The Sleep-Seizure Link: Secrets for Great Rest and Better Health

by Gail O’Connor Health Writer

If you’re reading this while considering a third cup of coffee, we see you. While the commitments of modern life make it a struggle for any of us to get enough sleep, for those with epilepsy, the problem is even worse. Epilepsy tends to disrupt sleep, and to compound the problem, crummy zzz's or simply not logging enough rest can trigger seizures. For what it’s worth, you’re definitely not alone: Approximately 70% of people with epilepsy experience problems with sleep. But you don’t need to accept a lifetime of tossing and turning. With these secrets, you can finally get the quality time in slumberland you need.

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Know Your Number

People with epilepsy don’t require more sleep than the general population, but not getting enough can aggravate symptoms. How many hours do you really need? Your “magic number” may look different from someone else’s, since sleep needs can be pretty individual. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a minimum of 7 to 8 hours a night for adults. You may require more.

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Check Your Medicine

Many seizure meds have sleepiness and drowsiness as a side effect, and some can disrupt sleep or poke at underlying conditions like obstructive sleep apnea. If the medication you’re taking is making you zonked, be sure to tell your physician about how you’re feeling. “Our goal in treating epilepsy is to optimize your quality of life; that means drawing a balance between controlling the seizures and making sure that you’re awake and interactive,” says Mill Etienne, M.D., associate professor of neurology and medicine at New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY.

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Don’t Wait Until Dark

Practicing good sleep hygiene can lull you faster than watching a Bob Ross marathon (though hey, whatever works, right?). And it doesn’t wait for nightfall—it starts with mindful moves during the day. Regular exercise can help you sleep better, as can breaks outside for exposure to sunlight if you work in a windowless office. Avoid caffeinated drinks from the afternoon onward, and skip alcohol (which can disrupt sleep), too. At night, flick off screens an hour or more before bed, and stick to a consistent wind-down routine. Think: Shower, novel (nothing too juicy!), bed.

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Pregame Tomorrow Before Bed

Maybe one of the best tips for a good night’s rest? Get Stuff Done. That is, knock out tomorrow’s tasks today, or at least plot when you’ll tick them off. “Mapping out the next day before I go to bed helps me fall asleep faster, stay asleep, and manage my seizures,” says Jenna Dalton, 21, of Provo, UT. “I plan what I want to get done and when I'll do it: everything from a class assignment to my outfit.” Tackle any early-morning musts (like lunch-packing and bringing recycling to the curb) the night before—the less crowding your mind, the less to keep you up.

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Be a Stickler About Bedtime

Don’t set yourself up to feel draggy all day: Turn in at the same time every night and wake up at the same time too—yep, even on weekends. You’ll feel your best when you’re not constantly messing with your body’s circadian rhythm. If you need to make a change to your sleep schedule, do it gradually, nudging sleep and wake times by a few minutes’ difference each night.

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Ditch the Nap

Napping sets you up for a frustrating cycle: If you take a snooze in the late afternoon, you won’t be tired at your regular bedtime, says Dr. Etienne. You go to bed late, then can’t roll out of bed in the morning, or if you do, you’re wiped… and need another nap later. One possible exception to the no-nap rule: Parenthood. “A new baby in the house often means less sleep for the caregiver, so it’s important for people with epilepsy to be more vigilant about getting adequate rest,” says Dr. Etienne.

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Avoid the 3 a.m. Stare

You’ve probably been there: You wake up way too early, look at the time, and wait to fall back asleep, until you realize another hour or two has gone by and you’re still staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep, try this instead: Get out of bed, and do something quiet, like reading. Return to bed only when you’re sleepy.

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Have the Right Doc

One of the most important factors in how well you manage sleep, and epilepsy, is your relationship with your doctor. Ask yourself: Are you comfortable with your neurologist? Do they listen to your concerns and give you care specific to your situation? “It’s important that you see a neurologist who has a holistic approach. That way he or she does not just address epilepsy during each of your visits,” says Dr. Etienne. You’re more than your condition!

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Ask Before Taking Sleep Aids

Maybe you’ve tried everything else and still can’t sleep, or you’re going through a super stressful time like a breakup or job loss. You might want to ask your doctor about sleeping aids like melatonin or diphenhydramine. You can use sleeping pills only for a short while (two to three weeks) and under your doc’s supervision. Warning: Some sleeping pills, particularly benzodiazepines, can actually trigger seizures in some. Bottom line: Consult your doctor before taking anything, even over the counter.

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Take Your Medication

One of the biggest issues doctors see with any condition—not just epilepsy—is medication compliance. You’ve probably heard of SUDEP (sudden unexplained death in epilepsy); it’s rare, and occurs mostly at night. One way to prevent SUDEP is to make sure you’re taking your seizure medication consistently and at the right dose. If you have seizures at night, you can also consider talking to your doctor about whether a seizure-alert monitor would be beneficial.

Gail O’Connor
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Gail O’Connor