Is it OK to mix epilepsy and caffeine?

  • December 22, 2020
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How do you perk yourself up when you’re feeling sleepy? Many people choose a strong cup coffee, while others go for tea - or perhaps a caffeinated soda. Caffeine can be drunk, taken in pills and is even found in chocolate, and it is the most widely-consumed drug in the world. Billions of people take it in some form every day, but how can caffeine trigger seizures in people with epilepsy? 

If you (or someone you know) have epilepsy, you might know that seizures happen when there is an imbalance in electrical charge in the brain. Caffeine is known to make the brain more ‘excitable’, so are people with epilepsy at a higher risk of caffeine seizures? Let’s find out about the link between epilepsy and caffeine.

What does science say about seizures and caffeine?

At present, researchers do not definitely know whether drinking coffee makes it more likely that people with epilepsy will have seizures. There have not been enough studies on seizures and caffeine, and sometimes the results of research seem to say opposite things. 

Here is what we know so far:

  • Overdosing with caffeine could be a problem: There have been a few case studies where individuals with epilepsy began drinking very large amounts of caffeine over a short period of time. In these fairly extreme cases, those people began having more seizures than normal. Those extra seizures then stopped when they reduced caffeine intake. 
  • Seizures and caffeine withdrawal: It is possible that caffeine withdrawal (where you stop drinking coffee or caffeinated soda) might be a seizure trigger for people who take caffeine regularly.  
  • Caffeine could protect against seizures: It might sound surprising, but some studies of epilepsy and caffeine with animals found that regularly taking caffeine might actually increase the seizure threshold (making it  less likely that seizures will happen). 
  • May depend on the individual: Different people process caffeine in different ways. Some people process it very quickly, while it might take hours in others. This could also affect how it interacts with antiepileptic drugs or your sleep patterns (if caffeine keeps you awake at night, that might also trigger tiredness seizures). 
  • Drug resistant epilepsy: People with drug resistant epilepsy may be more affected by caffeine than people whose seizures are controlled by medication.  

The problem with seizures and caffeine is that people consume caffeine in such different ways. For example, you might like coffee with cream and sugar, while your friend might prefer a caffeinated soda - or even a tea. There are many other chemicals and stimulants in those different drinks which could also contribute to the chances of having a seizure. This makes it hard to pinpoint whether caffeine on its own is a trigger. 

Seizures and other drugs: Learn about epilepsy and alcohol

Coffee and seizure medicine

If you take antiepileptic drugs to control your seizures, it is important to find out whether caffeine might ‘interact’ with your medication. In relatively small doses, caffeine does not seem to have much of an impact on the effectiveness of most seizure medicines. 

However, studies do suggest that caffeine could reduce the effectiveness of topiramate (often known as Topamax). If you do take topiramate and also consume caffeine, it is very important to speak to your doctor about what this might mean for your treatment plan.  

Can you drink coffee when you have epilepsy?

Generally speaking, most people with epilepsy should be OK to drink coffee, tea, soda and other caffeinated drinks in small quantities without any serious risk of increasing the number of seizures they have. But it is always worth speaking with your treatment team about epilepsy and caffeine if you have any concerns. 

If you think there could be a link between your seizures and caffeine, you might find it useful to track your seizures and possible triggers (such as caffeine) to try and work out if there is a pattern. Try using Epsy to start recording this information. 

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