Narcolepsy: Symptoms, Treatment & Remedies

Health experts consider narcolepsy as a chronic neurological disorder. It affects wakefulness and controls your sleep patterns. When you encounter narcolepsy, you get disrupted night time sleep and excessive sleep in the day. Narcolepsy brings abnormal rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This condition also involves cataplexy and weak muscles that can cause body collapse.

The severity of this sleep disorder ranges from mild to severe. The severe cases are troubling and affect your social life or life in general greatly. A sufferer of narcolepsy can fall asleep anywhere and anytime even when talking to someone and driving a car.

What is Narcolepsy?

Hypersomnia or excessive daytime sleep characterize narcolepsy. An average person goes in the initial sleep levels following deeper sleep levels for around 90 minutes where REM sleep begins later. However, in the case of a person with narcolepsy, REM sleep takes place in just 15 minutes and during the waking hours as well. REM sleep also contributes to muscle paralysis. There are three types of narcolepsy, including

  • Narcolepsy with cataplexy
  • Narcolepsy without cataplexy which leads to uncontrollable sleepiness in the daytime
  • Secondary narcolepsy which occurs due to injury to the hypothalamus where a part of the brain that involve sleep effects

Symptoms of Narcolepsy

Sleep Disorder

If a person falls asleep any time of the day without warning, it is an indication of narcolepsy. Following are the other symptoms associated with the sleep disorder.

1. Cataplexy

Cataplexy is a condition when developing sudden muscle weakness in your knees, neck, and face. In this case, some people experience mild weakness, which results in head or jaw drop. However, some people fall completely. This condition is a result of a sudden burst of strong emotions like anger, surprise, or laughter. The weakness in cataplexy is temporary rarely last more than two minutes.

2. Sleep Paralysis

This condition is an inability to speak or move while you are waking up or falling asleep. This condition lasts a few seconds in some cases and reaches up to some minutes in other cases. Once the sleep paralysis ends, people regain the capacity of moving or speaking instantly. Studies have shown certain automatic behaviors in sleep paralysis. For instance, falling asleep but continue doing the activity unconsciously like driving or talking.

3. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS)

This condition is also known as sleep attacks. In this condition, you feel the urge to doze off numerous times in a day and also on wrong times. Take note that excessive daytime sleepiness is common in children and adults alike. In children, it affects school and other activities like sports greatly. Falling asleep anywhere is dangerous for children as they cannot explain their condition. Moreover, EDS leads to a lower energy level, exhaustion, lack of concentration, brain fog, depressed mood, and memory loss.

4. Hypnogogic Hallucinations

These are frightening hallucinations that you experience when falling asleep. The sense of wakefulness and dreaming that begin with REM sleep lead to hypnogogic hallucinations.

Causes of Narcolepsy

Although the exact cause of narcolepsy is unknown, this inherited autoimmune disease contributes to hypocretin or orexin chemical. Your brain needs orexin to stay awake. Moreover, it can be an outcome of genetic disposition and run in your family.

Furthermore, hypocretin is a neurotransmitter – a nerve-signaling chemical. It plays a significant role and controls whether you are asleep or awake via managing different groups of neurons in your brain and nerve cells. The hypothalamus region of your brain produces the chemical. The lower levels of chemicals are often found in the people with type 1 narcolepsy whereas this is not the case with people with type 2 narcolepsy.

You need hypocretin to stay awake. In its absence, your brain cannot control and allow REM sleep to come in contact with regular waking hours. Therefore, narcolepsy patients experience nighttime sleep disorders and excessive daytime sleepiness at the same time.

It is worth noting that people who experience a brain injury, tumor, or another disease that impact brain often develop narcolepsy.

Treatment of Narcolepsy

There is no permanent treatment for this sleep disorder. However, you can manage the symptoms via medication. Many stimulants can treat sleepiness whereas antidepressants can come in handy when dealing with the symptoms of cataplexy and abnormal REM sleep.

You can treat the conditions like EDS with stimulants, such as methylphenidate, modafinil, or dexamphetamine. These drugs are suitable due to availability, effectiveness, and first-line therapy.

These are mild substances. However, you need to watch tolerance and abuse levels with modafinil. Moreover, the possible adverse effects of these drugs are irritation, insomnia, and anxiety. Nausea and headaches are possible side effects of modafinil overdose.

You may need antidepressant drugs to lessen cataplexy, which help control REM sleep. Medicines like clomipramine are used to treat narcolepsy. Various selective norepinephrine uptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are given to control the condition. However, you might experience adverse effects like blurred vision, dry mouth, and constipation.

In most cases, sodium oxybate treats cataplexy, EDS, and poor nighttime sleep. Doctors strictly prohibit life-threatening activities like driving or using machinery until you recover from cataplexy.

Remedies to Deal with Narcolepsy

You cannot get rid of the symptoms of narcolepsy. However, with the help of certain ways, you can control the condition to some extent and prevent further complications.

  • In the case of children, parents should talk to school management to excuse the child from doing specific activities if he/she feels drowsy.
  • Maintain a regular sleep pattern. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep is necessary to improve the condition.
  • Schedule naps also help. You can take up to two power naps in a day.
  • You should avoid driving until you find a slight improvement in the symptoms.
  • Don’t consume heavy meals before bedtime.
  • Quit smoking to prevent your health from potential damages.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages at night as it might interfere with your sleep pattern.
  • You should limit your caffeine intake to get at least eight of uninterrupted sleep.
  • In the case of narcolepsy in children, encourage them to participate in sports and other after-school
  • An effective exercise program can help and stimulate the condition in children and adults alike.

Bottom Line

Falling asleep while doing an activity is dangerous and embracing at the same time. Detecting narcolepsy is quite easy as compared to other sleep disorders due to the symptoms like excessive daytime sleepiness. If you identify it, be sure to visit your doctor immediately. The doctor will guide you better after examining your condition.