Epilepsy and Sleep

Epilepsy and Sleep

Epilepsy is a common condition that affects the brain and causes frequent seizures. These seizures are bursts of electrical activity in the brain that can temporarily affect how the brain works. Not only can these seizures interfere with everyday life, but epilepsy can also lead to poor sleep quality.

What Are the Symptoms of Epilepsy?

Epilepsy can start at any age, but it usually starts either in childhood or in people over sixty. While it’s a lifelong condition, it can sometimes get better slowly over time.1

People with epilepsy do not experience the same seizures, as seizures can affect people in different ways depending on which part of the brain is involved.2 However, possible symptoms include:

  • Uncontrollable jerking and shaking, called a ‘fit’
  • Losing awareness and staring blankly into space
  • Becoming stiff
  • Strange sensations, such as a ‘rising’ feeling in your stomach, unusual smells or tastes, and a tingling feeling in your arms or legs
  • Collapsing
  • Passing out and not remembering what happened3

How Does Epilepsy Affect Your Sleep?

There is an inherent relationship between sleep and epilepsy.4 Sleep activates the electrical charges in the brain that result in seizures, and seizures are timed according to the sleep-wake cycle. For some people with epilepsy, seizures can occur only during sleep. When seizures occur during sleep, they can cause sudden awakenings that are sometimes confused with insomnia.5 However, people with epilepsy may not know that they have seizures while they sleep. They may suffer from daytime fatigue and difficulty concentrating without knowing why.6

There are several stages of sleep, including Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (Non-REM) Sleep. REM sleep is important as it’s when your brain processes your emotions, files away your memories, and relieves your stress. As stress can sometimes trigger seizures, getting enough REM sleep is helpful for someone with epilepsy. Non-REM Sleep is the most restorative sleep stage, and is important for restoring normal brain functions.7

If you have a seizure while you’re sleeping, it’ll affect your sleep for the rest of the night: you won’t be able to fall into a deep sleep, and you’ll wake up more often. Your REM Sleep is greatly reduced and could even disappear. If you have a seizure when you’re awake, this can even reduce your REM Sleep the following night. Also, having seizures during the night can lead to less deep Non-REM Sleep.8

For people with epilepsy, sleep problems can be a double-edged sword; epilepsy disturbs sleep, but sleep deprivation can aggravate epilepsy.9 Also, the drugs that are used to treat epilepsy can disturb your sleep. As lack of sleep can cause seizures, getting a good sleep on a nightly basis is incredibly important for people with epilepsy.

How Can You Get Enough REM Sleep?

Controlling your seizures may help you to get enough REM sleep.10 Some ways for you to do this are:

  • Take your medicine
  • Identify and avoid seizure triggers (i.e., stress, alcohol use, lack of sleep)
  • Have regular reviews of your epilepsy and treatment11

If your seizures are not controlled, try to catch up on any missed sleep, especially in the day or two after a seizure.12

Epilepsy and Sleep Disorders

People with epilepsy have a higher chance of also having a sleep disorder than those without epilepsy. These can include Sleep Apnoea, Restless Legs Syndrome, Narcolepsy, and night terrors.13

Tips for Getting More Sleep

There are some things that you can do at home that may help you get more sleep.

  • Keep a consistent sleep-wake cycle – go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time each morning, including weekends.
  • Limit your caffeine intake – avoid caffeine late in the day.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine – write a ‘to-do’ list, do some relaxation exercises like mindfulness, listen to relaxing music, read a book, or have a warm bath or shower.
  • Have a healthy sleep environment – your bedroom should be dark, quiet, cool, and tidy. Check out our blockout curtains that block 90-95% of light here.
  • Avoid technology – don’t watch the TV or use your phone, tablet, iPod, or laptop within one hour of going to sleep. These screens emit a blue light that further disturbs your sleep. Read more about how technology affects your sleep here.

While these are some ideas for how you can help to improve your sleep at home, the best way to improve your sleep quality if you have epilepsy is to consult your doctor. Your doctor will know the right treatments for you, and may help to identify what triggers your seizures. By doing this, you’ll have a better chance at getting a good sleep again.

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