Your Sleep Questions Answered: Narcolepsy

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Narcolepsy is a somewhat common sleep disorder that affects roughly 1 in 2,000 Americans. This sleep disorder usually begins in the early teens to mid-20s and recurring throughout adulthood. We scoured the Web to find answers to some frequently asked questions about narcolepsy, giving you background information so that you or your loved one can literally sleep better at night.

Note: You should not rely on the information in this post as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other accredited sleep expert. --Jason O'Bryan

Narcolepsy

The Mayo Clinic describes narcolepsy as "a disorder that causes periods of extreme daytime sleepiness" and "may cause muscle weakness" (also called cataplexy). Such periods of sleepiness result in sleep that typically lasts 10 to 20 minutes. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, this usually occurs "in situations in which tiredness is common, such as traveling."

Symptoms

According to WebMD, "people with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness and intermittent, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the daytime." The American Academy of Sleep Medicine goes on to say that "narcoleptics are often refreshed by short naps. However, after two or three hours, they feel sleepy again." It frequently, though not exclusively, accompanies cataplexy or sleep analysis. Both disorders result in sudden loss of muscle tone.

Causes

While the cause of narcolepsy is still unknown, WebMD says that "scientists have made progress toward identifying genes strongly associated with the disorder." Experts believe a deficiency of the chemical hypocretin is at least partially responsible, as well as "abnormalities in various parts of the brain involved in regulating REM sleep."

Standard Treatments

While there is no cure, the two most debilitating symptoms -- excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy -- can be treated with medication, such as modafinil for the sleepiness and tricyclics or selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors for the cataplexy, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. WebMD also describes lifestyle factors that can greatly reduce symptoms, like "avoiding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and heavy meals, regulating sleep schedules, scheduling daytime naps (10 to 15 minutes in length), and establishing a normal exercise and meal schedule."

Severity

Narcolepsy alone is not life threatening, but as the Center for Narcolepsy at the Stanford School of Medicine warns, "narcoleptic patients are often markedly psychosocially impaired in the area of work, leisure, interpersonal relations, and are more prone to accidents." Narcoleptics are also in greater physical danger, as the Mayo Clinic points out that "sleep attacks may result in physical harm."

Quality of Life

Because narcoleptic episodes can occur at any time, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke calls it "profoundly disabling," highlighting that patients also have difficulty sleeping through the night.

Narcoleptic REM Cycle

REM sleep usually begins 90 minutes after falling asleep, but in narcoleptics, REM begins almost immediately. WebMD holds REM accountable for some of the associated problems of the disease, affirming, "it is in REM sleep that we can experience dreams and muscle paralysis which explains some of the symptoms of narcolepsy."

Have you ever suffered from narcolepsy? What advice worked for you?

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