For the vast majority of us, there are two basic states of consciousness: wakefullness, and sleep. We tend to spend about 2/3rds of our time awake, and 1/3rd of our time sleeping. Despite our occasional feelings of sleepiness or spontaneous naps, generally speaking, when we are awake, we’re awake. This is simply not the case for sufferers of the sleep disorder narcolepsy. But what is narcolepsy, anyways?
What is Narcolepsy?
The basic narcolepsy definition is “a condition characterized by an extreme tendency to fall asleep whenever in relaxing surroundings”. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that essentially interferes with the brain’s ability to control the sleep/wake cycle. Symptoms of narcolepsy can include daytime drowsiness, spontaneous “sleep attacks” wherein the patient falls asleep suddenly and without warning, and more.
Narcolepsy might sound like a super-rare disorder, yet it’s surprisingly common. It is thought that narcolepsy affects around 1 in 2,000 Americans, which makes it one of the most common sleep disorders. In addition, it’s estimated that only about 25% of sufferers have actually been diagnosed and are receiving narcolepsy treatment.
Narcolepsy causes are unknown at this time, but scientists believe it may have genetic connections. Some research has also suggested that the disorder might be caused by a deficiency of the brain chemical hypocretin.
What are the Symptoms of Narcolepsy?
If you’re searching Google for “what is narcolepsy”, chances are you may be concerned that you or someone close to you might be suffering from the condition. If this is the case, it’s important to know the warning signs and symptoms of narcolepsy. Find the primary symptoms listed below:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness – narcolepsy sufferers will often experience extreme sleepiness or fatigue during the day, regardless of how much sleep they got the night before. This can manifest as moodiness, physical and mental fatigue, “brain fog”, memory lapses, and even depression.
- Sleep attacks – perhaps the most terrifying narcolepsy symptom is sudden, uncontrollable “sleep attacks” wherein the patient falls asleep during the day, suddenly and without warning. This can happen at any time, during any activity, which makes it unsafe for narcolepsy patients to drive or operate heavy equipment.
- Hallucinations – narcoleptic patients can suffer from mild to extreme hallucinations, which can occur during sleep onset or during wakeful hours.
- Sleep paralysis – while falling asleep or while waking up, narcoleptic patients can experience inability to move or talk for short periods of time.
- Cataplexy – cataplexy is a sudden temporary loss of muscle tone that can lead to weakness and loss of muscle control. Episodes of cataplexy can range from slurred speech to complete body collapse, depending on the muscles involved.
How is Narcolepsy Treated?
Narcolepsy cannot be cured, but there are some narcolepsy treatments that can help lessen the symptoms. Typically narcoleptic patients will be given prescription drugs to help counteract the worst symptoms of narcolepsy. Patients are often given amphetamine-like drugs to counteract daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks, and may also be given anti-depressants to help improve deep sleep cycles and prevent REM disruption.
In addition to drug-based narcolepsy treatments, there are some lifestyle changes that patients can make in order to potentially improve symptoms. Changes such as avoiding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and large meals may help, as will eating a healthy diet and establishing a regular exercise routine. It’s also important for narcoleptic patients to establish regular sleep schedules, which often might include daytime naps.
Where Can I Learn More?
This article is designed to answer the basic questions one might have about narcolepsy. If you’re interested in further reading, check WebMD’s guide or this narcolepsy fact sheet. If you believe you might have narcolepsy yourself, speak with your doctor. No website or book can give you the personalized advice and treatment that a doctor can provide, so if you have concerns you should absolutely schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor immediately.