The Physicians’ Desk Reference defines narcolepsy as a sleep disorder where a person does not get enough REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep, causing sufferers to fall asleep during inappropriate and unpredictable times throughout the day.
Who is Affected by Narcolepsy?
Anyone at any age can experience this neurological disorder but onset most frequently occurs between the ages of 15 and 25. Studies have found that the prevalence of the disorder is very different in different parts of the world. In the United States, for example, narcolepsy affects one in every 2,000 people whereas in Israel only one in 500,000. Japan has an astounding rate of occurrences with one in 600 people diagnosed with the disorder, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
What Causes Narcolepsy?
Currently, the causes are unknown, but many institutions are continuing to study the condition. It is thought that there is a genetic predisposition to the disorder which is triggered or aggravated by an outside environmental cause, such as a virus.
Interestingly, research has found that people with narcolepsy lack a hormone in the brain called hypocretin, which regulates sleep. Some advances have been made in developing drug treatment that may simulate that chemical.
In addition to the hallmark trait of Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS) people with narcolepsy also experience a combination of most or all of these symptoms:
• Memory lapses
• Poor concentration
• Decreased levels of energy/ exhaustion
• Cataplexy, or the sudden loss of muscle tone which can leave the person feeling weak, with poor motor control or slurred speech.
• Sleep paralysis, which is characterized by a temporary inability to move or talk just before falling asleep or waking.
• Hallucinations that are extremely vivid and can include all of the senses (called hypnagogic hallucinations).
Common Misconceptions about Narcolepsy
Many people have the misconception that narcolepsy is simply caused by not getting enough sleep at night. More precisely, it is caused by an inability to sleep deeply and so the body is never fully restored and the sufferer never fully refreshed.
Narcolepsy is a disorder of the nervous system, and not a mental disorder caused by stress, anxiety or any other outside factor.
How is Narcolepsy Diagnosed?
A physician will run a series of tests to exclude any other medical issues, such as seizures, or other sleep disorders. Some of the tests include:
• Blood tests
• ECG, which measures the heart’s electrical activity
• EEG, which measures brain activity
• Monitor breathing
• MSLT, or the Multiple Sleep Latency Test which measures how long it takes to fall asleep
• Polysomnogram sleep study
Because the cause or causes are not yet fully understood, a cure has not yet been developed. Treatment consists of dealing with the symptoms through medication and lifestyle changes. In addition to medications, such as stimulants and antidepressants, a physician may recommend:
• Frequent naps
• Eating vegetarian meals during the day
Although narcolepsy is a chronic condition, it is not life threatening. However, driving and operating machinery may be dangerous. Since the condition can seriously impact the sufferer’s social and personal life, many people with narcolepsy find that networking with others living with the disorder through organizations such as The Narcolepsy Network is very helpful.