Sleep and epilepsy

25th June 2018

There is a link between epilepsy and sleep. In fact, some people only have seizures whilst asleep which can cause issues with the natural sleep cycle. Seizures whilst awake can also affect sleeping patterns and lead to a person with epilepsy being tired and missing out on important stages of sleep that helps the body to re-energise and rest.

If you have seizures during your sleep it’s extremely important that you take professional advice to minimise any risk.

There are two main types of sleep that the body cycles through in four stages.

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep

Non REM sleep has three stages:

Stage 1 – This is the first stage of sleep when you become drowsy and your muscles start to relax. During this time you will be easy to wake as you’re somewhere between sleep and consciousness.

Stage 2 – This is a light sleep. You are still easily woken, but your eye movement has stopped, your heart rate will begin to slow and your body cool.

Stage 3 – This is a deep sleep. You should be difficult to wake during this stage as your brain has relaxed. During this stage, the body starts to re-energise as it becomes fully relaxed.

REM sleep

REM sleep occurs intermittently through the course of a sleep, often between 3 to 5 times a night on 70 – 90-minute cycles. This stage of sleep is associated with processing the day before, your emotions and your memories. REM sleep is often when dreams occur as the brain begins to process information. REM sleep is important for relieving stress and emotional health.

How can epilepsy affect sleep?

There are many types of epilepsy and seizures, some are more commonly linked with sleep. Focal seizures, for example, commonly occur during sleep. If a seizure occurs whilst asleep it will often affect the sleep pattern and lead to the person feeling tired the next day. The effects are most severe when REM sleep is interrupted as the cycles can be reduced in frequency, or in some cases stop altogether.

Sleep is incredibly important for many health aspects, which can lead to different problems that are caused by lack of sleep, this is not a side effect of epilepsy. Should you miss out on sleep due to a seizure, it’s advisable that you try and catch up during the days that follow to ensure you get enough REM sleep.

What can be done about it?

There is very little that can be done to prevent seizures from affecting sleep unless your seizures are under control through medication or other treatments. If your seizures are not controlled it’s extremely important to have a consultation with your epilepsy specialist to discuss your medication. It’s also important to minimise the risk of SUDEP.

National Epilepsy Training provides a medication review service that might be able to help identify alternative treatments.

Epilepsy medications and sleep

Some epilepsy medications themselves have side effects that can affect sleep. Ethosuximide, for example, is associated with sleep disturbances and nightmares. Other medications that can also affect sleep include Gabapentin, Lamotrigine, Levetiracetam, Phenytoin and Rufinamide, which all list insomnia as a possible side effect. It’s possible that it’s the medication itself that’s affecting your sleep pattern, not seizures.

It’s also worth noting there are medications that can help with your sleep pattern, speak to your epilepsy specialist about the possibility of having one prescribed.

Tips for regular sleep

Although you can’t fully prevent sleep disturbances due to seizures without being fully controlled by medication, these tips might help you to get a better nights sleep:

  • Avoid blue light a couple of hours before bed – phones, TV, computer screens etc.
  • Create a peaceful environment that’s a comfortable temperature, dark and quiet.
  • Try relaxation exercises before going to bed.
  • Read a book before going to sleep instead of watching TV.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable and supportive.

National Epilepsy Training can help

Our experts can help to assess your epilepsy and make suggestions that could help you enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep. For more information call us on 01706 373075 or email