What is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy affects wakefulness and sleep and it is a neurological disorder. Uncontrollable sleepiness and randomly falling asleep are characteristic of the disorder. These attacks can happen at any time of the day or night and during activity. Narcolepsy usually starts between the ages of 15-25 but it can start at any age.

Most people fall into the deeper stages of sleep (REM sleep) about 90 minutes after falling asleep. People with narcolepsy fall into the REM stage almost immediately after falling asleep and during random periods throughout the day. Muscle paralysis is one of the things you might experience during REM sleep and this is one of the symptoms of narcolepsy.

What are the Symptoms of Narcolepsy?

People who have narcolepsy often are extremely sleepy during the day and it can interfere with their normal activities. They can feel like their memory is cloudy and they can experience a lapse in memory, extreme exhaustion, concentration problems, and depression.

They may also experience cataplexy, a feeling of complete muscle weakness or muscle control. This can result in slurred speech or collapsing of the body. It may be triggered by intense emotions.  Hallucinations may  also occur and these can be very scary. Any of the senses can be experienced.

Finally, sleep paralysis is perhaps the symptom that most people are familiar with. It involves falling asleep and the inability to prevent it or to wake up. These spells are usually short lived (from a few seconds to a few minutes) and recovery is usually quick.

Narcolepsy Causes

Scientists are unable to pinpoint the exact underlying cause of narcolepsy. They suspect that there is a multitude of causes behind the condition. Genetics are thought to influence whether or not an individual develops narcolepsy. Additionally, the immune system is believed to play a role in narcolepsy.

In some individuals, narcolepsy may stem from dysfunction within the immune system. Scientists have observed that many people suffering from narcolepsy have low levels of a neurochemical called hypocretin, also known as orexin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical in the brain which helps an individual to regulate REM sleep and wakefulness. Scientists believe that in people with narcolepsy, the brain immune system may mistakenly attack areas of the brain that produce hypocretin. However, not everyone suffering from narcolepsy has low levels of the neurochemical.

Additional factors which may increase an individual’s susceptibility to developing narcolepsy include psychological stress, hormonal fluctuations, and changes in sleep patterns. Furthermore, a connection between narcolepsy and exposure to a certain H1N1 vaccine known as Pandemrix has been observed; however, little more is known about the specifics of the connection.

How is Narcolepsy Treated?

There is not a cure for narcolepsy but symptoms can be controlled with medications.  Amphetamine-like drugs act as stimulants to control sleepiness and antidepressants help regulate REM sleep. If cataplexy is one of your symptoms, there is a new drug called Xyrem that helps you get better sleep at night so that you are not as tired during the day.

Doctors suggest avoiding things like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine to naturally avoid symptoms of narcolepsy.  Scheduled naps and a regular sleep schedule can also be helpful.

Narcolepsy Prevention

Unfortunately, as far as scientists and researchers are aware, the condition of narcolepsy is not preventable. However, narcoleptic attacks may be preventable when an individual is able to discern a pattern in the attacks.

An individual suffering from narcolepsy may notice that certain events or occurrences tend to precede the attacks. When such a pattern is observed, it may be helpful to avoid such events in order to offset the likelihood of a narcoleptic attack. Triggers tend to be sedentary and/or habitual activities during which the brain may begin to relax and doze off.

Common activities which can potentially lead to a narcolepsy attack include: watching television, sitting and reading, riding as a passenger in a motor vehicle for over an hour, driving a motor vehicle, or sitting and talking with someone. With constant vigilance and proper maintenance of one’s condition, such attacks may be prevented.