Getting Better Sleep With Epilepsy
Last updated: April 2023
I would argue that getting plenty of sleep is perhaps the single greatest of all things you can do to control your epilepsy. My greatest improvement in the reduction of seizures has come since I put myself on a regimented and routine sleep schedule.
Not just sleep, but GOOD sleep!
When your body gets into a routine, it’s easier to accomplish the 4th level of deep sleep. This is called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and it is essential to cognitive functions like memory and learning. The REM stages make up about 25% of sleep in adults. So our sleep patterns and our brain health are closely related.1
That is why doctors tell you to get good sleep regardless of whether you are epileptic.
Meditating as a sleep aid with epilepsy
About 30 years ago I was a test subject in a seizure control technique called progressive relaxation. It's commonly found now as a meditation practice under the name Project UPLIFT. Researchers were experimenting with the idea that by routinely practicing it, there could be a reduction of seizures.2
While lying down with my eyes closed, a narrator (on tape) talked me throw a 12-minute drill of tightening, holding, then relaxing each of the muscle groups in my body in rhythm with my breathing. Soft, relaxing music was in the background.
Once people become experienced, they can do it on their own without a narrator, even while sitting upright in a chair when daytime tension might be reaching triggering levels. I found that it is a good thing to do nowadays when I'm drowsy but can't sleep.
Getting to sleep
Experts discourage you from watching TV in bed, but I beg to differ with them partially. I used to live right outside Chicago's airport and near a rickety el-train that rattled by my apartment every 10 minutes. I quickly got used to it, but couldn't stand sleeping in silence! The way I used TV to get to sleep is to keep down the level of brightness and to only use a TV with an automatic turn-off.
Ideally, it would be an episode I'd watched before and wouldn't get too enthralled to sleep. I closed my eyes during commercials and thought of other things until the program resumed. Believe it or not, I did that with Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners." Many times I slept through his outbursts, "One of these days, Alice, one of these days... POW! RIGHT IN THE KISSER!"
My tips for better sleep with epilepsy
I learned the hard way that having a regular daily schedule works wonders for my seizure control. That means not staying out however late I want to, nor sleeping in as late either.
Avoiding naps is a big part of it. Think about it for a moment. If you're like me and take a 3-hour nap in the afternoon, that delays me falling asleep 3 hours after I would hope to be asleep. Keeping a routine schedule also means that my medications were taken at a steady rate that was preferable to my epileptologist's design.
Speaking of which, many people can't function without a cup of coffee. I routinely have a single cup of coffee. I can't drink it before my morning medication has been ingested, or I become dizzy. Also, I've learned that I have to drink it no later than 2:00 p.m. or it will keep me awake at bedtime. Soft drinks affect many people the same.
Reading before bed
While I mention the importance of keeping a routine schedule, it really takes about 1 hour for the tension in my mind and muscles to get me ready to sleep. It's a ritual for me to spend my last waking hour reading in bed.
Better still, I have a Kindle tablet for e-books. I read it with all other lights out in the bedroom, and my Kindle automatically turns itself off if a page hasn't been turned for longer than 10 minutes. It's durable, so I don't have to worry about letting go of it in bed.
Oftentimes, my bedtime dosage will start to kick in while reading, making it hard to focus my eyes. That's when I can put it on my nightstand and am confident I'll be to sleep in just a minute.
Speaking of medications, the time when I take my medications is very important. NEVER experiment with when or how big of doses you take without talking to your neurologist.
Some medications are meant to be more effective for you when you are taking them with another given medication. My doctor has helped me plan my doses so that I can take my heaviest ones at bedtime so that I'm knocked out in minutes!
I am also a big fan of regular exercise. I walk my dog at the same hours, twice a day, a mile at a time, and every other day I spend an hour on a stationary bike machine. An elliptical machine is great, too. The point is that those exercises purge my muscles of the stressful tension they've accumulated.
Whether your exercise period is 6 or 15 hours before bed, each workout gets rid of some stress. But anytime I do it after supper time, the build-up of adrenaline makes it harder for me to sleep.
Slip into a better snooze – it's important!
After all this, it's still possible that my wife"s "sawing logs" too loudly or I have to take out my dog in the middle of the night. I can feel a little drowsier with a glass of milk, rice cake, or banana. I don't eat anything with sugar, or the entire get-to-sleep process must start all over again.
And when I am at my worst, I imagine running my newspaper delivery route that I did every day as a teenager. I had 150 customers, and imagine handing each one their paper. Usually, I don't get beyond the first 30 homes before I'm on my way to "dreamland"!
Is increased screen time a seizure trigger for you?