Are you familiar with the most common epilepsy triggers? Most people aren’t, unless they have a close friend or family member with epilepsy.
November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month, and an important opportunity to raise awareness about a life-altering illness many people don’t know enough about. According to reports, approximately 3.4 million people are affected by epilepsy. This number includes approximately 3 million adults, and over 470,000 children. Despite these high numbers, the disease remains a relatively misunderstood and overlooked condition throughout the world.
Raising awareness for epilepsy is the key to creating a seizure-safe environment for people with health conditions outside of their control. It also helps to cultivate acceptance and understanding for those who suffer from epilepsy. These individuals suffer from a range of challenges, including memory and thinking issues, sudden mood changes and sleep disturbances.
The unpredictability of epilepsy can leave those with the condition feeling unable to control their condition, and make it harder for employers, families, and friends to keep affected individuals safe.
However, by identifying possible epilepsy triggers, both people suffering from epilepsy, and those who interact with them can work together to reduce risks.
Since an epileptic seizure can on occasion cause death, raising awareness about epilepsy and epilepsy triggers is extremely important.
The Most Common Epilepsy Triggers
Triggers are specific situations, environments, or substances which can increase the risk of an epileptic seizure taking place, alongside other common symptoms. Around 9 in 10 people affected by epilepsy say they’re aware of at least one trigger which influences their life.
While some epilepsy triggers are relatively well-known (such as flashing lights), there is less awareness about others.
Here are some of the most common epilepsy triggers you should be aware of:
Perhaps the most common cause of an epilepsy incident is a failure to take the right medication according to the appropriate intervals. Anti-epileptic medications need to be taken on a daily basis, often at a consistent time in order to have the right effect. Skipping a dose could lead to “breakthrough seizures”, which often happen without warning.
While missing a single dose of most medications isn’t usually a cause for panic, it can be enough to trigger a seizure in an epileptic individual. If you miss a dose of your medication, it’s usually a good idea to take it as soon as you remember, unless it’s almost time for your next dose.
2. Poor Sleep Habits
The brain relies on sleep to function at its full capacity. If you’re not sleeping well enough, this could worsen your risk of epileptic fits and symptoms. Exhaustion has been named one of the most common epilepsy triggers for most people. Unfortunately, it’s also relatively common, as many people with epilepsy can have trouble sleeping.
Sleep deprivation aggravates triggers by damaging some of the electrical and hormonal activity in the brain. With this in mind, people with epilepsy should aim to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Since sleep apnea can also be more common among epileptics, it’s also important to seek medical attention if you’re concerned you have a sleep disorder.
Alcohol has a direct impact on the way our brains work, and how our mind processes electrical signals. While moderate drinking might not lead to an increase in epileptic fits, binge drinking or excessive drinking can disrupt brain waves, and interact negatively with anti-epileptic drugs. In some cases, binge drinking can even trigger seizures in those not diagnosed with epilepsy.
Alcohol-related seizures for epileptics often happen most commonly during “withdrawal” when alcohol is leaving the system. Some seizure medications can also lower a person’s tolerance for alcohol, which can prompt additional symptoms, such as dizziness and vomiting.
Stress is something we all experience from time to time. While in some cases it can be beneficial, large doses can have a significant negative impact on both the body and brain. Stress can lead to a higher risk of conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. For epileptic individuals, it can also be a common trigger for seizures.
Scientists aren’t fully sure why high levels of stress influence the brain in a negative way for epileptic patients. However, some believe a sense of “panic” can lead to hyperventilation, which might lead to abnormal brain activity. Stress can also disrupt sleeping patterns, which further increases your risk of seizures as a result of tiredness or exhaustion.
If you’re feeling regularly stressed, consider speaking to your doctor about ways to manage your mood. You could also try meditation, yoga, and breathing techniques to keep yourself calm.
5. Hormonal Changes
According to the Epilepsy foundation, around half of the women of childbearing age who suffer from epilepsy notice an increase in symptoms and seizures during their period. This is considered to be a result of hormonal changes happening within the body.
The brain has various nerves which are directly affected by the main sex hormones in females, such as progesterone and estrogen. Higher doses of estrogen can worsen or cause seizures, particularly when progesterone levels are low. This is why many doctors recommend specific contraceptive pills to epileptic women, to assist in managing their symptoms.
Hormonal changes caused by the menopause, pregnancy, and other conditions may also have an effect on epilepsy symptoms, so it’s important to get guidance from a doctor on how to stay safe.
Caffeine keeps us awake and alert by stimulating the production of certain hormones in the brain. A cup of coffee, or an energy drink can stimulate the brain, which leads to unusual changes in electrical activity. This can increase your risk of an epileptic fit.
Notably, caffeine can be present in a large number of substances, including various types of tea, chocolate, and even cold and flu medication. For people with a lower seizure threshold, it’s often important to keep caffeine intake to a minimum. This will be particularly important if you’re sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
You can find out how your body responds to caffeine in your CircleDNA report.
Hydration is important for good health. It ensures your body can continue to work as normal, and your blood can circulate freely throughout the body. When you’re dehydrated, this has an impact on the functioning of all of your essential organs and muscles, including the brain.
Dehydration causes the brain to retract, which can lead to dangerous changes in the electrical signals processed by your cells. It’s important for those with epilepsy to ensure they keep their fluid levels topped up at all times. This is particularly important when travelling, exercising, or dealing with high temperatures during the summer.
8. Low Blood Sugar
In a fast-paced world, many of us have been tempted to skip a meal from time to time. However, a lack of blood sugar can have a dangerous effect for epileptic individuals. Sudden lowering of the blood sugar in your body can actually cause a tonic-clonic seizure in anyone, even if you haven’t been diagnosed with epilepsy.
Reports have shown hyperglycemia increases your risk of seizures, and makes other symptoms more common, such as lack of concentration or awareness. If you’re trying to lose weight by reducing your calorie intake, it’s important to ensure you maintain a consistent blood sugar level.
Just as skipping meals can increase your chances of an epileptic seizure in some cases, you can also be at higher risk if you consume certain foods or substances. Caffeine and alcohol are two common culprits of a higher seizure risk, but some people also have a lower seizure threshold after eating sugary foods, or consuming products with high levels of salt.
Foods which have an impact on your body’s metabolism, either slowing it down or speeding it up rapidly can influence a change in hormones. This hormonal alteration can increase your risk of a seizure. Make sure you keep a close eye on which foods seem to increase your symptoms, and consider looking for alternative meal options.
10. Flashing Lights
Although flashing and flickering lights are commonly regarded as the most well-known epileptic trigger, only around 3% of people with epilepsy are also photosensitive. For these individuals, flashing lights and sudden changes in brightness can cause changes in the electrical signals of the brain which trigger seizures.
If you are photosensitive and are exposed to flickering lights, covering one of your eyes with your hand before you turn away from the light source can be an effective way to reduce the risk of a seizure, by interrupting certain processes in the brain.
Understanding Epilepsy Triggers
Epilepsy triggers can come in a range of different forms, and may influence people in unique ways. While some people are sensitive to a multitude of triggers, others find they don’t have any specific triggers at all. Getting to know your body and your own unique sensitivities could make it easier for you to manage your condition safely.
Is Epilepsy Genetic?
Like many health conditions and illnesses, epilepsy is often a condition that runs in families and can be genetic. Understand your own genetic health risks by taking a CircleDNA at-home DNA test and reading about your genetic risk factors for various conditions, ranging from skin conditions and injury risk, to cancers and diseases.
- NCBI: National and State Estimates of the Numbers of Adults and Children with Active Epilepsy – United States, 2015
- Science Direct: Perceived trigger factors of seizures in persons with epilepsy
- SHAMRI: Towards a better understanding of living with epilepsy: The lived experience of seizures
- Epilepsy.com: Menstruation as a seizure trigger
- NCBI: Hyperglycemia Lowers Seizure Threshold
- Epilepsy.com: Photosensitivity and seizures
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