Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Can Sleep Disturbance Cause Seizures?

Recent studies have linked sleep apnea and chronic headaches. Since migraines and seizures have similarities, can obstructive sleep apnea cause seizures?

Sleep is absolutely vital to the health of your brain.  During sleep, while our conscious mind may not be alert, this does not mean that our brain is inactive during this time. Far from it.

But sleep is not important because it allows your brain to relax, but rather because processing and healing occurs during sleep that we do not yet fully understand.  It is clear that lack of sleep is a strong trigger for those suffering from migraines and seizures.  For this reason, getting a good night’s sleep is essential for good brain health.

This task is not always as easy as it sounds for several reasons:

  1. In today’s stressed out world, chronic stress throws off normal cortisol rhythms, leading to higher cortisol levels at night, making sleep nearly impossible.
  2. Sleep apnea, both obstructive and central, make restorative sleep impossible.
  3. Our use of medications to help us sleep disrupts normal sleep patterns, potentially being linked to over half of a MILLION deaths per year.

As mentioned earlier, sleep problems have already been linked to chronic headaches and this particular study follows along these same lines as it relates to seizures.  Researchers looked at an epilepsy center and evaluated those patients with seizures for the presence of obstructive sleep apnea and found:

  1. Patients with epilepsy had a much higher incidence of OSA compared to the general population (15.2% vs. 4.41%)
  2. If patient’s seizures were well controlled, then older men with a higher seizure frequency were even more likely to suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.
  3. In those who did not have good seizure control (medically refractory), those with diabetes and snoring had a higher risk of obstructive sleep apnea.
  4. Treatment of obstructive sleep apnea with a CPAP machine in refractory epilepsy patients improved their seizure control.

Clearly there is a link between sleep problems and seizure control.  I would not be surprised at all if the hormone melatonin plays a pivotal role here.  Numerous studies over the years have linked melatonin with protecting the brain and helping with seizure control.  Sleep disturbances can be caused by a problem with melatonin production (or the timing of melatonin production) and, conversely, sleep problems can lead to altered production of melatonin in the brain.

The bottom line is that sleep is critical for normal brain health.  Whether you suffer from chronic headaches or uncontrolled seizures, sleeping has to be brought under control naturally.

The long term solution to sleep problems is stress management and exercise. Few things will restore a healthy sleep pattern as well as these two. In the short term, natural compounds like valerian root may be effective on an individual basis to calm the brain enough to allow sleep to occur naturally.

Melatonin, the hormone mentioned earlier, may also help to restore normal sleep patterns. Typical starting dosages are .5 mg an hour or so before the desired bedtime.

If you have had sleep disturbances in the past, how did you manage them?

James Bogash

For more than a decade, Dr. Bogash has stayed current with the medical literature as it relates to physiology, disease prevention and disease management. He uses his knowledge to educate patients, the community and cyberspace on the best way to avoid and / or manage chronic diseases using lifestyle and targeted supplementation.