remedy for children who had epilepsy. But wait — I wasn’t a child anymore… would it work for me?
I started eating higher fat foods no matter how fearful of them I had been in the past: whole eggs, coconut, fish, etc. I also started eating probiotic-rich foods and vegetables more often. I noticed I felt so much better. I was eventually ready to go off sugar and within a year was able to stop taking my medications. It was at this time I was convinced of the benefits of natural medicine.
Epilepsy: sugar, gluten and the connection to a ketogenic diet
It has not been proven that sugar and gluten cause epilepsy, but because of the way these foods negatively affect blood sugar and brain health, the removal of these foods has been shown to treat all forms of epilepsy instead of (and better than) prescription drugs.
A ketogenic diet strives to get the body to run off fat instead of glucose (from carbs). It’s a temporary diet that can cure seizures and doesn’t have to be administered one’s whole life. Since ketosis can trigger lots of side effects like low energy, extreme weight loss and even nausea, it’s important to include vegetables like broccoli, greens and other lower carb options to give the body nutrients to help manage side effects.
Instead of eating carbs at all your meals, replace them with healthy fats and lean protein, making sure you don’t skimp on the fats. Eat until you’re full and choose only the highest-quality fats. Some people use bacon and butter, but I prefer eating plant-based options which are cruelty-free and more heart-healthy.
Here are the five healthy fats I recommend (and used) myself:
Avocados are a fruit but contain almost no sugar at all; they are also high in B vitamins, magnesium, and especially monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats promote a healthy brain, healthy heart and a smaller waistline. Eat half to one whole avocado on a salad or even for breakfast with some black pepper, mustard or unsweetened salsa. If you’re not used to eating avocado, there are some great recipes out there!
Coconut oil is commonly used in a ketogenic diet, but I like coconut butter better. For one, it tastes like a rich buttery piece of white chocolate, but has no sugar at all. Coconut butter is the whole coconut meat that is pureed into a buttery spread. It is high in MCT (saturated) fats which are one of the best fats for triggering ketosis in the body and helping your body use fat for fuel. Coconut butter is also rich in fiber, potassium and very low in carbs. I prefer coconut’s saturated fats to dairy-based animal sources of saturated fats.
Raw walnuts or raw walnut butter is almost carb-free but high in monounsaturated fats. Walnuts are a phenomenal brain food and also a great source of omega-3s if you don’t eat fish. Walnuts are also cholesterol-free so they’re more beneficial to the heart and they promote a lean waistline.
Flax (and chia)
These two seeds provide healthy fats and fiber at the same time. Fiber is important on a ketogenic diet. Many high-fat diets can cause constipation because they’re so low in carbohydrates. Flax and chia are the perfect options because all of their carbs come from fiber. Fiber does not raise blood sugar, nor does it get stored in the body like other carbs (glucose and starch). Fiber actually lowers blood sugar, which is beneficial to the brain. Flax and chia are also high in omega-3 fats for those who don’t eat fish.
Brazil nuts are lower in carbs than all other nuts. Just one may satisfy your carb cravings because these nuts are so high in selenium, B vitamins, healthy fats and magnesium. These nutrients lower cravings, promote a healthy mood, and even help with focus and weight loss.
Tips for sugar and gluten-free success:
When you’re trying to wean yourself off sugar, gluten and refined carbohydrates, it’s important to focus on eating the many wonderful foods that support satiety and balance blood sugar. This is absolutely crucial because if your blood sugar is unstable, your hormones will be out of whack and no amount of motivation or willpower will help. Sugar and gluten are both drugs in the sense that they trigger opiate release from the brain causing a physical dependence. In the meantime, they wreak havoc on both the villi and bacteria in the gut that support brain health, not to mention digestive health.
It is important to remember that sugar, gluten and refined foods provide no benefits to our health. We can obtain everything we need without them. Focus on including healthy, anti-inflammatory fats along with green vegetables at every single meal to lower insulin and sugar cravings. These also heal the gut and promote a regular digestive system while nourishing good bacteria in the gut, which are responsible for a healthy brain.
What about oils?
Though oils can be used, it’s important to remember these are not whole foods. The body can better digest and therefore benefit from whole-food sources of fat. You’ll likely find better digestion from whole foods and more satiety, as well.
Is a ketogenic diet necessary for the long term?
A ketogenic state is extreme, and not necessarily the best state of health to maintain long term. I stayed on the ketogenic diet for six months and then began to add more fiber-rich vegetables to my diet (pumpkin, sweet potato, beets). However, sugar and gluten should not be reintroduced since they could lead to a relapse. Everyone has a different tolerance level for how many carbs they can eat, though most people with a history of sugar addiction, seizures and dependence on gluten do better sticking to vegetables and possibly gluten-free grains. I now use stevia as a natural sweetener and stay as far away as possible from both refined and natural sweeteners.
In a world where we are told high-fat foods are the enemy, it’s time to take a look at the bigger picture and see how sugar and gluten are actually the biggest health problems we face today. Instead of focusing on calories and weight loss, how can we use healthy foods like those mentioned here to heal the body?
Heather McClees is a professional health journalist and Certified Holistic Nutritionist from South Carolina.She received her B.S. Degree in Nutrition Science and Dietetics, and is most passionate about helping others discover the gift of of holistic health, showing others how to create healthy recipes based on their favorite foods, physical fitness and yoga, and creative writing.