A 10,000 Foot View of Narcolepsy
Have you caught a view of something, or maybe someone, and thought, “I should check into that further”? Or thought, “I wish I could get closer to that view.”
It’s like you saw enough to investigate, but couldn’t quite describe what you saw. We’ve all had those moments. Buckle up my friends I’d like to fly you over the subject of narcolepsy at 10,000 feet in the hope you’ll check into it further. Especially if you think you or someone besides you fits into the picture I’ll describe below.
What is narcolepsy?
What is narcolepsy? I think that’s a good starting point. Hopefully, you agree! The American Academy of Sleep Medicine answers our question in this way: “Narcolepsy is a neurological sleep disorder that causes a potentially disabling level of daytime sleepiness.”1 In other words...this disorder has the power to ruin your enjoyment of life.
Imagine (or maybe you don’t have to imagine because it’s your reality) falling asleep anywhere, anytime. For example, imagine falling asleep in the middle of a meal, or driving down a highway and then suddenly waking up in time to avoid oncoming traffic. These could be examples (certainly not limited to these) of someone who could have narcolepsy.
What causes this daytime sleepiness?
Generally speaking, the reason sleepiness is occurring isn’t because a person with narcolepsy doesn’t get 7-9 hours of sleep. Rather, it's the brain's loss of neurons. These neurons contain hypocretin. Hypocretin is a protein whose job is to supply the brain with alertness. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, “About 90 percent of people with narcolepsy have low levels of hypocretin in their cerebrospinal fluid."1
What are symptoms of narcolepsy?
A symptom of narcolepsy generally is excessive daytime sleepiness. Again the cause for the sleepiness isn’t due to insufficient sleep the night before. Narcolepsy makes a person feel sleepy. This sleepiness can occur during regular activities, although more likely to occur during inactivity. Naps have the ability to help but bear very little fruit in the big picture as the sleepiness comes back within a few hours.
Cataplexy involves a sudden loss of muscle tone. These events can be triggered by a sudden wave of emotion such as laughter, excitement, and anger. Usually, after a few seconds, a person will make a complete recovery. One more quick note on cataplexy - a person can have narcolepsy without having cataplexy, but if you think you fit the description of cataplexy please get in touch with a sleep physician.
Other symptoms in no particular order include:
- Automatic behavior - falling asleep during a routine task
- Hallucinations - one is called hypnagogic (that's when hallucinations occur when you fall asleep) and other is called hypnopompic (if the hallucination comes upon waking up).
- Sleep Paralysis - a temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or upon waking.
How is narcolepsy diagnosed and treated?
The treatment for narcolepsy includes a combination of medicine. These medications can include modafinil, armodafinil, amphetamines, and sodium oxybate.1 Also, lifestyle adjustments such as maintaining a sleep schedule, short naps throughout the day, and getting exercise.
I hope you enjoyed this article on narcolepsy. I would encourage you to ask questions and comment below. Perhaps you sharing your experience will make a difference to someone else.
Do you feel that your doctor understands narcolepsy?