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Narcolepsy: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments
Narcolepsy is not an easy condition to diagnose. As a result, many people who are affected by it often do not receive proper treatment. As a result, their ability to function during the day is severely diminished.
In this article, I’m going to provide you with an overview of the condition itself, how it is diagnosed, and some treatments for it.
What Is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness. It is characterized by the onset of narcolepsy symptoms during puberty or adolescence.
It is a neurological condition where the brain has trouble regulating sleep-wake cycles. Narcoleptics are not able to control when they fall asleep or wake up, and are at risk for sudden muscle weakness or paralysis when they are awake.
The most common narcoleptic symptom is excessive daytime sleepiness, which can make it difficult to stay awake on their feet for long periods of time. Some people with narcolepsy also experience cataplexy, which is a sudden loss of muscle tone that can cause them to collapse during times of strong emotion like laughter, anger, surprise, or fear.
The most common cause of narcolepsy is a deficiency of the brain’s most important neurotransmitter, the hormone orexin. Orexin-producing neurons are located in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls many aspects of human physiology, including sleep-wake cycles.
What Causes Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is caused by a dysfunction of the brain’s hypothalamus, a region of the brain that controls the sleep-wake cycle. This is different from other sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, where the primary cause is a malfunction of the airway. It is considered to be a disorder of the brain’s neurotransmitter system, where the brain’s neurotransmitters (like dopamine and norepinephrine) are unable to regulate sleep.
The fact that narcolepsy can occur in both children and adults, suggests that there is not one single cause, but rather a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.
It is important to note that narcolepsy is not contagious. Narcoleptics cannot spread narcolepsy to others.
Symptoms of narcolepsy
The symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Narcoleptic cataplexy
- Sudden muscle weakness
- Narcoleptic attacks
- Amenorrhea (absence of menstrual cycles)
Symptoms of narcolepsy can begin during childhood or adolescence, but can continue into adulthood. The onset of narcolepsy is usually during puberty or adolescence, and can last for years.
Symptoms may be mild or severe.
How Is Narcolepsy Diagnosed?
Diagnosing narcolepsy can be difficult. It is typically diagnosed with a sleep study that shows a lack of normal sleep. In some cases, a blood test can be used to measure levels of orexin. In rare cases, the cause of narcolepsy is due to a brain tumor.
To sum it up, the diagnosis of narcolepsy is often made by ruling out other conditions that cause similar symptoms.
Causes of narcolepsy
Narcolepsy is a neurological sleep disorder that causes people to suddenly fall asleep or feel very sleepy, often at inappropriate times.
Narcolepsy is thought to be an autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks the brain cells that produce hypocretin, a natural stimulant.
Narcolepsy can be treated with drugs called central nervous system stimulants, which are also used for ADHD and narcolepsy.
Side effects of these drugs include irritability and insomnia.
Narcolepsy is a serious disorder that can cause serious problems for you professionally and personally. Other people might see narcoleptics as lazy or lethargic without understanding their condition. Also, narcolepsy will undoubtedly affect one’s performance in work or school.
Since sudden, intense feelings can trigger narcolepsy for some, this may lead them to withdraw from social interaction when possible.
Narcolepsy can also result in physical harm to people with the disorder. If you have an attack while driving, your risk of getting into a car accident is increased.
Treatment for Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy can be treated with stimulants, antidepressants, and other drugs to help control the symptoms like excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy (loss of muscle tone). Other treatments include lifestyle changes like getting enough sleep and avoiding alcohol before bedtime.
Narcolepsy can also be treated with medications that help to improve the brain’s ability to regulate sleep. The goal is to treat narcolepsy as early as possible to avoid the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
Narcolepsy is treated with three essential medications:
Sodium oxybate (GHB): This is a class of drugs that temporarily and completely stops the brain from sending messages to the body. The body still has the feeling of being awake, but the mind does not function normally. GHB is a central nervous system depressant similar to alcohol and barbiturates. It has a short duration and usually does not last longer than eight hours.
The main benefit of sodium oxybate is that it increases the time that it takes to fall asleep. This makes it an effective treatment for insomnia. Side effects are similar to those experienced when using a drug containing alcohol. Common side effects include drowsiness and headache.
Modafinil: Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting agent, which was first used as an appetite suppressant. It is prescribed to treat narcolepsy. It is a prescription medicine, indicated for the treatment of excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy or shift work sleep disorder. Modafinil has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for these indications.
It is not intended to be a substitute for other sleep medications. Common side effects include headache, agitation, confusion, diarrhea, dizziness, anxiety, dry mouth, nausea, and trouble with coordination. Special precautions include that it should not be taken with alcohol, especially when combined with a sedative or hypnotic drug.
Armodafinil: Armodafinil is a wakefulness-promoting medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of excessive sleepiness caused by narcolepsy. Armodafinil is the only drug that is FDA-approved specifically for people with narcolepsy. It has also been studied for use in the treatment of other conditions that cause excessive daytime drowsiness, including shift work sleep disorder, obstructive sleep apnea, and idiopathic hypersomnia.
Sodium Oxybate: Sodium oxybate is a sedative-hypnotic that is used in the treatment of excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). It works by slowing the amount of time it takes a person to fall asleep, reducing the number and duration of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep episodes, and promoting deeper levels of sleep.
Sodium oxybate is used to treat symptoms of narcolepsy and improve your quality of sleep.
Behavioral strategies to reduce symptoms
When symptoms are severe, consider seeing a doctor. Other behavioral strategies include using a calendar or diary to track symptoms, keeping a written list of helpful activities and information, getting enough sleep and exercise, seeking support and understanding from others, avoiding smoking or drinking alcohol, getting regular medical care, and reducing stress.
Narcolepsy is a chronic disorder that affects a person’s sleep, leading to daytime drowsiness. It is characterized by the presence of two or more symptoms of excessive sleepiness (cataplexy, sleep paralysis, or hypnagogic hallucinations) in the absence of a secondary sleep disorder.
Narcolepsy can occur in both children and adults. It is more common in people between the ages of 20 and 50. It can also occur in people with a family history of narcolepsy.
In some people, narcolepsy is not diagnosed until symptoms occur after the age of 50. This is referred to as late-onset narcolepsy. It can also occur in people who have been exposed to a certain type of virus or who have experienced a head injury.
The cause of narcolepsy is unknown. Narcolepsy is thought to be caused by the disruption of the brain’s ability to regulate sleep.
Treatment is focused on treating the symptoms of narcolepsy. Medications can help to control symptoms like excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy. Other treatments include lifestyle changes like getting enough sleep and avoiding alcohol before bedtime.