Narcolepsy symptoms, causes and treatments
Narcolepsy is a long-term brain disorder that causes a person to fall asleep suddenly at any time. Studies estimate that one in 2,000 people are affected by this condition, making it very rare.
It can take time for narcolepsy to be diagnosed, but once it has been confirmed, treatment and lifestyle changes can help you enjoy a better quality of life.
What are the symptoms of narcolepsy?
People who suffer from narcolepsy experience a range of symptoms that can be classified from mild to severe. Symptoms of narcolepsy usually present between the ages of 10 and 30.
Excessive daytime sleepiness
This is the most recognisable symptom of narcolepsy. You may get sufficient rest at night, but during the day, you will suddenly be overcome with the overwhelming urge to sleep. Some people can suddenly fall asleep in the middle of a meal or while walking or talking. This is known as a sleep attack.
Sudden attacks of sleep
It can be distressing to witness a person with narcolepsy falling asleep without warning. This happens suddenly, and they may sleep for a short period and wake up normally again as if nothing happened.
Cataplexy (loss of muscle control)
People with narcolepsy may suddenly lose muscle control, which can be brought on by strong emotions such as laughter, stress or excitement. The attack usually lasts a few minutes, and in mild cases, you may lose muscle control in your eyelids. In severe cases, you may be temporarily paralysed and unable to keep your eyes open. You remain fully conscious during a cataplexy episode with the attack lasting a few minutes.
Vivid images which can be scary and resemble dreaming is another symptom of narcolepsy. This usually happens when you’re beginning to fall asleep or waking up in the morning.
A temporary loss of physical movement where you can’t move or speak while falling asleep or waking up is another symptom of narcolepsy. Sleep paralysis mimics the REM phase of sleep where the body enters into a state of stillness as brain activity increases.
What can cause narcolepsy?
Many cases of narcolepsy with cataplexy are thought to be caused by a lack of hypocretin, a brain chemical which regulates sleep. Hypocretin increases appetite, improves mood and is responsible for the feeling of alertness and being awake. Without hypocretin, your ability to wake up and fall asleep at will is affected.
In some instances, researchers have found that when a person falls ill, the infection can destroy the cells that make hypocretin, the hormone which helps to regulate wakefulness. We are all born with hypocretin, but once the immune system starts to destroy those cells that produce hypocretin, narcolepsy can set in.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a vaccine created to treat swine flu led to the development of narcolepsy in 1,300 people who received it in Europe. The vaccine is believed to have triggered narcolepsy through antibodies which attached themselves to cells in the brain that help regulate waking up and falling asleep.
How to treat narcolepsy
Although it has been classified as a lifelong, incurable disease, narcolepsy can be managed. The following steps can improve your quality of life if you have narcolepsy.
Maintain good sleep habits
Good sleep habits such as getting enough sleep, taking naps, sleeping in a properly ventilated room, reducing blue light exposure and removing distractions from your bedroom are ways to improve sleep quality. Practising good sleep habits can extend the amount of time you sleep and help you feel more refreshed and alert when you wake up.
Fortunately, various medications are available to treat the symptoms of narcolepsy. Some of the drugs prescribed by doctors include stimulants to boost the nervous system, serotonin-repressing medications which limit the REM phase of sleep and tricyclic antidepressants which help with cataplexy.
Your daily habits can also help you manage your narcolepsy symptoms. Reducing alcohol intake, cutting down on caffeine, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, water, and lean meats can all contribute to good sleep and a greater quality of life.