This is the EXTENDED more comprehensive version of the article that printed in your local paper:
My brother suddenly developed seizures, at the age of 26, never having a history. I’ve searched your archives at your site but do not find columns there on the topic. I’d like to discover why he suddenly got this, since he was so healthy until then. Now, he’s on 5 medications!”
–J.P., Sacramento, California
Answer: I haven’t covered that topic extensively because it’s complex and I fear that people will not consult their physicians like I tell them to. One wrong move on your part, and you could experience a grand mal. So with my strict warning to ask your doctor about what you learn today, I’ll go ahead and highlight some lesser known causes of epilepsy since your doctor will undoubtedly explore the obvious causes, and do the run-of-the-mill testing and MRIs, and so forth. You might think some of my ideas below are strange, but being a functional medicine trained practitioner of 14 years (www.functionalmedicine.org), I proudly specialize in “strange” and I think that’s why some of you love me, lol. Anyway here goes:
Medications- Some drugs can lower your seizure threshold, making it more possible for you to experience a seizure, even if you’ve never had one before. Among the list (and please know this is just a mere possibility, it certainly doesn’t happen to everyone): Bupropion used for depression seems to trigger this problem in about 4 out of every 1,000 people taking it, at least that is what’s currently reported. Also, fluoxetine, another antidepressant that belongs to the SSRI class (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), may spark seizures in 2 of every 1,000 people. Other SSRIs, including citalopram, sertraline, paroxetine and fluvoxamine, have similar seizure threshold lowering potential. The drug clozapine used for schizophrenia is associated. Approximately 5% of people taking the drug for one year may develop a seizure. Cocaine! Yes, well I know you are not using that street drug but it is included in my list. How about penicillin? There’s a possibility, moreso with this drug than with a relative, Amoxicillin. And tramadol, used for pain management. Any drug that causes low sodium (as in “hyponatremia). And many other medications, ask the pharmacist to give you the patient insert so you can read more about the medicine you’re taking.
Kidney disease- I’ll keep this short because it’s easy for you to get a renal profile lab, just ask your doctor. The point is undiagnosed kidney disease is a hidden cause for seizures.
Low thyroid- The autoimmune form of hypothyroidism is called Hashimoto’s disease, and one rare complication is encephalopathy. Stay with me here because your health (and life) depends on it. If you don’t know about Hashimoto’s Encephalopathy or HE, you are likely to get diagnosed with a seizure disorder, or a stroke. Symptoms include seizure activity, disorientation, tremors, concentration/attention span problems, dementia, difficulty retaining information, muscle jerks, fatigue, headaches, speech difficulties and possibly coma. The body temperature may be low in patients with HE.
Medications used to treat seizures do nothing for a person with HE, and you could die if you’re misdiagnosed. High dose prescribed steroids work for this condition, which again, often gets diagnosed as a seizure disorder because it’s so rare. Thyroid medication may be helpful for some, but I should tell you that this complication can occur in euthyroid patients, meaning they have “normal” thyroid levels. The hallmark of HE is very high antithyroid antibodies. This can be determined by a blood test.
The autoimmune disease is often driven by consumption of a food allergen like gluten for example. Also high on the food allergy list is dairy, including two particular milk proteins, casein or milk butyrophylin, and other grains like amaranth, spelt, oats and so forth). Cyrex Labs can test you to tell if you’re sensitive to these or not.
Not everyone with Hashimoto’s encephalopathy need medication, but some do. I am not able to prescribe (or diagnose you) I’m just trying to educate you so that you can have a conversation with your doctor and review your labs. As for blood levels, most physicians that I circle with, say you’ll feel your best if you can get that reverse T3 below 16, and your TSH between 0.1 and 1.0, and your get your free T3 to fall between 3.5 – 4.2 if possible. Check your labs. Aim for these, as well as a body temperature above 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Low body temperature is a hallmark of this condition (and sometimes in seizure disorders, and believe it or not Lyme disease which I’ll talk about later). Low body temperature indicates poisoned mitochondria. The poison could be any toxin, like heavy metals, or it could be bacterial, viral or fungal bugs! Probiotics are essential of course.
Vitamin D deficiency- Seizures can be the initial manifestation of vitamin D deficiency and I’d recommend that serum levels be checked at least annually. Ideally, I think levels should be between 70 and 90 ng/ml. The strange part is this: The very medications used to treat a seizure condition are drug muggers of the active form of vitamin D, called “calcitriol.” So yes, medications used to treat seizures might reduce the threshold for, and increase the risk (and incidence) of seizures, over time, in susceptible individuals; this is why blood tests are imperative. if you take an anticonvulsant medication, including phenytoin, carbamazepine or phenobarbital, I’d recommend taking vitamin D every morning, By the way, these drugs have a tendency to increase clearance of thyroid hormone too, leading to low thyroid (another cause for seizures). Am I saying to stop these medications? Heavens no. Absolutely not. I’m trying to keep you safe if you have to take them by telling you what to do over the long haul. Anyway, I’d suggest 3 to 10,000 IU taken daily, but this dosage should really be determined after you find out your baseline serum D levels. Just as an aside, vitamin D can help with diabetes, by increasing insulin sensitivity.
Too much MSG- This food additive -used to enhance flavor- is also known as “monosodium glutatmate” and it goes by a bunch of other aliases on food labels, making it hard to spot, and even harder to avoid because it’s in practically everything! MSG is known as as an “excitotoxin” because it sort of vibrates the brain cells to death, hence the term “excitotoxin.” The immature brain, like that in a fetus or infant is four times more sensitive to excitotoxins than the adult. Sensitivity also increases in the elderly. We, as humans, are five times more sensitive to MSG than mice, and 20 times more sensitive than Rhesus monkeys. I’m telling you this because most studies are done in animals so when I read a study, I feel safe assuming that humans fare out worse than the animals used in the MSG studies. Before you dismiss the idea that what you eat matters to your brain, realize that scientific research strongly supports the notion that “excitotoxicity” is a major mechanism contributing to neuronal degeneration (brain death) and is in fact, tied to epilepsy. It occurs in part due to excessive glutamate production. Guess what, supplements of GABA sold at health food stores may offset the glutamate, and calm your brain down. Taurine could help too. Ask your doctor about these natural options and bear in mind that you’re doctor should study the actual dosages used because epilepsy requires higher dosages than those marked on the product label. Ask what is safe for you, based upon your liver and kidney function, and your particular condition.
L-Serine deficiency- Serine is an amino acid. Deficiencies are sometimes related to cerebral palsy, seizures and stiffness or weakness of the muscles.
Lithium deficiency- People think this just causes bipolar disorder, but low lithium is associated with seizures too. seizures without any mood problems! Sometimes the gentle over-the-counter version of lithium supplement can help, called lithium orotate and if not, there are strong medication version. Ask your doctor.
Lyme disease or other infections- Yes, bacteria can get into your brain and spinal cause, and absolutely trigger seizures. Just because it’s last on my list does not mean I’m only giving it honorable mention, I’m giving it serious mention. It can be really rough on people too, especially because most people don’t know if they’ve been bit by a tick, and testing is a frustrating experience to say the least, because tests are not always accurate. You can test for Lyme using Igenex labs, or you can treat with antibiotics based on the entire clinical picture, which almost always includes other symptoms. Please consider this if you have no other identifiable cause, or if you’ve recently picnicked, gone camping or have a pet which carry ticks.
Suzy Cohen, has been a licensed pharmacist for over 30 years and believes the best approach to chronic illness is a combination of natural medicine and conventional. She founded her own dietary supplement company specializing in custom-formulas, some of which have patents. With a special focus on functional medicine, thyroid health and drug nutrient depletion, Suzy is the author of several related books including Thyroid Healthy, Drug Muggers, Diabetes Without Drugs, and a nationally syndicated column.