Narcolepsy, or “falling asleep disorder,” appears in pop culture more often than it does in day to day life. This does not mean, however, that is a condition that is easy to dismiss.
- 1 What is Narcolepsy?
- 2 Narcolepsy Symptoms
- 3 What Causes Narcolepsy?
- 4 Diagnosing Narcolepsy
- 5 Narcolepsy Treatment
- 6 Conclusion
What is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a sleep condition that affects .05% of people in the world, making it a rare condition without reducing its substantial impact on those who suffer from it.
Folks with narcolepsy are said to suffer from attacks of sleep – which is a simple way of addressing the condition’s impact on a person’s day to day life.
More specifically, those who have narcolepsy fall into REM sleep seemingly at random over the course of the day when, a few moments earlier, they could have been entirely awake. It doesn’t matter what that person was doing beforehand, they can’t manage to stay awake.
You may find it funny if one of your close friends happens to fall asleep in the middle of your working lunch, but for folks with narcolepsy, even simple tasks like eating or driving can become difficult.
Sometimes, the narcoleptic victim will continue the activity that they were undertaking even while they sleep – such is the case with eating, which is considered an automatic activity. However, if the person in question was driving, they probably won’t be so lucky.
Folks who experience narcolepsy are also prone to depression, excessive sleepiness, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and the occasional loss of muscle control. Narcolepsy also increases the risk that a person may suffer from increased anxiety or stress.
These conditions (excluding depression, which is a more complex topic) stem from a lack of hypocretin in the body.
Hypocretin keeps folks awake and works along with our circadian rhythms in order to keep us up and going during the sunnier hours of the day.
Narcolepsy symptoms are said to develop when you are a child, but they can be hard to pin down, as said symptoms can be affiliated with a number of other conditions.
That said, if you are narcoleptic, you’ll have experienced a number of the following since you were rather young, and you may have been misdiagnosed in the past.
Irregular Sleep Cycle
Though it may seem like an obvious symptom, irregular sleep cycles are part and parcel of life with narcolepsy.
While you may find that you fall asleep at seemingly random times of the day, you may also find that you are unable to sleep peacefully through the night.
Whether this is due to nightmares or simply because you wake up at odd hours, the lack of sleep and the irregularity of a narcoleptic’s sleep cycle contributes to the overall sleepiness its victims may have to deal with.
This disrupted sleep cycle comes as a result of narcolepsy’s disruption of a person’s day to day REM cycle.
REM, it should be noted, is the fourth stage of sleep and the deepest; the acronym stands for “Rapid Eye Movement,” or the twitching of your eyes that occurs when you start to dream.
Without this level of sleep, your health is likely to be compromised, and you’ll have an exceptionally difficult time feeling well rested.
Speaking of which, one of the other signs of narcolepsy is extreme sleepiness.
Over the course of a day, a person with narcolepsy may find that they’re moving through something like a mental fog and that completing their responsibilities at work, around the home, or in school is, in turn, quite difficult.
This lack of energy is often attributed to laziness, but with narcoleptics, it is a lacking that exceeds the norm.
This sleepiness may also result in trouble with a person’s memory, as short terms memories will be more difficult to form due to the victim’s inability to pay attention to their surroundings.
Cataplexy is, in a number of ways, similar to sleep paralysis, a condition which this article will touch on momentarily.
However, cataplexy is far more an extreme version of muscle weakness. Narcoleptics are likely to experience muscle weakness and cataplexy as symptoms of their condition, especially when they’re experiencing strong emotions.
This brand of muscle weakness is said to arise when a person is laughing uproariously, crying, or when a person’s mood swings abruptly.
Perhaps one of the scarier symptoms of narcolepsy is the potential for a victim to start hallucinating. These hallucinations will seem especially real and can impact a person’s sense of smell, taste, sight, and their ability to hear.
Often, hallucinations are paired with sleep paralysis, but the lack of sleep that a narcoleptic experiences may also result in hallucinations appearing while a person is walking down the street or going about their day to day responsibilities.
Sleep paralysis is the inability to move or speak when awake. This kind of paralysis often occurs when you’re wide awake and can be scary, especially, as mentioned, if it’s paired with hallucinations.
Folks who suffer from sleep paralysis also report feeling as though there’s a weight resting on their chest.
Fits of sleep paralysis are somewhat unpredictable and can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
What Causes Narcolepsy?
Understanding narcolepsy can be somewhat difficult, but luckily, all of its potential causes are rooted in a chemical imbalance, making treatment a little easier to handle.
Low Levels of Hypocretin
At the most basic level, narcolepsy is caused by low levels of hypocretin in the brain. Hypocretin, as has been mentioned, is the chemical that keeps us awake and enables us to be active members of society.
When your body doesn’t produce enough hypocretin, or when the receptors in your brain are unable to accept the hypocretin when it arrives, the result is an altered sleep pattern and, in more severe cases, narcolepsy.
What impacts whether or not your body produces enough hypocretin, though, or what prevents your brain from properly assessing the chemical’s influence on your body? Some additional causes are listed below.
Some sources, including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, claim that environmental influences like the presence of heavy metals, pesticides, and weed killers can make it more difficult for your brain to process the chemicals that your body makes.
In the case of narcolepsy, it’s been proposed that exposure to these kinds of influences would explain why it would be more difficult for a narcoleptic’s brain and body to produce and interpret hypocretin.
It has also been proposed that narcolepsy is a genetic disorder, passed on from parent to child. Research in this area is limited, however.
It has been determinedly said, though, that genetics alone do not cause narcolepsy – there must be some other influence at play to bring about the inability of a person’s brain or body to work adequately with hypocretin.
As such, if you have narcolepsy and are worried about passing it along to your child, don’t put too much weight on the influence of genes.
Receiving a concussion, developing a tumor, or having a stroke can all limit the brain’s ability to interpret the purpose of hypocretin once it’s been delivered to the brain.
These brain injuries are often more environmentally-oriented, of course, so if you’re playing football or trying your hand at parkour, you may want to be cautious.
Be sure that while seeking out a diagnosis for what you suspect might be narcolepsy, you take into account your family’s history and see whether or not blood clots or different types of cancers run in your family.
While brain injuries are one explanation for narcolepsy, they are more often than not the result of something far more sinister.
Infections will naturally make you more tired, as your body will be trying to fight off intruding bacteria and thereby using its resources differently.
However, if you find that you have a tendency to become ill frequently or have been diagnosed with any autoimmune diseases, then you may find that narcolepsy will plague you as a secondary condition.
It’s possible, should you suffer from frequent infections or an autoimmune disease, that your body won’t be able to produce the sorts of chemicals it needs to function appropriately – or that the white blood cells in your body will begin to attack more than just the invading bacteria.
If you find that you are both excessively sleepy and prone to illness, check in with your doctor in order to get a better understanding of what’s going on.
Lower Levels of Histamines
In addition to a lack of hypocretin, though, you may find that you have lower levels of histamines in your blood.
Histamines, like hypocretin, help you stay awake over the course of a day, and their lack can, in turn, result in an increased need for sleep and an inability to focus.
Here’s a video explaining more on narcolepsy.
As has been mentioned, narcolepsy can look, in terms of its symptoms, like a number of other conditions. As such, it can take between ten and fifteen years to properly diagnosis – not in the least because the disorder is so rare.
Many doctors may misdiagnose narcolepsy as depression, infection, or other sleep disorders – as well as, in children, a learning disorder, seizures, or general laziness.
In order to accurately determine whether or not you have narcolepsy, your doctor needs to consider the aforementioned symptoms, your family medical history, and the impact that your environment may have had on your body.
Most importantly, a doctor will need to assess how much hypocretin your body produces and whether or not your brain can process the chemical.
Sleep studies tend to be exceptionally helpful during the diagnostic stage, though you may be referred to a sleep specialist and have to stay overnight in a medical facility if that is the case.
These sleep studies allow medical professionals to get a better understanding of how much REM sleep you are getting and to what degree your body fluctuates from the norm while you rest.
Determining a narcolepsy treatment can be somewhat difficult, as the disorder does not have a cure.
The symptoms of narcolepsy, however, can be treated, as is discussed below.
It may not be a stretch to encourage you to incorporate caffeine into your diet, but folks who suffer from narcolepsy may need more than the average office employee.
Stimulants like caffeine and other prescription medications will help you stay awake over the course of the day – but make sure to stop taking them at least three hours before you want to fall asleep!
You may also want to ask your doctor about hypocretin supplements. After a proper diagnosis, it may be possible for you to try and tend to your body’s inability to produce hypocretin through an artificial substitute.
As such, you’ll be able to force your brain to acknowledge the presence of hypocretin in your body and thereby stay awake for a more significant part of the day.
While an odd suggestion, some medical professionals believe that because depression and narcolepsy have similar symptoms, the two can be treated with similar medications. As such, your doctor may prescribe anti-depressants in order to treat your narcolepsy.
The physical symptoms of depression (as opposed to the mental) mirror narcolepsy and anti-depressants may allow you to find the energy in your day to see to all of your responsibilities.
Setting a Routine
An adjustment to your lifestyle may also help you combat narcolepsy.
Make sure that you limit your exposure to electronics before bed, and that you try to incorporate some kind of relaxing activity into your nightly routine.
Coping With Wakefulness
If you find that you’re still waking up at odd times in the middle of the night, do your best to stay in bed and try to fall back asleep for at least fifteen minutes.
If this does not work, then feel free to get out of bed and engage in some sort of relaxing activity, like reading, or making yourself a cup of warm milk in order to coax yourself back toward sleepiness.
Whatever you do, though, don’t have your coffee at 3 am – caffeine will be useful to you during the day, but it’s the last thing you want at night!
Here’s a video explaining more about diagnosing narcolepsy.
Even though it is rare, narcolepsy is a serious and complex disorder that impacts a significant number of people.
While an entirely effective treatment is yet to be determined, folks who suffer from this disorder can take comfort in understanding it in more detail and by adjusting their lives accordingly.