A large body of opinon believes food allergy underlies the para-epilepsies-narcolepsy and cataplexy-disorders with sudden sleep attacks and sudden muscle weakness and control, respectively, but not epilepsy proper. Nevertheless, there is considerable
This has been long known by naturopaths and been the subject of numerous popular books, but a number of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have also shown a connection.
In the UK, Dr Jonathan Brostoff describes a most comprehensive trial involving 88 children (40 of whom underwent a placebo-controlled double-blind trial) in 1982 and 1983 at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. All these children suffered from migraine and a proportion of them also had recurrent epileptic fits. Once their allergies had been identified and the offending foods removed, 78 recovered completely from their migraine attacks and another four improved greatly. But most importantly, their epilepsy disappeared as well (J Brostoff and L Gamlin, The Complete Guide to Food Allergy and
Intolerance, Bloomsbury Publishing, Ltd, 1989).
Brostoff also provides evidence demonstrating that exposure to certain chemicals can precipitate allergic epileptic seizures. These include gases, such as industrial air pollutants, airborne droplets (such as aerosols and pesticide sprays), smoke (coal smoke, or fumes from paraffin burning stoves) and other combustion products (such as two-stroke engine exhaust fumes or diesel emissions), solvents (varnish or paint) and either volatile (mothballs and aftershave lotions) or non-volatile (drugs or food additives) compounds.
However, the most compelling evidence concerns the relationship between celiac disease (allergy to foods containing gluten wheat, oats, barley and rye) and epilepsy.
In one study of children comparing one group following a glutenfree diet and the rest with restricted or unrestricted gluten intake, epilepsy only occurred in children given an unrestricted diet (Arch Dis Child, 1994; 70 (3): 211-3). Other studies have demonstrated an association between brain calcifications and celiac disease (Child Nerv System, 1993; 9 (3): 172-5).
Other evidence demonstrates that patients with low calcium levels due to malabsorption syndrome are at particularly increased risk (Harefuah, 1994; 126 (12): 707-10, 763).
One of the largest studies to date was conducted in Italy, by the Italian Working Group on Celiac Disease and Epilepsy. They examined 43 patients with cerebral calcifications and epilepsy by having them undergo an intestinal biopsy or CT scan. Twenty-nine (or 77 per cent) showed evidence of the characteristics of celiac disease, the atrophy of the villi, or tiny hairs of the gut, or brain calcifications (The Lancet, 1992: 340: 439-43). In the view of most doctors, a gluten-free diet will help the epilepsy only when embarked upon soon after the epilepsy began a view that many allergists don't share.
Besides food and chemicals, emotional upsets also commonly trigger seizures. Consequently autogenic training, mental imagery, meditation or biofeedback have all been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of seizures.
Harald Gaier is a registered naturopath, homeopath and osteopath.