April 14, 2021

Can lack of sleep cause seizures?

Managing your condition

Poor sleep is a seizure trigger for many people with epilepsy. Read about tiredness and seizures - and how to manage sleep related epilepsy problems.

For centuries people have known that there is a link between tiredness and seizures. For example, more than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates (an ancient Greek doctor) said that people with epilepsy should “spend the day awake and the night asleep. If this habit be disturbed, it is not so good”

Why does a lack of sleep cause seizures and what can you do to sleep better?

Can lack of sleep cause a seizure?

Yes, it is generally believed that sleep deprivation is a seizure trigger. For example, one study in Norway found that sleep deprivation and tiredness were two of the most common seizure triggers for people with epilepsy. 

 Sleeping woman with epilepsy and sleep problems

What is the link between tiredness and seizures?

While it is generally believed that poor sleep can cause seizures, we currently do not know exactly why this happens.

One explanation is that sleep changes the way electrical activity happens in our brains. If your sleep is disturbed or you do not get enough sleep, then this could cause an imbalance in electrical activity - and therefore make it more likely that you will have a seizure.

Be aware: SUDEP often happens during sleep. Learn more about SUDEP

Sleep related epilepsy: what to do

If tiredness and seizures are a problem for you, it can be really frustrating. Many people’s seizures make them sleep badly, which then makes it more likely they’ll have a seizure, and then sleep worse again. What can you do to deal with this?   

Find out what is making you tired

It is important to find out what is making you feel tired. Many people with epilepsy mainly (or only) have seizures during the night, but may not be aware that seizures are disrupting their sleep. 

If you notice you often feel tired or have memory problems, try speaking with your doctor to get an EEG sleep test. If the test shows that you are having lots of seizures when you sleep, your doctor may change your treatment strategy.

Another link between epilepsy and sleep problems is sleep apnea - which affects as much as one in three people with epilepsy. This is a condition which affects your breathing whilst you sleep and can wake you up. Again it is useful to do tests to find out if you have sleep apnea and get it treated. 

A different sleep related epilepsy problem is the fact that some anti-epilepsy drugs are known to cause sleep disturbances. Try talking with your doctor if you believe your epilepsy medication is affecting your sleep. 

‘Sleep hygiene’

For many people who have epilepsy and sleep problems, there are ‘sleep hygiene’ changes which can help them drop off better:

  • Exercise more often
  • Stick to a routine where you go to sleep at the same time each night
  • Drink fewer drinks with caffeine in them, especially in the evening (coffee, tea, energy drinks and soft drinks like Cola)
  • Avoid heavy meals late at night
  • Do not use electronic devices in bed (phone, TV, laptop)
  • Your bedroom should be dark, quiet and a comfortable temperature
  • Try reading a book or listening to relaxation music 

Sleeping pills

If you are really struggling with sleep you may want to speak with your doctor about taking sleeping pills. Normally you should not take sleeping pills for more than a few days because it is possible to become dependent on them. However if you are really struggling to sleep they could be a short term solution.

Monitor your epilepsy and sleep patterns

If you do notice tiredness and seizures is a problem for you, keeping track of your sleep patterns helps. With Epsy, for example, you can record all your seizures and triggers in the diary, and find patterns. 

With the right monitoring and a plan, many epilepsy and sleep problems can be resolved - leaving you to sleep sound.