Can mutton trigger epilepsy? | Confinement myths

a sheep
"If you eat mutton when you are pregnant, your baby will have epilepsy. You don't believe later you regret..."
Naggy Chinese auntie
Every Traditional Chinese Auntie

Dealing with superstitious beliefs is an integral part of the Asian pregnancy experience. Some of it is rooted in traditional medical reasoning; some are nonsense. The trick is knowing which is what. Today we’ll deal with one of my favourite pregnancy pantang – mutton and epilepsy.

Origins of the superstition

Epilepsy victims emit a sheep-like cry when they have seizures. Hence the Chinese term for epilepsy – Yang Dian Feng (羊癫疯), which translates to “sheep’s bleat disease”. 

But no Chinese physician ever said that mutton causes epilepsy

Traditional Chinese Medicine has been around for more than 2,500 years. There is no evidence that Chinese physicians have ever told a pregnant woman to avoid mutton because she might induce epilepsy in her child.[1] 

Believing that mutton causes epilepsy because of how the disorder is named makes no sense at all. It’s as nonsensical as bathing your baby in onions to increase his IQ.

Why? Because the Chinese word for clever is pronounced “Cong Ming” (聪明), which bears vague similarity to the Chinese word for onion (pronounced Cong in Chinese, or 葱).

FUN FACT: Modern perceptions of epilepsy in Hong Kong [2]

  • 17.5% believe that children have a higher chance of contracting epilepsy if their mothers ate mutton while pregnant.
  • 2% think that epilepsy is caused by evil spirits
  • 26.9% think that epilepsy is caused by prolonged computer use. 

“Pathogenic wind” causes epilepsy

Epilepsy is known as Xian Zheng (痫症), a disorder described as a “sudden loss of consciousness, upward staring eyes, drool foaming at the mouth, tonic convulsion, bawl and squall”.[3]

Epilepsy in infants is caused by “pathogenic wind”. One case study [4] describes the cause of epilepsy as such:

“A cold wind invaded the mother’s uterus, and hurt the foetus’s internal organs . When the baby was born, the pathogenic wind remained in the newborn’s abdomen and interfered with the baby’s vital qi. This caused the baby to have a seizure – stretching its body, breathing hard and crying out.”

– Sun Si Miao (AD 619-907)

Lots of other things can cause “pathogenic wind” – enough to warrant a separate post to explain the concept alone. But it is sufficient to know that mutton is not a cause for “pathogenic wind”.

In fact, one classic Chinese recipe for postpartum abdominal pain includes mutton, and helps to get rid of wind. It also cures menstrual cramps and dysfunctional uterine bleeding. Scroll to the bottom for the recipe.

The ancient Islamic view of epilepsy

Chinese physicians never believed that mutton was a cause for epilepsy. But physicians in other cultures did. 

According to Islamic scholar Ibn Qutayba (AD 828-889), fits are usually caused by the waxing and waning of the moon. However, consuming mutton could trigger fits outside the “usual time for a fit”. 

Read the full quote below:

“Mutton is very harmful to those that suffer from fits on account of bile, to the extent that it may cause a fit outside the (usual) time for a fit. The times for fits are the New Moon and the middle of the month. These two periods are the times that the sea rises and water and blood increase. The waxing of the moon, until it becomes full, has its effect on the increase of blood and brain and all (other) humidities.”[5]

Ibn Qutayba

A century later another Islamic scholar Avicenna (AD 980 – 1037) described epilepsy as a neurological disorder. Patients prone to seizures should therefore avoid triggers such as alcohol, indigestion, sleep deprivation and oversleeping. Under the “indigestion” category, foods to be avoided were those that were difficult to digest and those that were easily perishable. These included mutton, beef, fish, milk, onion, garlic, celery, radish, turnip, cauliflower, carrot, broad beans and lentils.[6]

Avicenna listed seven herbal therapies to delay and suppress seizures in epileptic patients. Among the more interesting ones are: truffles, wild boar meat and blood-letting.

FUN FACT: Modern perceptions of epilepsy in the Middle East [7]

Tehran, Iran

    • 39.1% believe that food had no effect on epilepsy.
    • 33.8% believe that vegetables, fruits and dairy products aggravated epilepsy.

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

    • 40.3% of teachers and 50.4% of undergraduates polled believe that possession by Jinns (ie. mischievous spirits) is the cause of epilepsy.

    • 67.5% of teachers and 81.6% of undergraduates polled believe that reading from the holy Qur’an by faith healers is a form of treatment.

Your main takeaway?

Lots of things can cause epilepsy, including the moon and different types of food. Mutton is the least of your worries. Here’s your recipe for Dang Gui, Ginger and Mutton soup. 

Dang Gui, Ginger, and Mutton Soup

Ingredients

20g Chinese angelica root (当归)
500g fresh lamb ribs
100g old ginger
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
1 litre water

Directions

Place the lamb ribs in a sieve for about half an hour to drain the excess blood. This will reduce the gaminess of the meat.

Wash the ribs then blanch them with boiling water.

Scrub the ginger to remove all the dirt. Leave the skin on and cut it into thick slices. Wash the dang gui.  

Place the lamb, ginger and dang gui into a large pot. Fill up with about 1 litre of water and bring everything to a boil. 

Simmer on medium heat for an hour or more until the meat is tender and the soup is flavourful enough. 

Add salt and wine to taste. 

Serves 2.[8]

References:

[1] Epilepsy was first documented in the ancient Chinese medical text, The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di Nei Jing, or 黄帝内经). It was compiled sometime between the late Warring States period (BC 475-221) and the Han dynasty (BC 206 – AD 220). The book said nothing about mutton causing epilepsy.

[2] Fong CG, Hung A (2002), Public Awareness, Attitude, and Understanding of Epilepsy in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China in Epilepsia (vol. 43 no. 3, 2002), pp 311–316.

[3] Quoted directly from a textbook for Chinese physicians in Singapore. Also see Cai, L (2017), Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine for Epilepsy Treatment Should Be Administered According to the Seizure Type and Epileptic Syndrome, in Health (Vol. 9), pp 1211-1222.

[4] From Essential Formulas for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold (Bei Ji Qian Jing Yao Fang, or 備急千金要方) written by Sun Si Miao (孙思邈) during the Tang dynasty (AD 619-907).

[5] Stol, Marten (1993), Epilepsy in Babylonia, pp 124.

[6] Asadi-Pooya AA, Nikseresht AR, Yaghoubi E (2012), Old Remedies for Epilepsy: Avicenna’s Medicine, in Iran Red Crescent Med Journal (Vol. 14, No. 3, March 2012) pp 174–177.

[7] Mohammadi M, Meysamie A, Jahanian A (2010), How Do Parents Think about the Effect of Food and Alternative Medicine on their Epileptic Children? Iranian Journal of Pediatrics (Vol. 20, No. 2, June 2010), pp 193–198.

Obeid T, Abulaban A, Al-Ghatani F, Al-Malki AR, Al-Ghamdi A (2012), Possession by ‘Jinn’ as a cause of epilepsy (Saraa): A study from Saudi Arabia in Seizure (Vol. 21, Issue 4, May 2012), pp 245-249.

[8] Adapted from: Natural Remedies Center.