There are a number of chronic sleep disorders that can severely interfere with your life. Narcolepsy is one of them.
What is narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that affects the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. Characteristics of this condition include overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden ‘attacks’ of sleep. People with narcolepsy experience uneven and uninterrupted sleep throughout the night. They may also have difficulty staying awake for long periods of time.
Types of narcolepsy?
There are two types of narcolepsy.
- Type 1 — People with this type have low levels of a brain hormone called hypocretin. They may also report sudden loss of voluntary muscle control (called cataplexy), and exhibit excessive daytime sleepiness on a special nap test.
- Type 2 — This type still causes people to experience excessive daytime sleepiness, but without the muscle weakness. Symptoms of this type are usually less severe and people with this condition have normal levels of hypocretin.
What causes it?
Scientists don’t fully understand the exact cause of narcolepsy but it’s thought that it may be caused by several factors working together. These include autoimmune disorders, family history, and brain injuries.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness — people can fall asleep anywhere, anytime without warning
- Reduced alertness and focus during the day
- Sudden loss of muscle control (cataplexy), which can include slurred speech. This is usually triggered by intense emotions
- Sleep paralysis, a temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or on waking
- REM sleep that can occur at any time of the day
- Hallucinations, either on falling asleep or on waking
- Fragmented sleep and insomnia
- Continuing automatic behaviours (e.g. driving) when they have fallen asleep.
How is narcolepsy diagnosed?
Diagnosing narcolepsy may take some time. If your doctor suspects you have narcolepsy, they may send you to a sleep specialist for further investigation. Diagnosing narcolepsy usually involves:
- A detailed sleep history, part of which involves answering some questions about your sleep habits
- Recording your sleep patterns for a week or two
- Undergoing a sleep study, also known as a polysomnography
- Undergoing a multiple sleep latency test designed to measure how quickly you fall asleep during the day and whether you enter REM sleep when you do fall asleep.
Excessive daytime sleepiness can also be caused by other health conditions and chronic sleep conditions, so these tests can help doctors rule out any other possible causes of your condition.
How is it treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for narcolepsy. Treatment aims to minimise symptoms and may include:
- Sticking to a regular bedtime routine of waking up and going to bed at the same time each day
- Taking short naps at regular intervals during the day
- Avoiding nicotine, caffeine and alcohol
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding large, heavy meals before bedtime
- Doing relaxing activities before bedtime.
What else can you do?
If your sleep patterns aren’t normal and you experience excessive daytime sleepiness, make sure you speak to your doctor. It’s important to get a diagnosis and begin treatment to manage your symptoms.