Narcolepsy is a life-long, chronic, sleep disorder characterized by excessive, frequent and uncontrollable periods of daytime sleepiness. Most of those who have narcolepsy find it difficult to fall asleep at night. In severe cases, a person with Narcolepsy may even fall asleep suddenly no matter what they are doing at the time.

In normal sleep, there are two main phases: REM sleep and non-REM sleep. Typically, when a person first falls asleep, they are in the non-REM phase of sleep. For those suffering from narcolepsy, they fall into the REM sleep stage quickly.

Causes of Narcolepsy

It has been found that those with Narcolepsy have low levels of hypocretin, a chemical in the brain that helps promote wakefulness. While the exact cause of low hypocretin isn’t well understood, researchers believe there are factors that may cause a decrease of the chemical including:

  • Heredity - Research studies have shown that up to 10 percent of those with Narcolepsy also have a relative with the same symptoms.

  • Infections - An infection can cause a decrease of hypocretin

  • Autoimmune Disorders - Autoimmune disorders cause the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack the body’s cells and tissues.

  • Low levels of histamine - a substance in the blood that promotes wakefulness

Symptoms of Narcolepsy

  • Extreme Daytime Sleepiness - This is possibly the most obvious symptom of the disorder. During the day, those with Narcolepsy may have few or many periods of sleepiness lasting 30 minutes or less.

  • Cataplexy - Loss of muscle tone while awake. This condition may make it hard to speak, cause the knees to weaken, or cause one to drop what they are holding.

  • Hallucinations - Narcolepsy causes a person to fall quickly into REM sleep, which in turn may cause vivid dreams. These dreams may feel very real, so much so, you may feel like you can see, hear, smell or taste things.

  • Extreme Daytime Sleepiness - This is possibly the most obvious symptom of the disorder. During the day, those with Narcolepsy may have few or many periods of sleepiness lasting 30 minutes or less. 

Diagnosing Narcolepsy

To properly diagnose Narcolepsy, a series of tests will need to be performed, including a medical and psychological evaluation. You may also be asked by your doctor to keep a sleep diary, tracking the times you fall asleep, wake up and your level of sleepiness throughout each day.  After consulting with your doctor, he or she may refer you to a sleep specialist or a sleep lab to monitor your sleeping patterns

Treating Narcolepsy

Unfortunately, Narcolepsy does not have a cure; however, certain medications, lifestyle changes and other therapies can improve Narcolepsy symptoms. 

  • Medications - Your doctor may recommend one or a combination of medications to treat symptoms of Narcolepsy.  Some doctors have prescribed stimulants such as armodafinil or ADD medications (i.e., Adderall, Ritolin, Concerta, etc.) to control a Narcolepsy patient’s excessive sleepiness. Recent studies have also found newer medications to control levels of hypocretin. Anti-depressant medications can help prevent cataplexy, hallucinations and sleep paralysis.

  • Lifestyle Changes - If your Narcolepsy symptoms are mild, lifestyle changes may relieve Narcolepsy symptoms such as planning naps to control daytime sleepiness and unplanned sleep attacks.

  • Therapies - Research studies have found those affected by Narcolepsy find it easier to cope with the disease when combining therapy with medication or lifestyle changes.  Cognitive behavioral therapy, education about the condition and elimination of environmental disruptive factors at night are all therapeutic options to decrease the effect of narcoleptic symptoms.

Narcolepsy is a non-curable, chronic condition. If narcoleptic symptoms are not controlled with treatment, complications can arise such as difficulty functioning at work and social activities, injuries and accidents, as well as, side effects if medications are being used.

Facts about Narcolepsy

  • Narcolepsy symptoms usually begin during the teen or adult years
  • People with untreated narcoleptic symptoms are involved in automobile accidents roughly 10 times more frequently than the general population
  • Narcolepsy affects 1 in 2,000 people
  • 135, 000-200,000 Americans are affected by Narcolepsy
  • Only 25 percent of those affected with Narcolepsy are actually diagnosed