How Alcohol Affects Your Seizure Risk

“There’s this magic level that causes problems for every individual.”

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If you have epilepsy, your doctor has probably already told you that alcohol is a trigger for seizures, and they may have cautioned you about safe drinking.

“It can interfere with actually achieving the right amount of [sleep] and the deeper stages of sleep, [which] predisposes and makes it easy … for that person to potentially have a seizure then the next day,” says Padmaja Kandula, MD, neurologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Alcohol has many effects on the brain, acting on various receptors. When drinking is heavy, the central nervous system has to learn to adapt to the presence of alcohol, resulting in a higher tolerance level. This means your brain is learning to operate with—and depend on—the presence of alcohol.

A few hours after drinking stops and alcohol leaves the system, alcohol withdrawal can occur. This is when a seizure may happen. This could occur if someone with alcohol use disorder abruptly tries to quit drinking, or simply in the morning after binge-drinking.

FYI, experts define binge-drinking as more than five drinks for men and four drinks for women in a two-hour period.

Understanding Your Seizure Risk

It’s not just those with epilepsy who need to be aware of their alcohol intake. “Alcohol can definitely cause seizures in people who don’t have epilepsy,” says Dr. Kandula. “There’s a limit or threshold. There’s this magic level that causes problems for every individual.”

Because of the way alcohol affects the brain, Dr. Kandula particularly points to weekends as a risky time for triggering seizures. “People drink excessive amounts and then don’t drink anything for the next three or four days. That can cause a withdrawal feeling for the brain,” she says.

Someone with epilepsy may require specific medical treatments to control seizures, but this isn’t usually the case for non-epileptic seizures caused by alcohol.

“The good news is that you don’t need to be on seizure medication,” says Dr. Kandula. “What you need to do is not binge-drink alcohol anymore.”