Cannabis and Alternative Therapies for Epilepsy: A Quick Reference

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Aug 13, 2022
Last updated:
Nov 23, 2023

Roughly 1 percent of Australians have been diagnosed with epilepsy. The percentage may seem low, but that equates to 250,000 people. It is currently the fourth most common neurological disorder in the entire world.

Epilepsy is a complex neurological disorder, and researchers continue to investigate the many root causes as well as possible treatments. Recently, researchers and patients alike have turned their sights to CBD for epilepsy, among other alternative therapeutic options.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is diagnosed when someone has two or more unprovoked seizures with a high likelihood of experiencing more. Seizures are sudden surges of abnormal and excessive electrical activity in the brain that affect how you appear or act. A solitary seizure is not always indicative of epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a long-term neurological disorder. Though the condition is rarely life-threatening, it's a proven challenge for those who live with it. That’s mainly because there is still much to be understood about epilepsy.

Some epilepsies are age-related and the seizures stop at a certain age. Others are affected later in life, developing the condition after age 65.

Symptoms of Epilepsy

The sole symptom of epilepsy is seizure (fits). There are four main types:

  • Tonic-Clonic Seizures

This type is the one that most people are familiar with. Formally known as ‘grand-mal’ seizures, they involve a sudden loss of consciousness. The body jerks and contorts, and the face or lips can turn red or blue. Loss of bladder control is common. This seizure lasts 1-3 minutes before the person regains consciousness.

  • Absence Seizures

These types of seizures usually begin in childhood but can affect adults too. Formally known as ‘petit mal’ seizures, they are brief and involve staring off into the distance or “blanking out.” Most observers wouldn’t even know a seizure was taking place. The affected person can return to normal activity after the seizures stop and typically doesn’t remember the incident.

  • Focal Seizures

Those experiencing focal seizures have varying degrees of consciousness. This is because only part of the brain is affected during the episode. This type of seizure is brief and involves unusual movements or behavior.

  • Febrile Convulsions

This convulsive type of seizure disorder is seen in infants and children with illnesses that cause a high fever. The seizures are generally harmless, although children that experience them regularly have a higher chance of developing epilepsy later in life.

Causes of Epilepsy

Epilepsy affects both males and females, and people from all ethnic backgrounds and ages. It’s commonly diagnosed during childhood and managed throughout life. About half of the people living with epilepsy will never know the cause. In the other half, contributing factors could be traced back to:

  • Genetics
  • Head trauma
  • Brain abnormalities
  • Infections
  • Prenatal injuries
  • Developmental disorders

Many people with epilepsy experience seizures due to triggers in their environment. “Trigger seizures” can vary for each person, and people with epilepsy typically know what they need to avoid. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Flashing lights
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Drug use
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Certain foods
  • Types of medication (will typically come with a warning)
  • Hormonal changes

Epilepsy can develop years after a head injury or infectious disease, making it even more difficult for doctors to trace the cause. Epilepsy is not a mental disorder, but people living with it are at higher risk for depression and anxiety due to the nature of the condition.

Treatments for Epilepsy

There are a few treatment routes for epilepsy, and the good news is that many of these cases do not require life-long medication.

Vagus nerve stimulation is one such option. It is typically an add-on treatment to conventional medication. A device is placed under the skin and delivers impulses to the brain. It can stabilize abnormal electrical activity in the brain and lessen or stop seizures.

Some research suggests that a ketogenic diet can also reduce the frequency of seizures. A “keto” diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate meal plan that works by reducing inflammation in the brain and reducing the number of seizures.

A small number of people with epilepsy are candidates for surgery on the area of the brain that causes the seizure. This option is typically a last resort when a patient has tried two or more failed medications.

Alternative treatments, including cannabis prescriptions, are options that some Australian doctors now prescribe. CBD for epilepsy is being used successfully by many patients, especially children.

The type of treatment that’s right for the patient depends on many different factors, including age, severity of symptoms, treatment history, and more.

Living with Epilepsy

Living with epilepsy can be difficult to navigate, especially when the cause is unknown. New therapies like medical cannabis and CBD for epilepsy give hope to patients looking for alternatives where conventional medications have failed.

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