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The importance of good sleep for people with epilepsy

By The Health News Team | November 28, 2023
Woman in bed sleeping

We are often reminded of how sleep or rather, not enough of it can affect our mental health, physical well-being, cardiovascular health and even our weight.

As it turns out, getting enough shut-eye can also affect those living with epilepsy. Epilepsy is a common brain disorder that affects some 3.4 million American adults and children. It is diagnosed when someone experiences two or more seizure episodes that are not caused by fever, low blood sugar or alcohol withdrawal.

It’s not often clear what causes a person to have epilepsy overall, but learning what you can do to help control seizures is important. Sleep is one of those factors you can take charge of.

Sleep deprivation and breakthrough seizures

Dr. Jennifer Jothen, a neurologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont HospitalSharp Chula Vista Medical Center and Sharp Coronado Hospital, explains why sleep is so important.

“Our brain’s electrical patterns change as we become drowsy and enter sleep,” says Dr. Jothen. “When we’re drowsy, we all have changes in the brain’s electrical background activity, and some people with epilepsy are sensitive to these changes and will have sleep-related epilepsy that triggers seizures.”

Many people with epilepsy are able to control their seizures through medication. When a seizure happens after a person has been seizure-free for at least 12 months, it’s called a breakthrough seizure. Your neurologist will try to identify what triggered the seizure, and how you can make changes to avoid it happening again.

Different people have different types of seizures, such as tonic-clonic (formerly known as grand mal) focal, and absence seizures, among others. Dr. Jothen says sleep deprivation can increase a person’s chances of having a seizure, regardless of what types of seizures they are known to have.

One problem can lead to another

Being sleep deprived can throw off other things too, including your daily schedule. You may go to bed earlier than usual the next day, and sleep in later.

For those who take seizure medication, this could affect the timing of when you take your next dose or cause you to accidentally skip one altogether. Dr. Jothen says delaying medication or missing a dose increases your chance of having a seizure even more.

Get checked, relieve stress

If you have epilepsy but are not getting enough sleep and are worried about seizures, Dr. Jothen stresses the importance of identifying the source of your lack of sleep to get yourself back into a healthy routine.

“Stress will do things to our bodies that aren’t healthy, and that we don’t realize are happening,” says Dr. Jothen. “It can keep us up at night in bed, worrying about work, bills or other personal issues.”

If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough sleep, Dr. Jothen recommends you:

  • Talk to your doctor about other possible medical conditions, such as sleep apnea.

  • Make sure you’re keeping your mental health and stress levels in check.

  • Make and stick to a regular bedtime and seizure-medication schedule.

“Those living with epilepsy have a responsibility to themselves to control certain things that can trigger a seizure,” adds Dr. Jothen. “Put ‘plenty of sleep’ at the top of your to-do list.”

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