It is widely thought that sleep deprivation can trigger seizures and that a lack of sleep can increase the intensity and length of seizures. Some forms of epilepsy are especially prone to sleep problems, and in some cases the very medication you are taking for your seizures may be the cause.

Some people may even have all of their seizures while sleeping, when falling asleep or waking up.  So why does sleep, or a lack of it, have such an impact?

Dr. Rao, who has witnessed college students having seizures due to all-night cramming sessions, agrees that a lack of sleep can be a trigger for seizures. “No one knows the exact reason behind this,” says Dr. Rao, “but sleep is restorative. We spend one-third of our lives sleeping, so we know it’s important.”

Research has confirmed that a lack of sleep impacts how the brain functions. At UCLA and Tel Aviv University, they studied 12 people with epilepsy, using electrode implants to register the origin of their seizures. ”We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity,”  says lead study author Dr Yuval Nir.

He states that brain cells became “sluggish” and neural communication was negatively affected.  “Unlike the usual rapid reaction,” he says, “the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”

So, What Is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a hormone that is produced naturally in your brain. It’s also available in a synthetic form as a supplement. This is commonly used as an alternative medicine for a variety of issues, like insomnia and anxiety.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), melatonin helps regulate your internal body clock, telling your body when it’s time to fall asleep and when it’s time to wake up. It is produced mostly at night or whenever you’re in a dark environment.

Less of the hormone is produced in brightly lit environments or during the day. So, if you suffer from sleep problems, melatonin supplements can help bring back an appropriate sleep cycle.

Are There Side Effects?

Melatonin supplements can cause negative side effects, including mild anxiety, irritability, and temporary feelings of depression.

Melatonin and Epilepsy

Less commonly, melatonin is used as an alternative treatment for epilepsy. A study at Columbia University College in New York, revealed that some people with epilepsy were found to have low levels of melatonin and that these levels increase dramatically after a seizure. This has led the researchers to suggest that the hormone may play a role in controlling seizures.

In this study, the levels of melatonin in the saliva of 11 people with epilepsy and 6 people without epilepsy were studied. What was discovered?

Firstly, the melatonin levels of people with epilepsy were low – about half the level of those without epilepsy.  Secondly, melatonin levels in people with epilepsy peaked 3 hours earlier than the peak of those without the condition.

However, following a seizure, melatonin levels tripled to more than 60% more than the levels of those without epilepsy. This suggests that the taking of melatonin supplements may help control seizures and regulate sleep, in people with epilepsy.

It is important to note though, that more research is needed. It is far too early to recommend melatonin to all people with epilepsy. In fact, not all studies support the use of melatonin. One study found that people who took the hormone actually had more seizures, another reason to conclude that further study is needed to test melatonin as a treatment for epileptic seizures.

Talk to Your Doctor

We always recommend talking to your doctor before taking a supplement or changing medication. Giving your child or yourself any dose of melatonin, or mixing melatonin with other epilepsy medications, can be dangerous. Melatonin supplements are neither regulated nor approved by the FDA for treating epilepsy or sleep difficulties. Because of this, doctors often recommend that you give your child the lowest dose possible. Most children only need 0.5 to 3 milligrams. In addition to melatonin, establishing a bedtime routine can also help treat sleep problems caused by epilepsy.