With National Epilepsy Awareness Month upon us, we decided to unpack a few of the major triggers for the condition, along with what it entails. Considering it’s the fourth most common brain disorder, it’s time to shine a light on this debilitating disease and dispel a few enduring myths.
In Australia alone, around 250, 000 people are diagnosed with epilepsy, so it’s likely you know someone with the condition – or perhaps you yourself are living with it. 1 in 3 people won’t stop experiencing seizures after starting medication, while the cause for the onset of epilepsy remains unknown for half of all people with the condition. Around the globe, a whopping 65 million people have epilepsy at any one time – but despite its frequency, this disease is commonly misunderstood, with many believing that seizures are just convulsions – but there’s no one way to experience epilepsy. Let’s dive into what it actually is and what a seizure can entail.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder involving seizures, which are a result of disrupted electrical activity in the brain.
While some people will experience the disorder throughout their lives, for others it won’t be lifelong – some conditions are age-related or lifestyle-related. But even those who are living long-term with symptoms can still live a full life. This disorder can affect people very differently, not everyone falls down and begins shaking – in fact, some people may not even be aware they have epilepsy due to the presentation of their symptoms! Take a look at some of the varying effects seizures can cause:
- Blank staring
- Faster or slower heart rate
- Changes to breathing
- Feelings of anxiety and dread
- Changes to senses like hearing, sight and taste
- Repetitive or movements
Let’s take a look at some of the major triggers for these seizures.
One of the biggest reasons for those who’ve gotten their seizures under control to experience a breakthrough episode comes down to missing their medication. In fact, missing medication can cause seizures to be more severe and long-lasting, the latter of which is known as epilepticus – these are long seizures which can be deadly if not stopped. While 1 or 2 missed doses is likely not cause for alarm, it’s best to aim for consistency.
If you’re not getting quality, adequate sleep, you could increase your risk for a seizure. Staying on top of sleep hygiene is essential for everyone, but for those with epilepsy, it’s even more integral. This is because, during the sleep cycle, there are a number of changes to your brain’s hormones and electrical activity – and these are known triggers for seizures. This is why many people experience seizures during sleep, and it’s also why those who are sleep deprived have a higher risk for an episode. The current recommendation is between 7 and 9 hours a night – but remember, it’s not just about length, but quality too. The sleep should be undisturbed and you should be in a cool, dark environment.
Chronic stress is a trigger for a lot of health issues – from mental health conditions to migraines and even high blood pressure. One thing’s for sure – ongoing stress is not good for us! But it’s especially bad for those with epilepsy. It can cause physical strain on the body, from the headaches that result to the poor sleep and physical exhaustion, it leaves us a little worse for wear. While the link between stress and seizures hasn’t been confirmed just yet, studies have shown that some people begin to panic and hyperventilate when stressed, which can promote changes in brain electrical activity, potentially leading to a seizure.
While a glass of red every now and again likely won’t cause a seizure, drinking heavily or binge-drinking is known to be a trigger. In fact, as little as 3 drinks could trigger an episode in some people. It’s also worth noting that some seizure medications can increase your alcohol intolerance, so it’s important to closely monitor your drinking behaviours. Remember, you might not be in the safe zone if you’re drinking and not experiencing a seizure – many people will have an episode anywhere between 6 and 72 hours after their last drink.
Many people with epilepsy have a higher number of seizures during or around their period, and it’s believed to be as a result of the hormonal changes taking place. Sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone are known to affect the brain’s nerves, and that’s why major changes to these hormones can result in a seizure. Interestingly, it’s believed that progesterone may lower your risk for a seizure, which is another reason why estrogen dominance can cause an array of health problems.
Many people experience seizures as a result of low blood sugars, while others may experience them as a result of stimulant foods like coffee, chocolate and sugar. Abnormal levels of salt or sugar in the blood are especially common triggers, so it’s important to keep the added sugars and sugar-spiking foods to a minimum. Foods that trigger allergic reactions are also possible triggers, while nutrient deficiencies like vitamin B6 are also potential catalysts for a seizure.
Here are a few other triggers:
- Hot weather
- Hot baths
- Sudden temperature changes
- Excess salt
- The “strobe effect” and flashing lights – these may be some of the most well-known seizure triggers, but interestingly they only affect around 3% of those with epilepsy!
Helping someone with a convulsive seizure
If someone is having convulsions, here are a few steps to take to ensure their safety:
- Stay with the person
- Keep track of the time
- Protect the person from any surrounding dangers
- Keep the person’s head protected
- Put them into the recovery position after the seizure stops: Bend the person’s knee at a right angle then roll them onto their side by pulling that bent knee towards you. Place their arm in a bent position under their head, and extend their other arm out to prevent them rolling.
- Keep an eye on the person’s breathing
- Call an ambulance: Call 000 (if you're in Australia) if there’s any injury or breathing difficulties, or if the seizure lasted more than 5 minutes.
- Comfort and reassure the person
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