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What Triggers Epilepsy: Causes and Risk Factors

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Epilepsy, a neurological condition marked by the tendency to have seizures, affects each person differently. Perhaps you’ve noticed certain patterns or suspect that specific situations seem to bring on a seizure. These are what we call “triggers” — factors that can increase the likelihood of experiencing an epileptic episode. Identifying your unique triggers is not only empowering; it’s a crucial part of managing your epilepsy effectively.

Common Triggers of Epileptic Seizures

Epileptic seizures can feel unpredictable, but often, they’re not without warning or pattern. Understanding the common triggers can provide a sense of control and an opportunity for prevention.

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Stress and Anxiety

Emotional stress is a widely recognized trigger for seizures. The body’s response to stress, often involving the “fight or flight” hormones, can induce changes in the brain that make a seizure more likely.

Anxiety, similarly, can lead to hyperarousal of the nervous system, which may decrease the seizure threshold.

Techniques such as mindfulness, therapy, and, in some cases, medication can help manage stress and anxiety, potentially reducing the frequency of seizures.

Flashing Lights and Visual Patterns

Photosensitive epilepsy is a condition where seizures are triggered by flashing or flickering lights, bold contrasting visual patterns, or even specific wavelengths of light. This type of seizure is more common in children and adolescents and tends to become less frequent with age.

If you have photosensitive epilepsy, you might benefit from avoiding exposure to potential triggers like strobe lights, video games, or television screens with fast-moving images. Special glasses that filter out specific spectrums can also protect you from triggers.

Lack of Sleep

Sleep deprivation is a significant seizure trigger. Disruptions in standard sleep patterns can affect the electrical balance in the brain and make it more susceptible to seizures.

Establishing a regular sleep routine and ensuring adequate sleep can help manage epilepsy.

Environmental Factors

Your environment can play a crucial role in seizure management. Recognizing and adapting to environmental factors is vital.

Weather and Temperature

Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, can influence seizure occurrence. Overheating, for instance, may lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which can provoke seizures.

Sudden changes in weather, such as barometric pressure shifts, are sometimes reported by patients as seizure precipitants, although scientific evidence is limited.

Altitude and Air Quality

High altitudes can lead to decreased oxygen saturation in the blood, which might trigger seizures in susceptible people. Preventive measures may include gradual acclimatization to higher altitudes.

Poor air quality, with high levels of pollutants, can affect overall health and potentially contribute to the frequency of seizures. Monitor air quality reports and limit exposure on days when pollution levels are high.

Dietary and Lifestyle Influences

Your diet and lifestyle choices have a significant impact, affecting not just overall health but also the frequency and severity of seizures.

Alcohol and Caffeine

Alcohol can have a complex effect on epilepsy. While moderate consumption might not always lead to seizures, binge drinking and withdrawal from alcohol can significantly increase the risk.

The stimulant effects of caffeine found in coffee, tea, and some sodas may provoke seizures by reducing the seizure threshold, particularly when consumed in large amounts.

Specific Foods and Hydration

Nutritional deficiencies or particular food allergies might act as a trigger for you. Identifying and avoiding these foods can be an effective strategy.

Proper hydration is crucial for everyone, but it can be particularly significant for anyone with epilepsy. Dehydration may lower the seizure threshold, making seizures more likely.

The ketogenic diet, high in fats and low in carbohydrates, has been shown in various studies to reduce seizure frequency in some people with epilepsy.

Here are some tips to manage your lifestyle:

  • Maintain a balanced diet, possibly under the guidance of a nutritionist who has experience with epilepsy.
  • Monitor the effects of caffeine and alcohol intake closely.
  • Ensure regular, sufficient hydration throughout the day.
  • Consider dietary approaches like the ketogenic diet in consultation with health care providers.

Medical Factors

The intersection of epilepsy with other medical elements can sometimes be a delicate balance, with certain medications and health conditions potentially acting as triggers for seizures.

Medications and Missed Doses

Certain medications, especially those not specifically for epilepsy, can lower the seizure threshold and provoke episodes. It’s essential to review all medications with a health care provider to understand their potential impact.

Take your antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) regularly. Missed doses can lead to breakthrough seizures even if the epilepsy is typically well-controlled.

Illness and Physical Health

Fevers and systemic infections can increase the risk of seizures, especially in children. This is often known as febrile seizures.

Chronic illnesses, especially those that affect metabolic or neurological functions, may also exacerbate seizure activity.

Hormonal changes, such as those occurring during menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or menopause, can influence seizure patterns in some women.

Here are some tips to mitigate the risks:

  • Maintain a strict medication schedule and use tools like pill organizers or alarms as reminders to take medication.
  • Proactively manage overall health and promptly address illnesses or infections.
  • Have regular check-ups with health care providers to manage not just epilepsy but also overall health, ensuring that any chronic conditions are well-controlled.
  • Women with epilepsy should discuss with their health care providers how hormonal fluctuations might affect their condition and explore management strategies.

Managing and Avoiding Triggers

Living with epilepsy involves learning to navigate a path that minimizes the risk of seizures. This process includes recognizing and managing potential triggers. Here are some strategies:

  • Identify personal triggers: Keeping a seizure diary can help track occurrences and identify patterns or specific triggers.
  • Stress reduction: Techniques like mindfulness, yoga, and other relaxation exercises can help manage stress levels.
  • Sleep hygiene: Establishing a regular sleep schedule and creating a restful environment can improve sleep quality and reduce the risk of sleep deprivation-induced seizures.
  • Safe environment: For people with photosensitivity, using devices with screens that minimize glare and sunglasses in bright environments can be helpful.
  • Dietary management: Consuming a balanced diet, staying hydrated, and possibly exploring the ketogenic diet under medical supervision can support overall health and seizure management.
  • Alcohol and caffeine: Limit or avoid these substances as they can lower the seizure threshold for some
  • Medication compliance: Taking prescribed medications on time and discussing any side effects with a health care provider can prevent seizures due to missed doses.
  • Regular check-ups: Regular medical check-ups can help manage not just epilepsy but also any other health conditions that could act as triggers.
  • Education and communication: Learning as much as possible about epilepsy and communicating with friends, family, and employers about the condition can create a supportive network and help others understand how to assist during a seizure.

Collaborate closely with your health care providers, maintain a diligent record of your seizures and potential triggers, and don’t underestimate the influence of lifestyle adjustments.

You are the expert of your own experience. Pinpointing your triggers is a personal journey. While this may not mean a life free from epilepsy, it does promise a pathway to better management, which can minimize the impact of epilepsy on your daily life.

Getty image by draganab

Originally published: November 7, 2023
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