Narcolepsy is a neurological condition that can occur in both children and adults creating an abnormal need for sleep.
It occurs in around 1 in 2000 people, but few are properly diagnosed since the symptoms can often be confused with insomnia.
Narcolepsy usually begins between the ages of 15 and 30 although it’s often diagnosed much later. It can go unnoticed for several years until the symptoms worsen and you feel the need to see your doctor about it.
In this article I will explain the common symptoms, causes and the methods used to treat narcolepsy
Symptoms of Narcolepsy
The symptoms of narcolepsy vary depending on the severity of the disorder. Here’s some of the signs to look out for:
Abnormal need for sleep
An abnormal need for sleep is the main symptom of narcolepsy. Many people confuse this with insomnia, but if you get around 7-9 hours sleep per night and there’s no reason for you to believe that you’re suffering from poor quality of sleep, you may well have an abnormal need for sleep. See the lack of sleep article for more information on this.
This abnormal need for sleep leaves many narcolepsy suffers feeling completely sleep deprived. This can leave them with extreme fatigue, low self esteem, depression and many of the other effects associated with sleep deprivation.
Many are unable to resist falling asleep repeatedly during the day, known as sleep attacks. They can occur anywhere from work to driving a car. A high score on the Epworth Sleepiness Scale can sometimes be attributed to narcolepsy.
Short daytime naps of around 15 to 20 minutes can be refreshing for Narcolepsy sufferers, but only for a few hours until they start feeling sleep deprived again.
People with cataplexy experience episodes of muscle weakness to various degrees.
For some people it just affects a certain body parts such as the neck and jaw, causing their head to tilt forwards. For others it can affect their entire body, causing them to collapse to the ground and become rigid all over.
Cataplexy episodes are often triggered by strong emotional reactions such anger, fear or laughter. However in some cases there is no obvious trigger.
REM sleep complications
Due to the sleep depriving nature of narcolepsy, when you do finally get some rest, instead of going through the stages of NREM sleep as you would with a normal sleep cycle, you skip straight to REM sleep.
This can lead so a whole host of effects, including:
- Sleep Paralysis – This is where you can’t move when you’re falling asleep or waking up, despite being fully awake. This is because while your brain is active during REM sleep, all of your muscles, except the breathing muscles, are paralysed. It’s not something to worry about since you’ll be able to move in a few minutes but it can be quite scary.
- Vivid dreams – Since you go straight into REM sleep, it’s possible to have vivid dreams right from the time you fall asleep.
- Hallucinations – It can be common to have hallucinations, especially when combined with sleep paralysis. These can be pretty scary, especially if you’re waking up from a nightmare.
It’s important to note that while all of these are linked to narcolepsy, it’s perfectly normal for them to occur completely naturally on their own. It only becomes a sign of narcolepsy if the symptom is combined with one of the others.
Causes of Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is caused by a defect in the body’s creation of a protein called hypocretin or orexin. This protein is involved with controlling the transmission of impulses in parts of the brain, a key process for maintaining a regular sleep pattern.
The cause of this defect is not actually fully understood. It remains a hot research topic for scientists to discover the answer.
A recent study suggests that the problem could be due to an overactive immune system, causing a reduced number of the protein producing neurons in the brain. This can be caused by genetics in some cases.
Narcolepsy itself can’t be cured, but the symptoms can be somewhat lessened. Here’s what can be done:
- Medication – Medication can be taken to help with alertness, reduce the effects of cataplexy and to prevent you from going into REM sleep straight away.
- Regular naps – Planned naps once or twice a day can be taken as a supplement to your normal night time sleep to help alertness. You may even find it beneficial to adopt a different sleep pattern that contain naps at regular intervals during the day.
- Good sleep hygiene – Narcolepsy can mess around your sleep around quite a bit, so it’s important to keep it under control with good sleep hygiene practices. See the Better Sleep and Sleep Timing articles for more on this.
It’s best to let teachers, work colleges and bosses know about your condition to avoid any potential misunderstandings.
It’s thought that narcolepsy can be one day cured with drugs containing hypocretin. With all the research going into narcolepsy, it will hopefully be only a matter of time until a permanent cure is found.