Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes excessive sleepiness during the day and uncontrollable sleep attacks. People suffering from narcolepsy experience extreme drowsiness every 3 to 4 hours during the day, which often results in a short nap or “sleep attack.” These sleep attacks can occur during any daily task, including driving or operating heavy machinery, so patients with narcolepsy are advised to avoid these activities unless they are on medication.
Narcolepsy usually emerges between the ages of 15 and 25, but can become evident at any time. Medication is available to help people fight the symptoms of this sleep disorder. Common symptoms of narcolepsy are feeling weak, slurred speech, collapsing, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, drowsiness, and sleep attacks. Narcoleptics may also experience cataplexy, which is a sudden loss of muscle control that makes you unable to move. Cataplexy can be triggered by strong emotions such as anger or laughter, and usually only lasts for about 30 seconds. Narcolepsy can be very dangerous when left untreated, so if you have experienced these symptoms and believe you are suffering from narcolepsy contact a doctor or sleep specialist as soon as possible. With the help of medication, sleep attacks and daytime drowsiness can be controlled. Narcolepsy often affects people that have other sleep disorders, including insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome so consulting with a specialized doctor is highly recommended.
What Causes Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is caused by a neurological condition, and is worsened by irregular sleep patterns or sleep disorders like insomnia. Narcoleptics have low levels of a chemical in the brain called hypocretin that promotes wakefulness. Doctors are still discovering what exactly causes these low levels of hypocretin, but they have identified a number of factors that they believe contribute including:
Heredity: Many doctors believe that orexin (also called hypocretin) deficiency is a genetic trait that is inherited. Up to 10 percent of people who have narcolepsy report having a relative who has the same symptoms.
Infections: Certain infections can trigger hormonal imbalances that greatly affect sleep cycles and could lead to narcolepsy.
Brain injuries: Injuries caused by conditions such as brain tumors, strokes, or trauma (for example, car accidents or military-related wounds) can result in abnormalities in the brain that disrupt REM sleep.
Autoimmune disorders: An example of an autoimmune disorder is rheumatoid arthritis. With these disorders, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s cells and tissues, weakening the body’s ability to regulate sleep.
Low levels of histamine: Histamine is a substance in the blood that promotes wakefulness. Low levels of histamine can cause daytime sleepiness, a common symptom of narcolepsy.
Some research suggests that environmental toxins may play a role in triggering narcolepsy. Toxins may include heavy metals, pesticides/weed killers, and secondhand smoke.
Narcolepsy is caused by a number of genetic, environmental and biological factors that interact to disrupt the sleep cycle. While there is no one cause of narcolepsy, the presence of two or more of these traits can lead to a diagnosis of narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a lifelong condition that has no cure, but you and your doctor can work together to control the symptoms of narcolepsy and maintain a healthier sleep pattern. Narcolepsy can be treated with certain medication as well as simple lifestyle and sleep adjustments.
If you are diagnosed with narcolepsy your doctor may prescribe you anti-depressants or stimulants to help you stay alert and awake throughout the day. You should always consult your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medication that may interact with your prescription, or worsen the symptoms of narcolepsy.
Setting and following a strict sleep schedule can limit the possibility of sleep attacks throughout the day. If possible, allow time for one or two 15 to 30 minute naps at some point in the day (preferably after meal time) to help keep energy up. People with narcolepsy should carefully monitor their diet. Eating small, light meals throughout the day can help you avoid the sleepiness that accompanies finishing a large meal. Avoiding things like caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes can also make sure that you have a normal sleep schedule. These things are stimulants and can affect the body’s ability to stay awake or go to sleep. To avoid the potential dangers of a sleep attack, you can ask your doctor about using a medical arm band with an alarm that will alert you as soon as you fall asleep, or a medical bracelet that can contact the police or family members when a sleep attack occurs.
Although there is no cure for narcolepsy, many easy steps can be taken to eliminate the dangerous and disruptive symptoms of this sleep disorder. Counseling and support groups are available for people with narcolepsy, which can help people cope with the lifestyle and medical treatment involved in controlling narcolepsy.
You can learn more facts about narcolepsy here.