How Is Narcolepsy Treated?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2024 | Last updated: April 2024

Narcolepsy cannot be cured, but in many cases, the symptoms can be controlled with a combination of therapies. The combination of drugs and lifestyle changes that can help improve the symptoms of narcolepsy include:1-4

  • Short daytime naps
  • Consistently good sleep habits
  • Wake-promoting drugs to treat daytime sleepiness
  • Medicines to treat cataplexy, such as antidepressants
  • Avoiding drugs that cause insomnia close to bedtime
  • Avoiding drugs that cause sleepiness
  • Mental health support
  • Regular exercise
  • Limiting calories, if overweight

People being treated for narcolepsy should see their doctor routinely. That is once or twice a year, or more frequently if medicines are being adjusted. It is important to watch for drug side effects, changes in sleep or mood, and other health issues.2

Non-drug treatments

Several lifestyle changes can help people with narcolepsy. For example, some find that 1 or 2 naps of 20 to 30 minutes each can improve daytime sleepiness. These naps can improve alertness for 1 to 3 hours afterward.3

Not getting enough sleep can make narcolepsy symptoms worse. This means practicing good sleep habits remains an important part of managing narcolepsy. This includes going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Too much caffeine, smoking, alcohol, and certain drugs can cause insomnia, which makes daytime sleepiness worse.1,3

Regular exercise and eating a healthy diet can help combat 3 of narcolepsy’s most common health complications:3

  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes

High blood pressure may be related to wake-promoting drugs taken to control sleepiness. Obesity is common in people with narcolepsy. This may be caused by low hypocretin levels, slow metabolism, or lower rates of physical activity.3

Mental health support

Work, school, and relationships can be challenging for people with narcolepsy. Support groups and online communities can provide invaluable encouragement and understanding from people with first-hand experience with the condition.

Also, people with narcolepsy have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Screening every 1 to 2 years for signs of these conditions and treatment can help improve quality of life.

Wake-promoting drugs used to treat narcolepsy

Stimulants help keep the person with narcolepsy awake during the day. These drugs also help the person remain alert during important times, such as during work, school, or driving. Some of these drugs work within minutes or hours. Wake-promoting drugs used to treat the daytime sleepiness of narcolepsy include:3,4

  • Provigil® (modafinil)
  • Sunosi® (solriamfetol)
  • Wakix® (pitolisant)
  • Ritalin®, Concerta®, Metadate® (methylphenidate)
  • Dexedrine® (dextroamphetamine)
  • Adderall® (mixed amphetamine salts)
  • Nuvigil® (armodafinil)

Small studies show that modafinil, in particular, may help prevent sleep attacks while driving.3,4

Antidepressants used to treat narcolepsy

Not all people who experience cataplexy will need drug treatment. When control of cataplexy is needed, certain antidepressants may be prescribed off label, including:3,4

  • Effexor® (venlafaxine)
  • Prozac® (fluoxetine)
  • Anafranil™ (clomipramine)

These drugs are thought to suppress the brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that encourage REM sleep, which may be how they can reduce cataplexy.3

Other drugs to treat narcolepsy

Xyrem® (sodium oxybate) is also known as gamma hydroxybutyrate or GHB. It may be prescribed to treat both daytime sleepiness and cataplexy in people older than age 7. It may take several months for the dosage to be adjusted and for your body to start to feel better.5

Xywav™ (calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium oxybates) is another drug that may be prescribed to treat both cataplexy and excessive daytime sleepiness in people older than age 7. It has 92 percent less sodium than Xyrem, which could help reduce the risk of heart disease.6

Before beginning treatment for narcolepsy, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.