Narcolepsy is a sleep disturbance characterized by a disabling level of daytime sleepiness. It is estimated that one in every 2,000 Americans suffer from narcolepsy, yet about 25% have been diagnosed and are receiving treatment.
Those suffering from narcolepsy can experience “sleep attacks” that are repeated throughout the day. They can even occur during daily routines like eating, walking or driving and are not as a result of inadequate sleep.
Going undiagnosed, narcolepsy can be socially disabling and isolating leading to depression. Type 2 diabetes can also occur in people with untreated narcolepsy. Unfortunately, only about 5% of patients seen in a sleep lab are narcolepsy patients. In order to improve these numbers and better diagnose narcolepsy, it is vital to know the early symptoms.
Symptoms of narcolepsy usually occur in young adults ages 15 to 25. Symptoms can include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS): This is the primary symptom of narcolepsy. You may have sudden urges to fall asleep, even if you have had a full night’s sleep.
- Hallucinations: Some narcolepsy patients experience very real hallucinations while sleeping. These hallucinations are typically a presence in the room and can be very disturbing and disruptive.
- Sleep paralysis: You might lose the ability to move while either falling asleep or waking up. Sleep paralysis can be paired with hallucinations.
- Disturbed nighttime sleep: About 50% of people with narcolepsy have troubles sleeping through the night, often times waking up frequently.
- Memory problems: EDS can cause memory problems. You may not remember something someone told you because you were not fully awake at the time.
- Cataplexy- Is a sudden loss in muscle tone and only happens if you have narcolepsy coupled with cataplexy. Cataplexy can occur when there is extreme emotion, for example being surprised. Your muscles can become weak or even paralyzed.
Seeking a doctor for treatment of narcolepsy is vital, but there are lifestyle changes that can be made to manage the disease as well. Examples include maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and planning to take frequent naps throughout the day. Otherwise, treatment for narcolepsy involves medication.
With a new understanding of narcolepsy, researchers are creating different ways for treating the disorder. Some programs are experimenting with ways to increase brain levels of histamine, a brain chemical that is effective in improving alertness.
Other researchers are working on ways to improve hypocretin, which are neurotransmitters that promote wakefulness and regulate sleep. Narcolepsy coupled with cataplexy is caused by a loss of brain cells that produce these neurotransmitters. The goal is to improve narcolepsy symptoms by restoring hypocretin production in the brain.
Sources: American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Narcolepsy Network, Sleep Education, Harvard Medical