Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder associated with the nervous system. It causes excessive sleepiness, including frequent sleep attacks during the day. It can have a huge impact on a person’s life, particularly if they are accustomed to a very active, busy lifestyle.
Causes and Symptoms of Narcolepsy
According to experts, this sleep disorder is caused by low levels of hypocretin, a protein made in the brain. Research is ongoing into what makes the brain fail to produce enough of this protein. Results remain inconclusive. It does seem that it runs in families, and certain lifestyle factors and other sleep conditions can make it worse. The most common symptoms are regular periods of extreme sleepiness, typically around every 3 to 4 hours throughout the day. Sufferers experience a strong, sudden urge to sleep, which is often followed by a nap of approximately 15 minutes (otherwise known as a “sleep attack”). Some people have the attacks after eating, while others may experience them when driving, or even in the middle of a conversation with someone. Following the short nap, the person wakes up feeling energized. Some people also experience hallucinations as they are waking up from the nap.
Other Common Sleep Disorders besides Narcolepsy
Many sufferers also experience other sleep disorders. Sleep paralysis causes a person to be unable to move when they first wake up. Cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle tone while awake, is often triggered by extreme emotions such as happiness or anger, and results in the inability to move. Cataplexy attacks vary between individuals; most attacks are very short, around 30 seconds or less, although in extreme cases the person may fall and remain paralyzed for several minutes.
Testing for Narcolepsy
A physical exam and blood work is the first step toward diagnosis. It is important to rule out other conditions at an early stage. Many other sleep conditions cause excessive sleepiness. These include insomnia, restless leg syndrome, seizures and sleep apnea. The patients may also be given an ECG test to measure the electrical activity of the heart and an EEG test to measure brain activity. If the patient appears to be suffering from narcolepsy, a sleep study (polysomnogram) will be carried out to confirm the diagnosis. The Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) measures how long it takes a person to fall asleep during a daytime nap. Someone with narcolepsy will fall asleep far quicker than someone without the condition.
Many people still believe that narcolepsy is a mental illness. It is not in any way related to depression or anxiety. It is a nervous system disorder. Antidepressant medications can, help to reduce episodes of cataplexy and sleep paralysis, and prevent hallucinations. Another myth about narcolepsy is that it can be cured with medication. Although scientists continue to research the condition and study possible treatments, it is a chronic, lifelong disorder for which there is still no known cure. While narcolepsy is not a deadly illness, it can have dangerous consequences if the person suffers a sleep attack while they are driving or operating heavy machinery. Luckily, in most cases the condition can be controlled with treatment. This lets patients lead a very normal life.
The correct medication, together with certain lifestyle changes, can help narcolepsy sufferers lead a normal life. The most commonly prescribed drug is the stimulant modafinil (Provigil), which helps patients stay awake. Doctors may prescribe other stimulants, such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, DextroStat) or methylphenidate (Ritalin).
To take control and help lessen the impact of the disorder, patients are advised to do the following:
- Eat light, vegetable-based meals during the day.
- Avoid heavy meals, particularly during social events and before work.
- Take a short nap after meals (no longer than 15 minutes).
- Tell others about the disorder. The more people who know about your condition, the easier social, work and school situations will be.
If you are concerned about your narcolepsy and feel that it is having a negative effect on your work, education or relationships, make an appointment with your doctor. You should also contact your health care provider if you are experiencing unpleasant side effects from your narcolepsy medication. Different stimulants work for some people but not for others. It may take time to find the one that best suits you.
If you have narcolepsy, you may be feeling upset or frustrated that there is no cure for it. Take comfort from the fact that millions of people all over the world suffer from sleep disorders. It is perfectly possible for you to carry on living your life as you did before. The key is to seek medical help as soon as you notice the symptoms. With a little planning, you can make the right changes to your life to lessen the effects of narcolepsy.