keto epilepsy

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The keto diet is one of the trendiest diets these days with promises of dropping weight quickly. But for people with epilepsy, it can be a life-saving way of eating.

Seven year-old Nora Pendergrass helps out her mom, Bonnie, in the kitchen. On the menu: sausage, apple and a heaping helping of mayonnaise, which is not your typical kids meal. Each portion is strictly measured out, because a gram here or there could have serious health implications.

"All of a sudden you are filling your child's body with mayonnaise and butter and heavy whipping cream, and you are searching out the highest fat contents you can find," Bonnie said.

It's part of the ketogenic diet, the newest health fad that promises major weight loss, but it's actually been around for decades and can dramatically reduce seizures in kids.

"With the diet within weeks, we saw a reduction in seizure types," said Bonnie.

In March of 2014, at just two-years-old, Nora started having seizures out of nowhere. "She went very quickly from having one type of seizure to exhibiting at least five types of seizures. Within a month-and-a-half, she was seizing about every two minutes," said Bonnie.

After trying all other options, including heavy duty medications, a doctor at Norton Children's Hospital suggested the ketogenic diet.

"He had a feeling that medications were not going to be effective with her and that we really needed to consider researching the ketogenic diet and be open to the possibility of trying that," said Bonnie.

The keto diet is high in fat, low in carbohydrates, with protein strictly controlled. The diet prompts the body to switch its fuel supply almost entirely to fat. The goal is to reach a state of ketosis.

"What that means is that as your body starts to burn fats because it no longer has sugars or carbohydrates to use for energy, so as it burns fats you start to make ketones. Ketones then translates to a state of ketosis," Britt Schloemer, a pediatric neurology nurse practitioner with Norton Children's Hospital and U of L.

She works with patients like Nora to make sure the ratio of fat to carbohydrates is just right, because falling out of ketosis can have dire consequences.

"It's essentially not taking your medications for 24 hours and then you're going to have seizures," said Schloemer.

For patients who aren't seeing results from medication, the keto diet can have stellar results.

"Our team can make a third of the patients have a 90 percent reduction in seizures, a third of the patients will have about a 50 percent reduction of seizures, and about a third will have a less than 30 percent reduction of seizures," said Schloemer.

While experts believe brains that run on fat don't seem to seize nearly as easily or frequently as brains that run on sugar, the exact science is still unclear.

"We don't know exactly why it works. That's where the million dollar question is," said Schloemer.

Regardless of why it works, the ketogenic diet was the answer for Nora. She's now been weaned off the diet and hasn't had a seizure in almost four years.

"At first we started seeing them daily, and then it trickled down to a couple times a week. And then she had her last seizure in February of 2015," said mom Bonnie.

Schloemer warns the keto diet can have harmful side effects, and it is not for everyone.

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