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Are There Nutritional Supplements for Seizures?

Researchers are exploring whether nutritional supplements can reduce or stop seizures in different types of epilepsy. At this time, supplements are not proven to be an effective replacement for epilepsy drugs. If a child has seizures that are not controlled by drugs, doctors may instead recommend trying a ketogenic diet—it is medically accepted to help control seizures, particularly in some cases of drug-resistant epilepsy. Drug-resistant epilepsy, also called refractory epilepsy, affects about a third of people with epilepsy.

One exception to this rule is certain forms of epilepsy associated with rare metabolic disorders where vitamin B6 may stop seizures altogether. Examples of these metabolic disorders include vitamin B6-dependent epilepsy and hypophosphatasia (low levels of the alkaline phosphatase enzyme leading to low vitamin B6). In both conditions, seizures are commonly drug-resistant but respond to vitamin B6 supplementation.

Studies looking at the effects of nutritional supplements on seizures are limited. However, researchers have studied some nutrients that may be beneficial in treating seizures.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Researchers are studying how omega-3s may stop or reduce seizures. For example, a study of 50 adults indicated that omega-3s may prevent epilepsy-associated sudden death (SUDEP) by improving heart health.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain and eye normal development and for mental health. Our bodies do not produce sufficient amounts of omega-3s, so we need to get them through food. Rich sources include oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), nuts (almonds, walnuts), and seeds (flaxseed, chia seeds).

Omega-3s can calm brain activity, which may help reduce seizures because higher brain activity is associated with seizures. They may do this by decreasing the activity of ion channels that contribute to the higher brain activity associated with seizures. At the same time, they increase the level of the GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps control brain activity. (Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers the body needs to function.)

Another thought is that omega-3s may reduce seizures by decreasing oxidative stress and/or inflammation. Both might be underlying causes of seizures, or related to underlying causes of seizures, so decreasing them may be beneficial.

As for dosage, some studies indicate that consuming 0.6 to 2 g of fish oil daily can help reduce seizure frequency, duration, and severity. It was found particularly beneficial for both children and adults with chronic and drug-resistant epilepsy. Consuming less than 4 g of fish oil daily is considered safe.

Vitamin D

Children and adults with epilepsy often have low levels of vitamins D, C and E. Vitamin D regulates the development and function of neurons. Our bodies produce most vitamin D when we are exposed to sunlight. Food sources include oily fish (salmon, tuna, sardines), dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), and meat (red meat).

Like omega-3s, vitamin D may help decrease seizures by reducing the activity of calcium ion channels, thereby calming brain activity associated with seizures. Vitamin D is also an antioxidant and may help decrease inflammation.

One study showed that vitamin D3 supplementation decreased seizure frequency by up to 40% in adults with drug-resistant epilepsy. Another study of epilepsy patients showed seizure frequency was significantly reduced to 67–71% of the baseline. Because vitamin D deficiency might increase the risk of SUDEP, it is supposed that supplementation could lower the risk, though this has not yet been studied.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E refers to a group of eight fat-soluble antioxidants, including alpha-tocopherol, the primary vitamin E form that our bodies use. This vitamin is present in foods such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale.

Vitamin E may reduce the levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate, leading to a decrease in the brain excitability that occurs with seizures. Vitamin E also is an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory effects.

In one study, children with drug-resistant epilepsy received vitamin E at a daily dose of 400 IU for three months, resulting in over 60% reduction in seizure frequency. Another study found that vitamin E also benefited adults with drug-resistant epilepsy. However, a different study reported no effects of vitamin E supplements on seizure frequency.

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 is important for the normal function of the nervous system. It helps in the production of several neurotransmitters, particularly GABA. It is present in foods like oily fish (tuna, salmon, sardines), meat (pork, lamb, chicken), dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), grains (yeast bread), vegetables (carrots, onions), and some fruits (berries, apples, watermelon, bananas).

Aside from epilepsy associated with metabolic disorders, other forms of epilepsy with genetic causes may be associated with a vitamin B6 deficiency. The theory is that this deficiency could reduce GABA production, increase the brain’s excitability, and lead to recurrent seizures.

In one study, scientists found that a vitamin B6 dose of 30 or 50 mg per day, together with antiepileptic drugs, reduced recurrent seizures in children.

Vitamin C and pyruvate: evidence in animal models

Vitamin C and pyruvate have been studied in animal models and found to be potentially beneficial in reducing seizures. However, no human studies have been reported. Here’s why they’re of interest for future research:

Vitamin C: Vitamin C has antioxidant properties and regulates the levels of certain neurotransmitters. Our bodies do not produce vitamin C, and children and adults with epilepsy often have low levels of vitamin C. We obtain vitamin c from food, such as citrus fruits and vegetables like broccoli and bell peppers.

Pyruvate: Our bodies produce pyruvate from the breakdown of carbs and proteins, which the cells use to produce energy. This compound is also present in foods, like apples and cheese. Pyruvate has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Valerian

Valerian is a supplement known for its calming effect. It is most commonly used to alleviate anxiety and promote sleep. It is also used to treat migraines and digestive issues.

It is not fully understood exactly how valerian produces its calming effect, but studies show that valerenic acid (found in the roots of the valerian plant) increases GABA production. Similarly to Omega-3’s and vitamin B6, this effect of increased GABA production may reduce seizure activity. Read more about valerian here.

Conclusion and warnings

Vitamin B6 may be prescribed when seizures are caused by metabolic disorders associated with a vitamin B6 deficiency.

Studies in other forms of epilepsy indicate that anti-inflammatory nutrients—such as omega-3s and vitamins B6, D, C, and E—may help by reducing inflammation associated with diseases and disorders where epilepsy is also present. However, more research is needed to evaluate the effect of nutritional supplements on seizures and, if effective, determine the most effective dosages.

It is important to remember that any supplement may interfere with other medications your child may be on. For example, supplements that increase GABA may amplify the effects of certain seizure medications.

If your child experiences seizures and you want more information about which nutritional supplements might be right for your child, and at what dosage, talk to your child’s care team, such as your child’s dietitian in conjunction with your child’s neurologist or epileptologist (a neurologist specializing in epilepsy).


References and further reading

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