Can a Gluten-Free Diet Treat Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a seizure disorder characterized by sensory distortions, convulsions, and even the loss of consciousness. It affects around 3.4 million people worldwide and is believed to be primarily related to genetics.

While the treatment of epilepsy typically involves the use of medications and even surgery, some evidence has suggested that persons with epilepsy may improve significantly by changing to a gluten-free diet.

Medical form showing "epilepsy" checked off
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The Link Between Epilepsy and Gluten Sensitivity

Research has shown that the rate of celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder caused gluten sensitivity) occurs at a significantly higher rate in people coping with epilepsy than those in the general population. This has led some scientists to speculate whether the immune response either causes or contributes to the development of seizures.

One study, which looked at the rate of epilepsy in people with celiac disease, found that compared to the general population, celiac disease is over 2 times more prevalent in patients diagnosed with epilepsy. Other studies have since confirmed the rates of celiac disease in people with epilepsy from 4% to 6%.

While this may suggest that gluten sensitivity somehow triggers an epileptic seizure, it remains a difficult case to make. This is because there is currently no standard measure for gluten sensitivity in people who don't have celiac disease. Without this, we can only speculate about the link and/or mechanisms of the presumed effect.

Gluten-Free Diets in Children With Epilepsy

Despite the dearth of research, anecdotal evidence is rife about epileptic individuals who have recovered completely after adopting a gluten-free diet. This is especially true in cases involving younger children, where gluten avoidance is believed by some to provide better control of seizures than epilepsy medications.

But even this is uncertain. What we do know is that epileptic seizures will often decrease in frequency or stop completely over time, especially if the person was diagnosed in early childhood. As such, it may be possible that the control of seizures was more a result of this effect than the diet itself.

Epilepsy and Brain Calcification

If the link between epilepsy and celiac disease exists, it would require that one either instigates or exacerbates the other.

Based on this model, a number of scientists have proposed that vitamin deficiency caused by intestinal damage may act as a trigger insofar as certain deficiencies are known to cause brain disorders. However, where the argument falls short is in the types of vitamins involved. Of those deficiencies typically associated with brain dysfunction (thiamine, vitamin B12, niacin), none are common in celiac disease.

Others, meanwhile, have suggested that gluten directly affects changes in the brain and have pointed to a syndrome involving celiac disease, epilepsy, and cerebral calcification (literally, the deposit of calcium in the brain). This triad of disorders is commonly referred to as CEC syndrome.

Persons with CEC syndrome frequently experience absence seizures (a momentary loss of consciousness), mental deterioration, and learning disorders. Any, while the association is linked to a rise of epilepsy symptoms, the syndrome itself remains incredibly rare. Only around 200 cases have been positively identified since the syndrome was first discovered in 1992.

In terms of the link between brain calcification and celiac disease, even fewer cases have been reported, leaving some to wonder whether an association actually exists. It is also still not clear how celiac disease or epilepsy is meant to contribute to the buildup of calcium in the brain. It all very speculative right now.


The Ketogenic Diet and Epilepsy

What Does This Tell Us

While it's clear that gluten-free diets are vital for people living with celiac disease, its link to epilepsy remains unclear. For the most part, a gluten-free diet won't adversely affect a person with epilepsy insofar as their symptoms are concerned. With that being said, some experts warn that a gluten-free diet may do more harm than good for people who do not have celiac disease.

A study presented at the 2017 Amerian Heart Association meeting showed that a low-gluten diet was associated with higher, and not lower, rates of type 2 diabetes. Similarly, research from Harvard University School of Medicine, also in 2017, suggested that a low-gluten diet did not reduce cardiac risk and might even increase risk by avoiding whole grains known to improve heart health.

As such, moderation is advised when pursuing a low-gluten diet. Individuals without celiac disease should seek input from a licensed nutritionist before embarking on a gluten-free diet.

7 Sources
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Additional Reading

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.