I often hear of or read about a bird experiencing seizures. As I contend with most illnesses and/or disorders, I believe many seizures are caused or exacerbated by faulty nutrition. Seizures can be a warning of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and/or severe liver damage. Often seizures accompany feather destruction in exotic birds. Seizures are sometimes at the root of headaches and migraines. Do birds have headaches? Possibly.
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- A seizure is a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain.
- A seizure usually affects how a person appears or acts for a short time.
- Many different things can occur during a seizure. Whatever the brain and body can do, normally can also occur during a seizure
- The electrical activity is caused by complex chemical changes that occur in nerve cells.
- Brain cells either excite or inhibit (stop) other brain cells from sending messages. Usually, there is a balance of cells that excite and those that can stop these messages. However, when a seizure occurs, there may be too much or too little activity, causing an imbalance between exciting and stopping activity. The chemical changes can lead to surges of electrical activity that cause seizures.
- Seizures are not a disease in themselves. Instead, they are a symptom of many different disorders that can affect the brain. Some seizures can hardly be noticed, while others are totally disabling.
While it is commonplace for doctors to prescribe anti-seizure medications for humans, I personally believe they can do more harm than good in exotic birds. Anti-seizure meds make the brain less likely to have seizures by altering and reducing the excessive electrical activity (or excitability) of the neurons that normally cause a seizure. This is treating the symptom and not preventing seizures by addressing the root cause.(1) There are varieties of foods that can help prevent, even eliminate seizures.
After long research of, and clinical as well as personal experience with seizures I have come to some basic theories on why seizures happen in pet birds.
It is commonly understood that pharmaceuticals both contribute and cause leaky gut. This could also be a very strong probability in “leaky brain syndrome.” More about “leaky brain” below. I caution you if your bird is ill first try to heal it by using food as medicine, even though healing with food is a slow process it is a healthier way to heal, and it is more thorough, addressing the root cause and not just the symptom like pharmacopeia. Pharmaceuticals don’t really heal like food does. Instead, pharmaceuticals temporarily cover up the symptoms while causing more damage to the gut where nutrients that can heal are absorbed. If a digestive tract is damaged by a long-term poor diet along with pharmaceuticals nutrients are not properly absorbed. The chances of healing will not only be a longer process but may not even be possible if too much damage has occurred.(2) We will undoubtedly witness seizures in some birds who have damaged digestive tracts.
Foremost I believe achronicnutritional imbalanceis present in birds who experience seizures. If a certain nutrient is lacking for only a short term, we don’t usually see seizures, but if certain nutrients are lacking for a lengthy period of time, then we may very well observe seizures. Also, an overabundance of synthetic vitamins, especially the fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D and K can exacerbate seizures.
Some of the most important nutrients I find lacking in birds with seizures are healthy dietary fats, and an imbalance of calcium to magnesium intake and absorption, low B vitamin intake along with folate deficiency, lack of melatonin production, and possibly a lack of production of natural Vitamin D as well as a lack of natural Vitamin E in the diet. All of these nutrients work together to help calm, relax and balance an overly-excited nervous system. Many birds do not have or receive enough GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) and this nutrient is also very important in calming, relaxing and inhibiting excitatory neurotransmitters. GABA works against endogenous (produced within) as well as exogenous (supplemented outside of the body) glutamate which is an excitatory neurotransmitter. Don’t get caught up in the idea of supplying the precursor to GABA, “tryptophan.” While it can help with some anxiety and aid in the production of GABA, it can also get in the way of how GABA works in an individual actually causing more anxiety and/or itching and feather destruction in birds who exhibit anxiety and feather destruction.(3)
Omega 3is a very important dietary fat that helps prevent blood platelets from becoming “sticky” potentially adding to or causing cardiovascular disease. Also, Omega 3s are essential for healthy brain function. Omega 3s take the brain fog away and provide the energy the brain needs to function efficiently. It also aids in the chelation of calcifications caused by a high Omega 6 diet, too many of the wrong kind of sugars like refined, dead starchy sugars and fructose, and an imbalance of calcium to magnesium in the diet and metabolic system. I personally believe naturally occurring Omega 3s found in organic mango and papaya (both low in fructose in comparison to domestic fruits) are great sources of this dietary fat. However, those are medium chain Omega 3s and require an ample supply of GLA (gamma linolenic acid) to cross the brain blood barrier. Organic hemp seed and organic hemp seed oil are a couple of the best sources of GLA. Hemp must be fed along with flax or chia to ensure plant sources of Omega 3 cross the blood brain barrier. Long chain Omega 3s, as found in Krill oil cross the brain blood barrier without the assistance of any co-nutrient. Krill oil is also high in beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A.
I have discussed the calcium to magnesium ratioad nauseam in other articles, but for the sake of this article, I will discuss this topic again briefly. If there is not enough magnesium in the system calcium will combine with Omega 6s, starches and other sugars (mainly fructose) forming plaque, or “calcifications.” These calcifications are commonly found in arteries, veins (even in the brain blood supply) as well as in all soft tissues of the body including joints and connective tissue. This kind of plaque begins to build up in the veins and arteries, including in the brain. Medical science is now beginning to believe a lack of magnesium in the diet to be one of the root causes of cardiovascular disease and dementia. Do you see how a calcium/magnesium imbalance could potentially contribute to seizures? I do.
Also, calcium is a neuro-exciter. If too much calcium is floating in the blood, or even over-absorbed it overpowers magnesium and causes an excessively high level of electrical activity in the brain. Magnesium performs just the opposite; it is a neuro-calmative.
B vitamins, especially methyl B12 (a reliably absorbed form of B12), when supplied with the correct level of folate (not folic acid – the synthetic source) also helps calm neurotransmitters while offering a higher level of brain function and clarity. Good food sources of Vitamin B12 for exotic birds are meal worms and slightly steamed mussels. Folate is found in sprouted organic sunflower seeds, sprouted black-eyed peas, mung beans and lentils (don’t feed to many legumes; they are high in lectinswhich can potentially impair digestive tract function and lead to leaky gut), raw papaya, slightly steamed mollusks, red bell pepper, and parsley.
Melatoninbegins production in the lower gut as the amino acid “tryptophan” as the precursor. After production melatonin reserves are held in the pineal gland of the brain. If the digestive tract is damaged due to an overall poor diet that has been fed for a lengthy period of time, the gut will not produce or metabolize tryptophan efficiently enough for melatonin to be synthesized in the pineal gland. In these cases, it is best to supply a melatonin supplement free of fillers, buffers and all excipients. Only a very, very, teeny, tiny amount of melatonin is needed. Too much and a bird may become almost catatonic. Melatonin typically resides in the pineal gland, but the production of melatonin begins in the gut just like all neurotransmitters. Melatonin regulates the sleep cycle and overall aids in maintaining mental and emotional stability and calmness.
Of course, Vitamin D(natural, not synthetic) is a fat-soluble hormone needed to help with the production of healthy neurotransmitters too. Foods that offer naturally occurring Vitamin D are organic egg yolks (yet another reason why we may want to consider feeding hard boiled eggs to our birds), dehydrated mushrooms that have been exposed to sunlight while growing (mushrooms are safe to feed as long as they have been dehydrated or slightly steamed), some varieties of lichen, alfalfa powder, and slightly steamed mollusks. Exotic birds would be exposed to and consume all of these in the wild.
In the overall avian community, we are seeing more and more people completely turning away from feeding sunflower seeds and lowering the amount of nuts, including almonds in their birds’ diets. This action may very well be causing more birds to suffer seizures. Both sunflower seed and almonds contain significant levels of naturally occurring Vitamin E, as well as may other nutrients. This fat-soluble vitamin (which requires a healthy level of dietary fats in the body for the liver to metabolize) has shown the ability to decrease free radicals and increase healthy brain function. We must remember: “Feed in moderation, do not totally eliminate those foods which supply required nutrients, but do not feed an overabundance of any one food.”
Also, as a community, the majority people who flock to exotic birds as their pets do not understand the value and importance of sodiumin our birds’ diets. One of the reasons, it has been decided by field researchers that parrots flock to the clay licks after consuming their morning fruit is for the sodium the clay contains. Sodium begins the hydrolysis process (breaking down of nutrients), but it is also responsible for maintaining cell moisture and activity. Potassium goes right along with sodium. These two electrolytes must be in ratio (remember, I preach “balance, balance, balance of nutrients”). Cells must retain the correct amount of moisture to function correctly and efficiently. Sodium aids in the hydration of cells; it also promotes healthy communication between nerve impulses. If sodium is lacking nerves will trigger improperly, usually causing excitability rather than have a calming effect.(5) But, if too much sodium is present cells become too hydrated and do not function properly. This can cause muscle spasms due to the impact of the electrical impact sodium has on neurotransmitters. Too much sodium may also exacerbate high blood pressure placing a strain on the heart. Potassiumis just as important. It helps maintain the moisture content of cells too. If not enough potassium is present cells become too hydrated thus causing edema and swelling – throughout the body including the brain. Potassium aids in removing moisture from cells. Therefore it is very necessary that the proper sodium to potassium level is maintained. It is believed the proper ratio of sodium to potassium should be maintained at about 1:2 respectively.
These two electrolytes also regulate the body’s overall water retention and excretion ability. Edema can occur in arteries, veins, muscles and the brain. The correct ratio of sodium and potassium is absolutely essential. As a community, we have been neglecting the correct sodium content in our bird’s diets for years. Way too many parrot diets are excessively high in potassium and dramatically low in sodium. Improper sodium to potassium ratios are believed to be a major part in cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and severe liver damage.(6)
Sodium is more intracellular whereas potassium is most present in brain matter, red blood cells and muscle tissue in that order. If too much water is present inside cells potassium helps draw it out and therefore preventing edema which contributes to congestive heart failure and mental confusion and more. If there is not enoughsodium present (hyponatremia), or too muchpotassium (hyperkalemia), as well as hypercalcemia (too much calcium) polyuriaor polydipsia(also associated with diabetes) may present. Hyperkalemia can lead to diarrhea and vomiting along with confusion, tingling in extremities, dizziness, seizures, coma and death.(7) Hyperkalemia can also cause heart palpitations (even causing the heart to stop – which may mimic a heart attack), weakness, renal failure (kidney disease), hemolytic anemia(usually caused by consuming too many foods from the allium species such as garlic and onion), and/or severe bleeding from the digestive tract.(8,9)
A good source of sodium for exotic birds is CA-Montmorillonite clay (I use Terramin®) and Himalayan salt. I use the Terramin brand of clay because it is human-grade, FDA approved AND it provides minerals as the correct particle sizethat the digestive tracts of exotic birds can absorb. Both Terramin clay and Himalayan salt contain all of the trace minerals our birds require to thrive. Just a tiny, tiny pinch of Himalayan salt in your bird’s drinking water will supply enough sodium to help balance all of the potassium found in plant matter our birds consume as their staple food. (Please do not feed table salt; it lacks essential minerals and contains too many added chemicals) Too much sodium in our bird’s diets really isn’t that much of a worry, unless you are over-supplementing salt and/or feeding a lot of highly processed foods where salt has been added. Hypernatremia (too much sodium in the body) is less common than too much potassium (hyperkalemia) in reality, even though we always hear to reduce our salt intake. Unless you are individually consuming and/or feeding highly processed foods to your bird the amount of salt intake is probably not a major concern. Just make sure you and your bird consume a healthy source of salt such as Himalayan. (I don’t use Sea salt due to the abundant off-shore drilling of petroleum pollution in ocean waters) Since most bird diets contain very high amounts of potassium and low sodium, this is probably one reason we are witnessing more and more seizures in birds. One added benefit from sodium: it is a natural anti-histamine.
Returning to the idea of increasing GABAin our birds’ systems, foods that can help with this are sprouted organic lentils and sprouted organic Basmati brown rice. Also supplements such as (pure without any other excipients) theanine, melatonin as mentioned previously, thiamine (B1), niacin (B3) (the “no-flush” variety of niacin may be needed for feather destroyers, but try the regular niacin first; it seems to be more effective.) and finally inositol (B8).
Foods that increase GABA levels and are high in the above nutrients and should not exacerbate feather destruction:
- Theanineneeds to be supplied through pure L-Theanine supplements that do not contain any buffers, fillers, excipients or any other nutrients. Theanine is commonly found in tea. Unfortunately, tea is high in tannins which deplete Vitamin B12 very easily from the system, plus tea will eventually cause increased feather destruction due to the high amount of naturally occurring salicylates it contains.
- Melatoninis discussed in the above text. Foods that can boost melatonin are pineapple (don’t feed to feather destroyers), bananas and sprouted organic Basmati brown rice.
- Thiamine (B1)can be found in sprouted organic sunflower seeds, sprouted organic Basmati brown rice and sprouted organic green peas, sprouted organic Navy Beans and raw squash fed along with pineapple and papaya, sprouted organic sesame seeds, ground flax seed, and dehydrated Crimini mushrooms.
- Niacin (B3)foods include dehydrated mushrooms, sprouted organic green peas, and sprouted organic sunflower seeds.
- Inositol (B8)can be supplied through filler, buffer and excipient-free supplements or by feeding sprouted organic Basmati brown rice. Citrus and cantaloupe also supply inositol, but should not be fed to feather destroyers. Also, when feeding any type of melon make sure you feed it 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after all other foods. Melon digests quicker because of the high water content. This causes other foods in the digestive tract to ferment too fast producing the bad kind of gut bacteria. Inositol is also found in sprouted organic legumes and bananas.
Do you know that besides “avian leaky gut syndrome” our birds can also experience “avian leaky brain syndrome?” It does exist, and it is caused by the same factors that contribute to leaky gut. Veins in the brain can become permeable, allowing minuscule food particles to enter the blood flowing in the brain. Veins can become permeable by overuse of pharmaceuticals, too many Omega 6s, starches and refined sugars, as well as too many lectins in the diet. These food particles, being where they are not intended to be can cause bacteria and other pathogens in the brain potentially leading to auto-immune problems within the function of the brain. Bacteria and fungus in the brain can contribute to brain cancer. Auto-immune disorders, bacteria, fungus and other pathogens in the brain can cause a lot of mental and emotional havoc and potentially contribute to seizures. While there is no way to test the brain with 100% accuracy for leaky brain syndrome, if a bird is already experiencing feather destruction, with or without seizures, it is highly probable that bird has leaky brain syndrome. Just like leaky gut, leaky brain can be caused by a long-term unhealthy diet that has disrupted the production of healthy gut flora. As a result, leaky gut and leaky brain can cause or be caused by a mal-function of the auto-immune system.
In the end, I reiterate “balance” in any bird’s overall diet. Diversity and variety of foods are not enough. We may think we are feeding enough variety to cover all of the nutritional bases, but the bottom line is that we may be feeding too much of this and not enough of that on a regular and consistent basis unknowingly. The only sure way to know if your bird is receiving balanced nutrition is to purchase bird food that has been laboratory tested or to have your own mix laboratory tested. I will caution you, though, most commercial bird food formulations contain synthetic fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K. These are known precursors to liver damage, especially when there is not enough healthy dietary fat circulating in the system to aid in the absorption and distribution of these vitamins. They end up in the liver where they sit with nowhere to go because there is not enough healthy dietary fat circulating to carry those vitamins throughout the body’s systems. Too much synthetic Vitamin A, D, and K can also contribute to cardiovascular disease. Returning to “balance” of nutrients in the overall diet, healthy and proper production of neurotransmitters relies heavily on a living creature consuming balanced macro and micro nutrients as well as having a healthy digestive tract containing healthy gut flora that aids in the production of those neurotransmitters.
Ref: (1) https://www.epilepsysociety.org.uk/how-anti-epileptic-drugs-work#.WMRzY_nyvIU; (2) http://naturopathconnect.com/articles/leaky-gut-syndrome-causes; (3) http://www.balancingbrainchemistry.co.uk/peter-smith/26/GABA-Deficient-Anxiety.html; (4) http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Research/Vitamin-E-The-overlooked-nutrient-and-its-brain-health-benefits; (5) http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/role-sodium-play-biologically-7971.html; (6) http://www2.tulane.edu/som/departments/neurology/programs/clerkship/upload/wch22.pdf; (7) http://www.emedicinehealth.com/hyponatremia_low_sodium/page2_em.htm; (8) http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/hyperkalemia-causes-symptoms-treatments#1; (9) https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001179.htm.
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