What Is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a nervous system disorder that leads to instability in the sleep-wake cycle. It causes excessive daytime sleepiness and leads to sudden onsets of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Narcolepsy may be accompanied by cataplexy, which is the loss of all muscle tone in the body. Cataplexy can cause a person's head to drop, knee to buckle, or might cause them collapse in their seat or onto the floor, potentially leading to dangerous consequences. Often lampooned in comedies, narcolepsy can put severe limitations on a person's life because of his or her inability to stay awake for long periods of time and because of the risk that accompanies sudden bouts of sleeping. It is a chronic condition that is yet without a cure.
Symptoms of Narcolepsy
Symptoms of narcolepsy usually begin showing between the ages of 10 and 25, but they can begin anytime until 60 years old. Symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- bouts of extreme drowsiness every three to four hours
- dream-like hallucinations
- sleep paralysis
- cataplexy—a sudden loss of muscle tone while awak
- the characteristic "sleep attack"
Sleep attacks are usually short (about 15 minutes) and are spurred by varying conditions:
- eating large meals
- moments of high stress or tension
- being awake for more than four hours
Complications for narcoleptics include lowered sex drive, impotence, injury during sleep attacks, and lowered performance in work and school.
What Causes Narcolepsy?
There is extensive evidence showing that narcolepsy is caused by a lowered amount of a protein called hypocretin in the brain. In narcolepsy, the cells that produce hypocretin are destroyed by an autoimmune process in which white blood cells that usually fight infection turn on the body and begin to fight the body's own proteins.
There are some genetic contributions to narcolepsy, but it is not caused by a problem with one specific gene. It is likely a combination of genetic factors that lead to the development of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy tends to run in families. A first degree relative of someone with narcolepsy has a 10 to 40 times higher risk of developing narcolepsy than the general population.
Treatments for Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy can be treated with various drugs including:
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
- sodium oxybate
Other treatments include lifestyle changes:
- eating lighter meals
- planning naps
- avoiding nicotine and alcohol
- getting exercise regularly
Narcolepsy can normally be maintained with treatment, but it is a life-long disorder. Treating other possible sleeping disorders and maintaining proper sleep habits can improve the symptoms of narcolepsy.