Narcolepsy: Signs and symptoms

narcolepsy-signs-and-symptomsMaybe you live a busy life so sometimes when you’re at your desk or sitting in front of the couch you catch yourself slowly dozing off. Sure, if you’re at home, taking a nap is okay, but you can’t fall asleep at work or while driving. Tiredness and low energy have a lot to do with stress and quality of sleep. So if you’re experiencing fatigue you may attribute it to how you’ve been sleeping or the stressors in your life.

But when your sudden urge to sleep becomes overwhelming – meaning you can’t control it – it may be an indication of a more serious problem. What we’re referring to is a sleep disorder called narcolepsy, and no amount of sleep can prevent your tiredness during the day.

What is narcolepsy?


napping sleep better memoryNarcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by sudden attacks of sleep and chronic daytime fatigue. Narcolepsy is not a determinant of lack of sleep, and it is not associated with other mental health issues like depression or seizure disorders.

Narcolepsy is chronic and unfortunately there is no current cure for it. It can impede on one’s daily activities but treating the symptoms may help.

Currently about one in every 2,000 people have narcolepsy. Narcolepsy can start as early as teenage years and can affect both men and women. Although symptoms can be frightening, with proper management of the disorder living a normal life is possible.

Causes and symptoms of narcolepsy

Causes and symptoms of narcolepsyAlthough the exact cause of narcolepsy isn’t fully understood, there are some theories as to how it may come about in healthy individuals. It’s been shown that those with narcolepsy also tend to have low levels of hypocretin – a neurotransmitter that promotes wakefulness.

Family history does not seem to play a role in the onset of narcolepsy. Sometimes a genetic defect has been seen in some cases of narcolepsy. The production of hypocretin becomes inhibited resulting in low levels.

In very rare cases a cause for narcolepsy has been through traumatic injuries involving a part of the brain which plays a role in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Besides a sudden attack of sleep, narcolepsy does come with other symptoms as well which include:

  • Daytime sleepiness: As the day progresses those with narcolepsy experience a growing tiredness. This can lead to suddenly falling asleep.
  • Loss of muscle tone: This is referred to as narcolepsy with cataplexy. When a person with narcolepsy shows emotion, like laughing for example, the body will work in uncontrollable ways like the knees may buckle. Episodes of cataplexy can occur rarely – once or twice a year – or frequently.
  • Sleep paralysis: While falling asleep or awakening, a person with narcolepsy may become temporarily paralyzed and be unable to speak. This type of sleep paralysis often occurs during the REM sleep, but as time the person is in a deep sleep he/she won’t recall it. With sleep paralysis in narcolepsy the individual can fully recall the situation yet have no control over it.
  • Hallucinations: May occur when falling asleep or upon awakening. Dreams may appear as reality.

Coping with narcolepsy

REM sleep behaviour disorderAlthough there is no cure for narcolepsy lifestyle changes and medications can help improve daily life for those with the disorder. Some medications a doctor may prescribe may be antidepressants and medications to alert the nervous system. Although medications may be helpful in curbing symptoms, it’s important to note they can leave you with side effects.

Medication treatment should be paired with lifestyle changes as well for maximum benefits. For starters, those with narcolepsy should attempt to stick with a sleep schedule. Stimulants, like coffee, should also be avoided especially right before attempting to sleep. Likewise, large or heavy meals should not be consumed prior to sleep either and smoking should be avoided.

Creating a relaxing routine prior to sleep can help you get the best quality sleep as possible. This can either be done through meditation, creating a restful space by dimming the lights and shutting off technology, or enjoying a warm herbal tea.

Lastly, because symptoms of narcolepsy can be quite frightening it may be helpful to seek counseling or a support group as a means of adjusting to the symptoms.

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