Epilepsy Bite by Bite

When one thinks of diseases that necessitate food restrictions, among the first things that come to mind are food allergies, or ‘lifestyle diseases’ such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Not many people would immediately put ‘epilepsy’ at the top of the list, owing to the fact that it’s not always a readily apparent condition. Yet according to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people worldwide live with epilepsy, and each year 2.4 million more people are diagnosed with it.

What exactly is epilepsy? Actually the term ‘epilepsy’ refers to a whole range of diseases that manifest as recurrent seizures, oftentimes without other underlying causes or diseases. A seizure may be described as an abnormal electric impulse in one part of the brain. In a sense it can be likened to what happens to some gadgets when plugged in during a power surge. Fortunately the brain doesn’t burn or fizzle out the way gadgets do, but instead it triggers changes in a person’s behaviour ranging from brief lapses of attention that resemble daydreaming, or outright convulsions. The Filipino word ‘tirik´ sums up the experience of a seizure quite aptly.

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Credit to: 123RF

Since epilepsy is such a diverse disorder, there are no specific foods or ‘triggers’ that people living with epilepsy need to avoid. What may worsen a seizure for one person may have little to no effect on another. However some of the more common triggers include stress, sleep deprivation, and alcohol consumption. Other persons are triggered by sudden noises or the presence of flashing or strobe lights.

It has also been thought that caffeine, as well as food additives such as preservatives and artificial colourings, can be implicated in some seizures. One frequently blamed additive is the infamous MSG (monosodium glutamate), an often used flavouring in processed foods as well as some recipes. Other foods may not necessarily trigger seizures, but they may have unwanted interactions with the anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) that most people with epilepsy take in order to control their seizures. For instance, taking some fruit juices such as grapefruit may change the levels of an AED in a person’s blood, thus worsening side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness.

Considering all these possible dietary pitfalls, a ‘lifestyle change’ is often easier said than done. For yours truly this meant saying goodbye to a number of comfort foods from my student days. It was bye-bye to chips, instant noodles, fried luncheon meat and even some types of bacon. Instead of going to parties at bars or clubs, I had to content myself with more mellow cafes and coffeeshops. Then when it became apparent during my medical training that caffeine was not helping my condition either, I had to also give up coffee.

It was not easy. Suddenly it felt as if I could not eat anything I liked, much less be sociable in the company of other foodies. I could bring food from home, but what if I wanted other options or wanted to be with friends who were bent on eating anything they wanted? So what was next? Wide-eyed me, clutching a cup of hot chocolate, and wondering what on earth I could still munch on, without breaking my budget.

Fortunately I wasn’t exactly alone in this struggle. And so the Team Glasses Blog’s journey began with two foodies (one with Heartburn and me with Epilepsy) to help people with the same health conditions about making their own foodie trips in the Metro.

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