Tips for Staying Awake With Narcolepsy

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

Learning how to keep yourself awake can be an important part of overall wellness when you have narcolepsy. There are a wide range of tips and techniques people use to keep themselves awake and alert during important times. Explore these options to see which combination of the following methods work for you.

Train your REM

Do what you can to train the part of your brain that controls REM. There are a variety of techniques that can help you control when you stay awake or go to sleep since narcolepsy overrides that natural cycle. Many of these techniques look a great deal like good sleep habits, including:1,2

  • Set an alarm and get up when the alarm goes off. Do not allow yourself to snooze.
  • Get dressed for the day and out of pajamas to signal to your body and mind that this is “awake time.”
  • Make sure you get sunlight, which tells your brain it is daytime. Sit close to a window at school or work if possible, or get outside.
  • At night, turn down the lights to prepare your body for sleep.
  • Take your nighttime medicines and relax with a warm bath or reading, also to prepare your mind and body for sleep.
  • Know how many hours of sleep you need and set aside enough time to get that much sleep each night. Being overly tired can trigger cataplexy in some people.

Take your meds

If your doctor prescribes drugs to keep you awake or help you stay asleep, follow the directions. Taking your medicines as directed keeps your body on a schedule and helps you get the rest you need to perform well in the world.1

Staying awake at work

Staying awake at work can be challenging at times. Sitting still can make anyone sleepy, but people with narcolepsy are especially susceptible to staying awake after sitting for a long time. Night shifts or swing shifts can also be a problem for people with narcolepsy. Some people cope by only taking jobs that allow them to move around or stand all day. Others prefer to work outside jobs so they get as much sunlight as possible. Many must avoid jobs that require alertness in the evening or nighttime.

If you have trouble staying awake during long meetings, bring your smartphone and record the meeting. You can play back discussions later if you need it. You can also use the recording to remind yourself about important details if you have trouble concentrating or remembering things.3

If you have trouble accomplishing large, complex tasks, consider breaking your duties into smaller chunks that allow you to focus on 1 thing at a time. Smaller chunks also let you focus for shorter periods of time.3

Schedule short naps of 15-20 minutes during the time of day you know you find it hardest to stay awake. For many people this is early afternoon. A short nap can keep you alert for 1 to 3 hours after.2

Lifestyle choices that help

How you eat and drink and how often you exercise both play an important supporting role in helping you stay awake when needed. For example, some people with narcolepsy find drinking caffeine helpful. Others find it makes them too jittery or makes it hard to fall asleep at night.1-3

Exercise plays a key role in keeping a person with narcolepsy healthy. First, it helps control weight, which can be an issue for many with narcolepsy. Next, it gets the blood flowing and revs metabolism, which can improve wakefulness. If your job requires long periods of sitting, even setting an alarm to stand regularly, standing during meetings, or while on the phone can help improve alertness.1-3

Most people with narcolepsy must try to avoid taking medicines that cause sleepiness such as allergy and cold medicines, and some antidepressants.1-3

Most of all, be kind to yourself. If you need to keep your schedule flexible so that you can nap as needed, remember that is okay. Practice breathing, exercise, get a massage, take a fun class, or treat yourself to an activity you like.

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