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An exercise in seizure control

30 May, 2007

With the summer months fast approaching, we may all be thinking about finally fitting into that dinky bikini or set of Speedo swim shorts. But could getting in shape help you control your seizures?

A major life change for Steven Brown seemed to dramatically reduce the frequency of his seizures, as Peter Fox explains

Steven BrownBritish eating habits have been big news over the last few years. The amount of fat in our diet. The amount of sugar in our diet. The amount of salt, colourings, flavourings, preservatives, pesticides – we are told that all these things can have an adverse effect on our health. As can the lack of a decent exercise regime.

For those of us with epilepsy, are these effects on overall health even more worrying? Could those things really be affecting how many seizures we have or how long it might take us to recover?

Steven Brown from Bury seems to think so. He spent a large part of his youth taking his body for granted, doing the kinds of things that many young men do every day.

Steven says: “From the age of seventeen I was browsing the internet for 16-plus hours everyday, never going outside, smoking cigarettes frequently... I had stopped exercising and would rather sit at friends’ houses playing videogames and drinking most weekends.”

Many Brits struggle to fit some exercise into their daily routines, or successfully (and enthusiastically) munch away at their five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. In his late teens, Steven was no exception.

“I just ate what was given to me,” he admits, “The types of food I ate were very fattening ready meals. I totally avoided fruit and vegetables and drank heavy amounts of fizzy drinks.”

There is no evidence to suggest that this kind of lifestyle can cause someone to develop epilepsy, but Steven believes that the effect on his overall health contributed to his developing the condition. As time went by, he began to experience odd symptoms that he couldn’t quite describe.

“I started having strange feelings, such as déjà vu,” Steven explains, “These feelings became the warning signs of a coming seizure, although at that point I’d never had one. Then, as time went by, I started having seizures in the night. I was diagnosed with nocturnal epilepsy and began having seizures around five or six nights a week.”

The diagnosis of epilepsy was a wake-up call for Steven. He soon discovered that the medication he was being prescribed was not controlling the activity in his brain. He decided to try and improve his overall health as a way of combating his seizures. With enviable will power, he changed his lifestyle completely and started listening to the doctors and countless TV experts offering advice on leading a healthy existence.

“I just started looking at the back of everything I bought, looking at what I was actually eating. I replaced the chips with pasta, the fatty meats with fresh fish and made sure I ate fruit.” Although Steven has gone a great job of modifying his diet, he is not above the odd slip. “I enjoy having sweets and fattening foods now and again – just instead of eating them day in and day out I make sure it’s very rare. That way I enjoy the food more.”

Although many of us may like a drink, alcohol was something else that Steven had to re-evaluate when it came to changing his lifestyle. Again, moderation and knowing your limits seems to be key in enjoying something that may well be quite bad for you.

“I’ve never been a massive drinker, just a regular drinker when friends were around. Now I rarely drink. Only on special occasions like friends’ or family members’ events. I was advised by my doctor to not even go near alcohol. Besides, I find it far more entertaining observing people who are drunk!”

Steven has not only changed his eating habits in order to improve his health, but incorporated exercise into his life to keep his body in full working order. Instead of spending so much time on the couch playing videogames, he ploughed his energy into an exhilarating gym workout.

Many people find the prospect of joining a gym quite intimidating. They might shy away from trying it because of the common misconception that all gyms are packed to the punch balls with mountainous muscle men just waiting to make us all look bad. However, it seems that it may be a question of simply finding a gym that suits you.

“I attempted to join a gym with a friend, but the place was so egotistical and full of steroid freaks. I quickly left,” says Steven, “When I joined a local gym, I felt very comfortable there. There are all types of people from different walks of life, so I felt welcome. Feeling relaxed, I was able to approach people who looked like regular gym-goers and receive tips and advice.”

Despite Steven’s determination, he still found adjusting to the new regime quite difficult in the beginning: “I had just quit smoking, so I felt the exercise a lot more. Although it did become quite a strain, after several weeks I learned how to pace myself correctly and exercise correctly. Tied in with regular nights of eight or more hours of sleep, the exercise was helping my body start building blocks and becoming stronger.”

Taking up a rigorous exercise regime may not be possible or advisable for everyone. In very rare cases, exercise can trigger seizures, although very few people have found this. Anti-epileptic drugs may need to be altered as well, to accommodate the change in lifestyle and it’s effect on your body.

The effect on Steven, nevertheless, is evident. He appears to have become stronger and stronger. His seizure frequency has fallen and it seems that his body is much better at recovering from the seizures he has than it used to be.

“When I used to have a seizure at night, the next morning I’d wake up and feel as though I’d drunk 10 pints of lager the night before!” He laughs, “I would be quite rude to family members, particularly in the morning. Now I wake up and, if I’ve had a seizure, I sure can’t feel it as much as I used to. I’m no neurologist, but I think that since I started exercising regularly my body is too lazy to start shaking about in the night!”

However, it is not just Steven’s physical prowess that has been affected by his new routines at the gym and in the kitchen. Even his mental processes seems to be working more smoothly.

“During the bad stages of my condition, I couldn’t remember certain conversations with people or places I had been. I was even admitted to a psychiatric ward in a hospital for one day because my condition was so bad. Now, however, my memory has improved dramatically. My general wellbeing has been given a massive boost, not just physically but mentally as well. I find myself having more confidence and thinking more positively now.”

Of course, this method of improving the diet and the exercise regime of someone in order to control their seizures is not tried and tested. Some anti-epileptic drugs will work for some people with epilepsy, but not others, but at least they are scientifically proven. Steven seems to have hit upon something that has worked wonders for him, but may not work for everyone.

Steven’s story is certainly inspiring, however, and might offer an additional strand of treatment for some of us who have difficulty controlling our seizures. But what if we can’t reduce our seizures as much as we’d like? What if this whole new lifestyle doesn’t affect our epilepsy one tiny bit...? Well, at least we might be one step closer to wearing that bikini or those Speedos.

“I would recommend exercise to anyone – medical condition or not. It’s not a chore. If you want to make a success of it, my advice is that you have to enjoy it. If you find gyms boring, try running around your neighbourhood more often. You may find it more entertaining!”