Epilepsy is a neurological and physical condition, meaning that it affects the brain and the nervous system. The brain is the control center of the body that regulates voluntary and involuntary responses. There is a normal electrical function constantly firing throughout the brain by communication of nerve cells. When a seizure occurs, the brain is temporarily interrupted by a spur of abnormal electrical signals. It is similar to cars driving on a freeway, getting from point A to point B; if there is an earthquake, the stream of driving cars gets interrupted, and damage is done to the freeway and surrounding areas. There are 40 types of seizures that affect different regions of the brain and they do not all-cause shaking, convulsion, and unconsciousness. For each seizure type, there are certain stimulants that trigger the given effects. These triggers can range from flashing lights, geometric patterns, certain foods, stress, lack of sleep, substance use, and more. The different types of epilepsy are due to varying underlying causes. Genes play a big role in the development of epilepsy as it can be an inherited genetic tendency or a mutation in the person’s genes. Traumatic brain injuries have been linked to the development of epilepsy, but research has found that even if seizures begin after an injury or a structural change to the brain, those who experience seizures already had some level of genetic likelihood. Epilepsy may be attributed to the combination of inherited genes from your parents and/or some degree of brain injury. Genetic conditions such as neurofibromatosis and tuberous sclerosis, which are structural conditions, affect the brain by producing growths on nerves and brain structures, causing another factor in seizure development.
Seizures occur when the excitatory and inhibitory circuits within the brain are imbalanced. These circuits create a positive or a negative change in brain activity, and when they are being thrown off their regular pathways it causes abnormal functioning within the brain. When epilepsy is diagnosed, physicians’ standard and most probable form of treatment is medication. Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) work to decrease excitation (positive changes) or increase inhibition (negative changes). These prescriptions work to control the seizures and as symptomatic relief to its effects, but they do not cure epilepsy. Since they do not act as a cure, they are typically prescribed as lifelong medications with adverse effects. AEDs have negative properties that limit their effectiveness due to the difficulties they cause for patient management. Long-term use of a variety of AEDs causes withdrawal symptoms, harmful interactions with other drugs, adverse effects, as well as an economic hardship. During clinical trials for AEDs, where the drug developers test the effects of their drug, there were no observations of the rare, yet severe side effects that these medications can cause. The clinical trials did not consider or recognize that patients with epilepsy take these prescriptions for several years, or even lifelong. The long-term adverse effects went unnoticed because the trials did not mimic the experience and duration of an actual patient. Every medication comes with its personal set of side effects, but many reactions found with long-term use of AEDs were unexpected and extreme. Effects have been seen to create unpredictable moods, abnormal behavior, and alter cognitive function. In more detrimental findings, these drugs can cause visual changes, aplastic anemia, hepatitis, liver failure, pancreatitis, and more. These conditions pose a major health risk as aplastic anemia is damage to bone cell growth, hepatitis/liver failure is when your liver gets inflamed and then shuts down entirely, and pancreatitis is also inflammation to a major organ. Living with these effects on top of the condition of epilepsy is very difficult as far as patient management goes.
I believe that alternative treatments for epilepsy are promising therapies that have proven to show efficacy, and there should be more efforts for patient awareness and education. Often, patients with epilepsy have been prescribed medication or several medications and are not told of their method of action, adverse effects, or general toll they make take on the body. My sister has epilepsy, specifically convulsive seizures or grand mal seizures. This means the electronic pathways that are affected instantly involves the whole brain, causing the person to immediately lose consciousness and seize for 1-5 minutes. She reached a point where she was taking twelve prescriptions a day to manage the seizures and the many side effects, and problems only continued to occur. Against the doctor’s orders, she quit the medications and tried alternative therapies such as meditation, more exercise, a change in diet, and cannabidiol (CBD). Medical cannabis has 85 different chemical compounds which are called cannabinoids. The most common component of the makeup is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but the anticonvulsant effects and properties are derived from cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabidiol targets and interacts with specific channels and receptors in the brain, which regulates the transmission and electrical, firing. The Epilepsy Foundation stated the FDA approval for CBD as a treatment option after successful clinicals trials were reported.
Relaxation techniques have been shown to decrease seizure frequency and improve the quality of life. The goal of this therapy is to teach the patient to recognize any kind of pre-seizure signs or activity and then apply taught relaxation techniques. This therapy effectively reduces seizure rates by direct cause, as well as indirectly improving seizure control through better sleep.
Herbal medicine is also another successful complementation therapy for epilepsy. Studies published in Chinese medical literature dictated two remedies that were beneficial to intractable (uncontrolled) epilepsy. One remedy was a makeup of thirteen different herbs, that imitated similar effects to phenobarbitone, an AED. This remedy was given to 100 children over the span of 8 months. Another study administered zhenxianling, a specialized herb, to 239 patients over two years. Seizure frequency was reduced by more than 75% in two-thirds of the patients from these studies. I believe that western medicine should take action to conduct more research on the effects of alternative therapies to epilepsy such as techniques, lifestyle changes, and eastern medicine as a more natural, and less invasive approach to epilepsy control.