EPILEPSY AND HORMONAL EFFECTS
Does epilepsy affect hormones?
Yes, epilepsy is associated with hormonal changes. For instance, experts estimate that approximately 40 percent of men with epilepsy (MWE) have low levels of testosterone, the hormone that stimulates the development of male sex organs, sexual traits and sperm. Both epilepsy itself and the antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) used to control seizures may be responsible for these hormonal changes.
How epilepsy induces hormonal changes:
- Persistent seizures in adults may be associated with hormonal and neurological changes that contribute to sexual dysfunction.
- Seizures can alter the release of hypothalamic and pituitary hormones.
- Temporal lobe epilepsy, in particular, is known to have adverse effects on testicular endocrine function.
How AEDs cause hormonal changes:
- Studies show that AEDs directly affect brain regions that mediate sexuality.
- AEDs may cause sexual dysfunction by inducing secondary effects on reproductive hormones.
- Some AEDs change the concentrations of sex steroid hormones.
Do all AEDs have the same effect on hormones?
No. Some, but not all, AEDs have been linked to adverse hormonal effects.
- Research suggests that the AEDs phenytoin, carbamazepine and phenobarbital adversely affect hormone levels by reducing the level of free testosterone which, in turn, reduces sexual desire.
- Some good news regarding AEDs and hormonal effects does exist: Studies show that the AED lamotrigine may not have a negative impact on sexual function. In fact, in one study, lamotrigine was shown to have a favorable effect on sexual disorders in MWE who had partial seizures and were taking other AEDs.
What is the impact of hormonal changes?
Reduced testosterone, one hormonal effect frequently seen in MWE, can adversely affect one or more of the following: energy, mood, drive, sexual function, bone density and seizure control.
A large percentage of MWE have been found to have low levels of bioavailable testosterone (BAT), the portion of total testosterone available for use. Abnormally low BAT levels have been tied to sexual dysfunction.
Endocrine specialists can help patients sort out the complex interactions between hormones, seizures and AEDs.
Sometimes identifying hormonal influences on seizure patterns may lead to a better understanding of treatment options for seizure control.
Although it is still considered experimental and must be monitored very closely, treatment with testosterone supplements have been shown to improve low testosterone levels in MWE.
SEXUALITY AND ANTIEPILEPTIC DRUGS (AEDS)
What effect do AEDs have on sexuality?
The use of AEDs may result in one or more of the following adverse impacts on sexuality:
- Decreased libido: Some AEDs cause elevations in hormones that suppress sexual arousal and behavior.
- Sperm abnormalities: Some AEDs are associated with sperm abnormalities, including low semen volume, low sperm count and abnormal sperm motility. The following AEDs have been linked to sperm abnormalities: carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine and valproate.
- Reduced testicular volume: Some AEDs have been linked to reduced testicular volume
- Reproductive dysfunction: AEDs may cause alterations to androgens (substances that produce male characteristics and stimulate activity of male sex organs), thereby contributing to reproductive dysfunction.
Impact on sexuality varies among AEDs
When it comes to sexual function and reproductive hormone levels, not all AEDS have the same effect.
For instance, researchers have found that diminished libido and arousal are most pronounced in patients using sedating AEDs, such as barbiturates, although adverse effects on sexuality may also occur with any AED.
The AED lamotrigine appears to have a more favorable profile on sexual function and reproduction than several other AEDs. For instance, men taking enzyme-inducing AEDs have been shown to reach lower testosterone levels at an earlier age than men taking lamotrigine. Plus, a recent study found that, in men experiencing sexual disorders and taking prescribed AEDs for partial seizures, adding lamotrigine had a favorable effect on impotence.
The AED carbamazepine has been linked to significantly reduced levels of testosterone, when compared to the AED valproate. In recent studies, valproate treatment appeared to have no effect on sperm cell function in men with temporal lobe epilepsy.
If you are experiencing problems with sexual function, it is important to discuss them with your doctor. Your doctor may be able to prescribe alternative AEDs; many patients who experience sexual deficits with one medication will have normal sexual function with another. Plus, if you suffer from impotence, your doctor may prescribe medication to help you overcome it.
Does epilepsy affect libido?
Yes. Several recent studies document that men with epilepsy (MWE) experience lowered libido. The following scientific data support this statement.
- One study found that between 50 percent and 70 percent of all MWE report decreased sexual function and/or libido.
- One survey showed that 57 percent of MWE recently experienced erectile failure, compared to 18 percent of men without epilepsy.
- A recent study demonstrated that approximately 40 percent of MWE possess bioavailable testosterone levels below the normal control range. This is a significant finding because researchers now know that bioavailable testosterone levels, rather than total testosterone levels, affect libido.
How does epilepsy affect libido?
The following factors can affect libido in people with epilepsy:
Exposure to antiepileptic drugs (AEDs)
AEDs produce direct effects on the brain regions mediating sexuality and may also cause sexual dysfunction by secondary effects on reproductive hormones. Some AEDs have a greater impact on libido than others. Recent data show that, among men with localization-related epilepsy, those taking enzyme-inducing AEDs had less gonadal efficiency than those taking lamotrigine. Men taking enzyme-inducing AEDs also reached abnormally low testosterone levels at an earlier age.
Diminished libido and arousal tend to be most pronounced in MWE taking sedating AEDs such as barbituates.
In studies comparing the adverse effects of various AEDS on sexuality, researchers found the AEDs carbamazepine and phenytoin to have a much more negative effect on libido than lamotrigine.
Changes in the brain due to seizures
Sexual desire requires appropriate function of specific regions of the cerebral cortex, especially frontal and temporal lobes. People with complex partial seizures seem more prone to problems with sexual desire, particularly when seizures originate in the temporal lobe. Moreover, research suggests that damage to the temporal lobe, common in people with partial epilepsy, affects the ability to recognize subtle cues that are integral to establishing intimacy.
Sexual desire can be disturbed by psychological factors such as depression and anxiety. Although limited data exists on depression among people with epilepsy, statistics reveal that the suicide rate for people with epilepsy is 5 times greater than that of the general population, which strongly suggests that the rate of depression is also higher.
Fear that sexual activity will induce a seizure, particularly for those whose seizures are triggered by hyperventilation or physical exertion, may also have a negative impact on libido.
Are there ways to improve libido?
Researchers are experimenting with the use of testosterone in MWE to improve libido. Preliminary results are encouraging. Researchers note improved energy and sexual drive with the administration of testosterone, and decreasing frequency of seizures. Therefore, experts suggest that MWE experiencing decreased libido ask their doctor to order a test that will determine their level of bioavailable testosterone.
While the research on testosterone offers promise to MWE suffering from low libido, scientists caution that health care providers using testosterone to treat reduced libido in MWE should regularly monitor the following: behavioral changes (due to the possibility of developing anger or paranoia); blood count; liver function; lipid profile; and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) count, which is used to detect the presence of prostate cancer.
A recent survey indicates that very few MWE discuss sex with their physician, despite the prevalence of sexual problems among this population. By bringing these problems to the attention of a doctor, it’s possible that actions can be taken to combat them. For instance, a change in the type of AED may improve libido; so might the administration of testosterone.
REPRODUCTION AND FERTILITY
Does epilepsy have an adverse effect on a man’s reproductive function and fertility?
Yes, epilepsy does have an impact on reproductive function and fertility. Statistically, men with epilepsy (MWE) have a disproportionately high risk of reproductive dysfunction, which manifests as diminished potency and abnormal sperm characteristics and can decrease fertility. Specific findings regarding reproduction and fertility among MWE include the following:
- One study found that MWE were only 36 percent as likely as their male siblings without epilepsy to father a pregnancy.
- In a study comparing sperm in healthy males to sperm in MWE, researchers found that all MWE—regardless of whether they were taking antiepileptic medications (AEDs)—exhibit abnormalities in the structure and function of their sperm far more frequently than do healthy males.
How does epilepsy impact male reproductive function and fertility?
Research has found that, in many instances, epilepsy itself has an adverse effect on reproductive function and fertility. The type of epilepsy, age of onset and family history appear to have the biggest impact on reproductive dysfunction and infertility. Specifically, studies find that:
- Men with early age onset of epilepsy (less than 10 years of age) are more reproductively disadvantaged than men who develop epilepsy at a later age.
- Men with partial onset epilepsy are more reproductively disadvantaged than those with generalized onset epilepsy.
- Temporal lobe epilepsy is linked to testicular endocrine dysfunction.
- MWE who don’t have a family history of epilepsy are at a greater risk for reproductive dysfunction than MWE who do have a family history of epilepsy.
Do antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) have a negative impact on reproductive function and fertility?
Researchers have found that some AEDs are associated with reproductive dysfunction, which adversely affects fertility.
- Valproate is linked to sperm tail abnormalities and reduced testicular volume.
- Carbamazepine and oxcarbazepine may cause sperm abnormalities.
Seeking help for reproductive and fertility problems
It’s important to seek professional help if you are concerned about the effects of epilepsy and/or AEDs on your reproductive function and fertility. If you are unsure where to turn, ask your primary care provider to refer you to an appropriate medical professional.
Although epilepsy and many of the drugs used to control it can have adverse effects on reproductive function, thereby reducing fertility, refinements in diagnosing reproductive dysfunction and novel ways to treat it show promise. For instance, innovative means of obtaining a male hormone profile through noninvasive methods make it possible to determine each patient’s precise baseline hormone activity. With this information, clinicians can introduce individually appropriate hormonal (testosterone) therapies for patients, which have been found to improve fertility in MWE.