Lifestyle Changes for Narcolepsy

Sleep attacks and potential falls can make work or school hard for some people with narcolepsy. While drugs can help, lifestyle changes also can play an important role in controlling narcolepsy symptoms. Best of all, lifestyle changes are often free, though they often require dedication and consistency.

Scheduled naps

One or 2 short naps each day often help people stay awake and alert for 1 to 3 hours afterward. These naps should last no longer than 20 minutes. That is because it is difficult to wake up after a long nap. Also, long naps may make it harder to fall asleep at night.1,2

These naps should be scheduled during the times you feel most sleepy. For many, this is between 1 and 3 pm. Some people only need 1 nap per day. Others may need a late morning nap and an afternoon nap.1,2

Some people with narcolepsy find that scheduled naps help them avoid the need for stimulants in the afternoon. You may need to request special accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act to get your naptimes at school or work.1-3

Good sleep habits

Not getting enough sleep can make narcolepsy symptoms worse. For example, some people find they are more likely to have cataplexy if they do not get enough sleep. This means practicing good sleep habits remains an important part of managing narcolepsy.1-3

The first good sleep habit is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, 7 days a week. If you wake up in the night, avoid stimulating activities such as checking social media, reading email, or watching TV. Try reading a book or listening to soft music instead.1-3

To get a good night’s sleep, you may also need to:1-3

  • Follow a wind-down routine
  • Lower the thermostat
  • Dim lights
  • Reduce noise
  • Remove electronics from the bedroom
  • Get a more comfortable mattress
  • Change your bedding

If you need to take stimulants in the afternoon, ask your doctor for a short-acting version so that it will have worn off by bedtime. It is also important to avoid heavy meals right before bedtime. This can make it harder to sleep.2,3

Caffeine, alcohol, and smoking

Some people with narcolepsy find that caffeine helps them stay awake in the mornings. For others, caffeine does not help. Regardless, caffeine should be avoided in the afternoon because it can make it harder to get to sleep at night.2,3

Smoking should be avoided, especially in the afternoon and night, because it can make going to sleep difficult. Alcohol also interferes with nighttime sleep. Plus, many narcolepsy drugs should not be mixed with alcoholic drinks.2,3

Exercise

Daily exercise can help improve nighttime sleep, reduce depression, and fight weight gain. A 20- to 30-minute walk once a day, at least 4 to 5 hours before bedtime is recommended. Even a brief walk or standing instead of sitting can improve alertness.2,3

School and work

Staying physically active throughout the day can help many people with narcolepsy avoid sleep attacks. That is why careers that require long periods of sitting are not recommended for people with narcolepsy.1,2

At school, students may ask to sit in the back of the room so they can stand and move around rather than sit for long periods.2

Driving

People with narcolepsy must take special precautions when driving. People whose narcolepsy is well controlled with medicine are safer than people who are untreated. Still, those with narcolepsy should not work as commercial drivers or airline pilots.

Some find it helpful to take a short nap of no more than 20 minutes before driving.

Networking with others

Many people find much-needed help by networking with other people who have narcolepsy. Online and in-person support groups can provide a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation. Also, meeting other people with narcolepsy, either in person or online, can be a valuable resource for tips to better manage your narcolepsy.4

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: January 2021