November 11, 2022

Overview of metabolic disorders and seizures

About Epilepsy

There are several metabolic causes of seizures. Learn about metabolic disorders and seizures, as well as symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

Our brains and bodies need a lot of energy to function correctly. We get this energy from our food through a complex process called metabolism. Sometimes, people’s metabolic systems don’t work correctly, and this might make them have metabolic seizures.

So, what are the metabolic causes of epilepsy, why do people get metabolic seizures, and how are they diagnosed and treated?

A woman and her daughter eating

What are the metabolic causes of epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a common brain condition which makes people have seizures. A seizure is when a discharge of electricity happens in the brain, and this causes a wide range of symptoms, including losing consciousness, jerking and shaking involuntarily, and making unusual facial movements.

Some people have metabolic disorders, which is when they are missing certain genes (code that tells your body how to work) which are vital for processing food and turning it into energy. If you don't have those genes, it can cause a range of health problems.

There are at least eight metabolic disorders that can cause epilepsy (according to the International League Against Epilepsy), but some scientists believe there could be several more.

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of metabolic seizure:

  • Deficiencies: Some metabolic disorders stop the brain from getting enough energy, and this then causes seizures. 
  • Toxic substances: Some metabolic disorders mean the body does not correctly process certain types of nutrients. This can lead to a build-up of toxic substances, and that can cause seizures.
  • Problems with how cells function: Some metabolic disorders mean that cells in the brain do not work correctly, which leads to seizures.

If your child has a metabolic disorder which is causing their seizures, your doctor can tell you more about exactly what is happening and why.

Metabolic disorders and seizure symptoms

There are several different kinds of metabolic seizure, and each one comes with its own specific symptoms. Children with metabolic epilepsy can experience different kinds of seizures, including absence seizures, myoclonic seizures, infantile spasms, and tonic clonic seizures.

Metabolic disorders and seizures usually begin early in childhood (although they can start happening a little later). Metabolic disorders can also be ‘acquired’ later in life due to other diseases or dietary problems.

Children with metabolic seizures often display specific symptoms such as a dislike of food in general (and protein in particular). They may also vomit frequently, or seem tired and irritable. Children that have metabolic disorders and seizures can have developmental delays too, as well as having problems with memory.

Diagnosing metabolic disorders and seizures

It’s important to get metabolic causes of epilepsy diagnosed as soon as possible. The sooner that the child is diagnosed, the faster they can receive treatment which will help them to develop normally.

If a child appears to have metabolic disorders and seizures, doctors will perform genetic tests to find out the specific genetic problem. They are also likely to use an EEG machine to see if the child is having epileptic brain patterns. The doctor will also take a family history to find out if there could be any relatives who have a related condition.

Treating metabolic causes of epilepsy

There are several ways to treat metabolic disorders and seizures. 

Doctors will usually try to treat the metabolic disorder itself, rather than the epilepsy, since the metabolic disorder is the underlying cause of the seizures. If doctors can find and treat the metabolic disorder, there is a good outlook for the child’s development and they could stop having seizures altogether. 

Other treatments may include anti-seizure medication - which can help control seizures until the metabolic disorder itself is treated. There are also certain diets - particularly the ketogenic diet -  that may help manage seizures for children with some metabolic disorders.  

If you are looking after a child with metabolic seizures, read our tips on caring for children with epilepsy.