Excessive and uncontrollable daytime sleepiness is a sleep disorder called narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a relatively rare and fairly mysterious neurological disorder that causes quick and unexplainable bouts of drowsiness and sleep. As of 2020, between 135,000 to 200,000 individuals in the United States were thought to suffer from narcolepsy. It’s found equally among men and women and affects both adults and children.
Untreated narcolepsy can impact an individual’s life in nearly every aspect: academic, work, social, psychological, and even cognitively. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for narcolepsy to be misdiagnosed as a psychiatric disorder, resulting in inadequate and/or misplaced care. Raising awareness of narcolepsy will help combat the number of misdiagnoses that take place and will enhance our understanding of the disorder.
What is narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy impacts the brain’s ability to control the sleep-wake cycle, causing a person with narcolepsy to enter into the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep much quicker (within 15 minutes) than what is considered normal (60-90 minutes).
This results in the main symptom of narcolepsy: EDS (excessive daytime sleepiness). No matter how much sleep a person with narcolepsy receives, they will be persistently sleepy throughout the day. Many describe this overwhelming feeling of sleepiness as a “sleep attack,” as it comes on quickly.
Other symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- Cataplexy or the sudden loss of muscle tone while a person is awake. Cataplexy is triggered by certain behaviors, such as laughter, fear, anger, stress, or excitement. This leads to weakness and loss of muscle control. When this happens, a person can experience a range of cataplexy severity, with mild cataplexy causing the eyelids to droop and severe cataplexy to cause a person to completely collapse. While fully conscious, they are unable to move, speak, or keep their eyes open.
- Automatic behaviors, or what happens when a person with narcolepsy falls asleep during an activity and continues the activity without consciously being aware of what they’re doing. These incidents are brief and last no longer than a few seconds, but can be very confusing and have resulted in car accidents. Particularly intriguing is that when people wake back up, they feel suddenly refreshed and awake.
- Sleep paralysis, also known as the temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up. Like with cataplexy, the individual experiencing sleep paralysis is fully conscious but is unable to move. Sleep paralysis is not damaging to a person’s overall functioning.
- Hallucinations when a person is falling asleep or waking up.
How do you treat narcolepsy?
While there is still much research to be done on narcolepsy, there are treatment options available, ranging from medications to small lifestyle changes.
A few immediate changes you can make to your day-to-day include:
- taking short, scheduled naps
- avoiding caffeine or alcohol before bed
- avoiding smoking, especially at night
- and exercising daily
Ready to start your journey to better sleep health and overall wellness? Dr. Dibra here at Sleep Dallas is a board-certified sleep medicine specialist who specializes in treating and managing sleep disorders—including narcolepsy. Schedule your consultation today.
Want to learn more about Narcolepsy? Read our blog, Sleep Disorders 101: Narcolepsy.