Narcolepsy and Sleep

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes overwhelming sleepiness and frequent attacks of sleep throughout the day. Narcolepsy is caused when the brain doesn’t have the ability to regulate a normal sleep-wake cycle; which can lead narcoleptics to fall into REM sleep instead of falling into a light to deep sleep cycle. Narcolepsy seems to affect both genders equally and begins showing signs in adolescence or young adulthood, and is often left undiagnosed.

Narcolepsy is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness, hypnagogic hallucinations, sleep paralysis, cataplexy, interrupted nocturnal sleep, leg jerks, nightmares and restlessness. Along with excessive sleepiness and sudden onset of sleep the next primary symptom is cataplexy; a momentary loss of muscle tonus typically causing the person to fall to the ground, this usually results from a strong emotion such as surprise, laughter, anger, or elation. Hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis are also common and can be extremely scary symptoms of narcolepsy, causing feelings of suffocation, being on fire, drowning, or being attacked.

What causes narcolepsy? While there isn’t one definite answer, doctors have found that people suffering from narcolepsy have low levels of Hypocretin and even lower levels were found in people who also suffered from cataplexy. Hypocretin is a chemical that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles and REM sleep, what causes the loss of Hypocretin producing cells in the brain is still unknown. There are studies being conducted on Hypocretin replacement, Hypocretin gene therapy, and stem cell transplant in hopes of finding a more effective treatment or cure.

How to cope with narcolepsy: start by adding several short naps to your daily routine, establish a routine sleep schedule, eat and exercise on a regular schedule, and avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. If the above behavior treatments don’t work on the narcolepsy then there are different treatment options available. Medications for narcolepsy include stimulants, drugs that stimulate the nervous system to help them stay awake during the day. If stimulants aren’t effective then amphetamines may be prescribed, but can produce side effects such as nervousness, heart palpitations, and can be addictive. Tricyclic antidepressants may be used with people who also suffer with cataplexy; and in more extreme cases Sodium Oxybate can be prescribed, but can include some serious side effects.

Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.

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Mayo Clinic Staff. “Narcolepsy.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. <;.