What is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a neurological sleep disorder that affects the ability to control sleep-wake cycles. People with narcolepsy experience sudden, uncontrollable episodes of deep sleep during the day, even when they’ve slept well the night before.

These sudden sleeping episodes can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours, and can cause impairment in day-to-day activities. Narcolepsy is also associated with other symptoms, including:

  • cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle tone),
  • sleep paralysis,
  • excessive daytime sleepiness, and
  • hallucinations.

Causes of Narcolepsy

The cause of narcolepsy is not fully understood, although research suggests a genetic component. It is thought to be a disorder associated with the immune system, and there may be a link between narcolepsy and certain environmental factors.

The most common cause of narcolepsy is thought to be a loss of the brain cells responsible for producing the neurotransmitter hypocretin (also known as orexin), which is involved in regulating the sleep-wake cycle.

Diagnosing Narcolepsy

Typically, narcolepsy is diagnosed by your doctor based on your medical history and symptoms. They may also order some tests, such as an overnight polysomnogram, or a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT). The MSLT measures how quickly you fall asleep during the day and provides information about the type of sleep disorder.

Treatment of Narcolepsy

There is currently no cure for narcolepsy, however, some medications may be prescribed to reduce the symptoms and improve quality of life. Some common medications include:

  • stimulants for excessive daytime sleepiness,
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants for cataplexy,
  • and sodium oxybate for cataplexy and nighttime sleep disturbances.

Behavioral treatments such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and lifestyle changes, such as establishing regular sleep habits, can also help manage symptoms of narcolepsy.