Let’s learn about the diabetes and epilepsy link

  • November 13, 2020
  • 3
In this article

Diabetes is a common condition which affects one in 10 Americans. Many people live with both diabetes and epilepsy. What is the link between the two?

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a very common condition which affects how our bodies turn food into energy. When we eat food, our bodies transform it into sugar and this goes into our blood. Our bodies then release something called insulin which helps to bring that sugar into cells so we can use it for energy (cells are the tiny building blocks of our bodies).

If you have diabetes it means that there is a problem with the way your body uses insulin which stops it from being so effective at getting sugar into your cells. This may mean too much sugar remains in your blood, and that can have consequences for your health.

Is there a link between diabetes and epilepsy?

Research seems to suggest that there is a link between diabetes and epilepsy:

  • Type 1 Diabetes: various studies have shown that people with Type 1 Diabetes appear to be more likely to have epilepsy than the general population
  • Type 2 Diabetes: A study in Taiwan found that people with Type 2 Diabetes have a higher risk of developing epilepsy than people who do not have diabetes

What is the link between diabetes and epilepsy?

Right now scientists are not exactly sure why people with diabetes seem more likely to also have epilepsy. One theory suggests that diabetes can cause certain changes in the brain, including brain damage or lesions. Some types of damage to the brain may make epilepsy more likely to develop.

Epileptic or diabetic seizures?

Seizures cause people to lose control of their bodies. They can make you pass out, shake, see things that are not there, or feel confused. Both epilepsy and diabetes can cause people to have seizures.

Diabetic seizure symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • Body shaking
  • Hallucinations
  • Emotional changes
  • Being unable to speak clearly
  • Hypoglycemic seizures (see below)

Epileptic seizure symptoms include:

  • Twitching and shaking
  • Strange smells or tastes
  • Smacking your lips
  • Making strange noises
  • Falling over and shaking
  • Staring blankly into space

Learn more: What happens in your brain during an epileptic seizure?

Epileptic and diabetic seizures may look similar. So if you have diabetes and have had repeated seizures it is very important to speak to your treatment team about getting tested for epilepsy.

The biggest difference between epileptic seizures and diabetic seizures is that diabetic seizures that are caused by hypoglycemia (having too little sugar in your blood) may make you fall into a coma. It is therefore important to follow your diabetes treatment plan to reduce the risk of this happening.

Hypoglycemic seizures

Hypoglycemia is when someone’s blood sugar levels drop suddenly. It usually causes sweating, headaches, anxiety, confusion and hunger - and may also cause a hypoglycemic seizure. Hypoglycemia can happen for many reasons, but is especially likely to affect people who have diabetes who accidentally take too much insulin. 

Hypoglycemic seizures are normally tonic-clonic seizures. This means hypoglycemic seizure symptoms include:

  • Losing consciousness
  • Losing muscle ‘tone’ (you fall over if you are standing up)
  • Shaking violently and uncontrollably
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Shouting out

Having a hypoglycemic seizure does not necessarily mean the person has epilepsy, because the seizure is ‘provoked’ by their low blood sugar, rather than a problem in the brain.

Diabetes, epilepsy and the ketogenic diet

Generally speaking diabetes and epilepsy are treated in very different ways. Epilepsy is normally treated using anti-epileptic drugs or surgery, while diabetes is usually treated with diet control, exercise, medication and insulin injections.

However, one similar treatment is the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet is a high fat and low carbohydrate diet which minimizes the amount of sugar entering your bloodstream. 

  • The ketogenic diet can help the treatment of epilepsy by changing the chemical balance in the brain and this may reduce the number of seizures you have. 
  • For people with diabetes, this low sugar diet can also help manage blood sugar levels.

If you have epilepsy or diabetes (or both) you should only follow the ketogenic diet with the help of your doctor.

Keep learning on World Diabetes Day

Because of the links between diabetes and epilepsy, it is very important for people to learn about some of the possible links between these two conditions. By getting educated, we can all learn more about the risks and improve our health outcomes.

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