Oak Forest girl’s ‘magic diet’ soothes seizures
BY MIKE NOLAN firstname.lastname@example.org February 22, 2013 10:58PM
Christa Olson (with mom, Marjorie) has been on a high-fat ketogenic diet since July 2011 to control her seizures. She was at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago Tuesday for a video interview and a visit with doctors. Marjorie and Christa before the interview. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: March 25, 2013 6:03AM
For 5-year-old Christa Olson, fat means freedom.
Her diet is replete with foods that most kids her age are taught to shun — loads of heavy whipping cream, popcorn drenched in melted butter and veggies dipped in high-fat ranch dressing mixed with a dollop of mayonnaise.
The Oak Forest girl has been eating the fat-laden “magic diet” — as her mom, Marjorie, calls it — since July 2011, and it’s put an end to the epileptic seizures that regularly convulsed the little girl’s body.
“We tell her this diet is her medicine, and it must be followed strictly,” the former Oak Lawn schoolteacher said.
Olson hopes that, sometime this summer, the doctor at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago who’s been treating Christa will say she can go off the diet.
Doctors realized decades ago that high-fat diets helped control seizures in children with epilepsy, but it’s a lot more complicated than simply piling your son or daughter’s plate with a bunch of fatty foods. Achieving the right balance of foods to make it work is time-consuming, and the advent of better medications made it easier for many parents to rely on drugs rather than complex diets.
Christa, however, didn’t respond well to even very high doses of antiseizure medications, and the side effects were nearly as awful as the seizures themselves, Olson said. Her daughter would throw up nearly every time a dose was administered, was overly tired and stopped speaking.
She believes the diet, called a ketogenic diet, is gaining favor among parents concerned about the long-term effects of medication, and who “want to see their children come out from under the haze of the medicine and want to see the child’s personality again.”
‘Thought we had lost her’
In March 2011, shortly after Christa turned 3, Olson brought her three children — including a son born earlier that month — to her mom’s house for a visit.
After eating lunch, the little girl was lying down for a nap in an upstairs bedroom. Olson said her brother, who happened to be home, heard an odd noise coming from the room, checked on the girl, then yelled for his sister.
“She was completely limp, except her hands were twitching,” Olson said of her daughter.
The girl was pale and there was something that looked like foam on her lips, she said.
“We thought we had lost her,” Olson said.
Doctors later told her and her husband that their daughter had suffered a seizure, but that there was nothing to worry about, everything would be fine.
“But she wasn’t fine,” Olson said.
Sitting down to a meal, Christa’s “chin would drop and hit the table,” or she’d seize and send a spoon flying across the room, Olson said. Her daughter would later be diagnosed with myoclonic astatic epilepsy, also known as Doose syndrome.
Olson said Christa was constantly injuring herself, despite being fitted with a helmet and her parents taping towels along the edges of tables to act as cushions. There were more visits to the hospital, and different medications prescribed.
“It was an awful way to live,” Olson said.
In April 2011, Olson happened to turn on a TV news program that featured a segment on the ketogenic diet being used to help children with epilepsy. Christa’s doctors weren’t eager to try it, content to stay the course with the medications the girl was on.
Discouraged with that path, Olson and her husband found Dr. Srishti Nangia, an epileptologist at Lurie. Looking over Christa’s history, the doctor was convinced a different course of treatment was needed and started the girl on the high-fat diet.
“She went from five seizures (a day) to two, then it was one, then zeroes,” Olson said. “They’ve been zeroes ever since.”
Unsure why diet works
Olson and her daughter sat for a videotaped interview at Lurie on Feb. 12 that the hospital will post on its website to help promote “Purple Day,” an annual grass-roots effort designed to raise awareness of epilepsy, on March 26. Olson explained that getting her daughter to embrace the ketogenic diet wasn’t easy, and that Christa turned up her nose at some of the meals that were put in front of her.
“We just made it happen,” Olson said of the diet. “Yes, at times it was stressful. She’s a very headstrong little girl.”
Initially, she had just two ketogenic meals in her repertoire, but that has swelled to more than 250 recipes, many culled from books and websites.
Store-bought treats such as cookies or cake won’t work in her daughter’s low-carb diet, but Olson said she makes ketogenic-friendly sweets, such as sugar-free pudding mixed with heavy whipping cream. Because Christa doesn’t consume what passes for a balanced diet, she also takes several dietary supplements, Olson said.
“We still go to family parties, we go out with friends,” she said. “We don’t miss anything.”
The diet, she said, “tricks her (Christa’s) body into a starvation mode,” keeping simple sugars found in carbohydrates to a minimum and forcing her body to continually burn fat stores for energy.
Doctors aren’t sure why the high-fat diet helps calm seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, which said that about a third of children who use the diet become seizure-free or almost seizure-free.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which promotes the ketogenic diet, believe it triggers biochemical changes that eliminate seizure-causing short circuits in the brain’s signaling system.
Olson, who worked for 10 years as a math teacher at Simmons Middle School in Oak Lawn, said most children can go off the diet after two years, and after another visit to Lurie in June or July, they’ll find out whether “she needs to stay on a little longer or if we can start weaning” her off of it.