Narcolepsy is a type of neurological disorder that impacts a person’s control over their states of wakefulness and sleep. Those who suffer from narcolepsy have excessive sleepiness and uncontrollable periods of falling asleep during the day. These sleep attacks can happen when they are doing any sort of activity throughout their day. In an average person’s sleep cycle, they enter early sleep stages followed by deep sleep and eventually rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. However, for those that have narcolepsy, REM sleep occurs right as they fall asleep, as well as during their regular waking hours. We’ve put together a guide to narcolepsy so that you can better understand the disease and how to treat it.
What Are the Causes of Narcolepsy?
Researchers are not sure of what causes narcolepsy. However, some progress has been made towards finding the genes that are linked to the disease. These sleep genes control the brain’s production of chemicals that may signal it to stay awake or fall asleep. Some sleep experts believe that narcolepsy is caused by a lack of the chemical hypocretin in the brain. Additionally, researchers have found abnormalities in the brains of those with narcolepsy, which impact the regulation of their REM sleep. Most experts agree that narcolepsy is likely caused by a multitude of factors that intertwine to cause the REM sleep disturbances and neurological dysfunction.
There are many symptoms of narcolepsy, but the most common are excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). Generally, EDS interferes with a narcoleptic person’s day-to-day life no matter how much sleep they get the night before. People with narcolepsy report depressed mood, memory lapses, lack of concentration and energy, and a feeling of mental cloudiness. Cataplexy is another symptom of narcolepsy, which involves rapid muscle tone loss that causes feelings of muscle weakness and loss of muscle control. Additionally, those with narcolepsy have reported hallucinations, which often come in the form of vivid and frightening delusional experiences. Lastly, those with narcolepsy often experience sleep paralysis in which they do not have the ability to speak or move when they are waking up or falling asleep.
To diagnose narcolepsy, doctors will perform a physical exam, as well as look at a person’s comprehensive medical history. That being said, because none of the symptoms of narcolepsy are exclusive to the disease, several specialized tests usually must be performed to rule out other sleep disorders. Two essential tests to confirm narcolepsy is the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) and the Polysomnogram (PSG). The PSG is performed in a sleep lab overnight and measures multiple dimensions of sleep to find abnormalities while the MSLT is done during the day to measure the person’s frequency of falling asleep.
The Treatment of Narcolepsy
There is no absolute cure for narcolepsy, but the most adverse symptoms of the disease such as cataplexy, EDS, and abnormal REM, can be controlled with drug treatment. The EDS can be treated through taking amphetamine stimulants, whereas the symptoms that come with abnormal REM sleep are often treated using antidepressant drugs. In recent times, a new drug has been approved to ease the suffering of those with cataplexy caused by narcolepsy. This medication is called Xyrem and aids those with narcolepsy in getting better sleep during the night, which allows them to be less tired during the day.
Managing Narcolepsy Symptoms
Making lifestyle changes can also aid in managing the symptoms of narcolepsy. Moreover, it is often recommended that those with narcolepsy seek support and counseling, as well as follow any additional recommendations from their doctor. Habits such as stress management, diet, and exercise, can all play a significant impact in keeping a healthy sleep cycle. It is critical for those with narcolepsy to maintain a regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine. Partaking in the various treatments of narcolepsy can aid in improving alertness during the day, as well as ease the other symptoms of narcolepsy.