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What is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder with symptoms of overwhelming daytime drowsiness, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and in some cases, episodes of cataplexy, which is a sudden loss of a part or all of the muscle tone when laughing, crying, or being angry.

Both men and women can suffer from narcolepsy. It is estimated that this sleep disorder affects about 1 in 2,000 people. The symptoms of narcolepsy appear during childhood or adolescence years, but many people experience symptoms of narcolepsy for years before getting a proper diagnosis.

People with narcolepsy may experience excessive daytime drowsiness and may fall asleep anytime and anywhere. Excessive daytime sleepiness usually is the first symptom to appear

For example, cataplexy is a muscle paralysis that occurs while you are awake during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This causes a sudden loss of muscle tone and saggy jaw, or weakness in your arms, legs, and other parts of the body. 

Narcolepsy patients may also experience hallucinations and paralysis such as dreaming when they fall asleep or wake up, insomnia, and vivid nightmares. You can consult a neurologist about your narcolepsy symptoms through Smarter Health.

Causes of Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy with cataplexy occurs when your brain lacks hypocretin chemicals. Hypocretin is an important chemical to regulate well-maintained conditions and rapid eye movement (REM) stages.

Narcolepsy without cataplexy has near similar symptoms, but the cause is unknown. More studies are needed to confirm if narcolepsy has anything to do with injuries to the hypothalamus and brain stem, tumors, or strokes.

Genetics is considered to be one of the causes of narcolepsy. A person may be born with a specific gene that puts him or her at higher risk of narcolepsy. During childhood or adolescence years, an infection can trigger the onset of narcolepsy, as the immune system attacks special cells in the brain that produce hypocretin.

Your immune system is considered responsible for the loss of these cells- making narcolepsy an autoimmune disease. One of the common triggers for narcolepsy is influenza H1N1 virus infection.

Lack of hypocretin in your brain causes you to have trouble sleeping. It also allows the REM stage to occur at an unannounced time. People with narcolepsy often fall into REM sleep quickly and wake up directly from it. 

When to See a Doctor for Narcolepsy

Your neurologist will establish your diagnosis based on your symptoms. Symptoms of narcolepsy are similar to those of other health problems. Your diagnosis may involve:

  • Physical examination and medical history.
  • Your doctor may ask you to track your symptoms and sleep schedule for several weeks.
  • Polysomnography (PSG) – performed in a laboratory or clinic. PSG can help reveal if you have entered the REM sleep at unusual times in your sleep cycle. This can rule out other problems that may be causing your symptoms.
  • Multiple sleep latency tests (MSLT) – performed in a laboratory or clinic. The MSLT is done throughout the day to measure your tendency to fall asleep and find out if certain elements of the REM sleep occur at unusual times of the day.

Symptoms of Narcolepsy

During REM sleep, you may be dreaming and experiencing muscle paralysis as with some symptoms of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy symptoms may include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). EDS symptoms may complicate your daily activities even if you get enough sleep at night. Lack of energy can make it difficult for you to concentrate. You experience memory lapses and feel stressed or tired.
  • Cataplexy. It can cause slurred speech to loss of body control, depending on the muscles involved. This condition is often triggered by strong emotions such as shock, laughter, or anger.
  • Hallucinations. You may have terrifying delusions at any time. Most hallucinations occur visually, but other senses may be involved. It is called hypnagogic if it occurs while you are sleeping and is called hypnopompic if it occurs while you are awake.
  • Sleep paralysis. You may not be able to move or talk when you fall asleep or wake up. These episodes usually last from a few seconds to several minutes.
  • Trouble sleeping – caused by vivid dreams, breathing problems, or certain body movements.

Treatment for Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy cannot be cured, but proper treatment can help relieve symptoms, such as:

  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle. This includes avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Control your sleep schedule, follow your exercise schedule, and eat right. 
  • Take stimulants to help with drowsiness.
  • Take antidepressants to treat REM sleep problems.
  • Take sodium oxybate (Xyrem) for treating cataplexy.
  • Take pitolisant (Wakix) or Solriamfetol (Sunosi) to help you stay awake for a longer time.

Treatment Cost for Narcolepsy

Treatment cost for narcolepsy varies greatly, depending on the type of treatment recommended by your doctor and your choice of hospital.

To calculate the estimated treatment cost for narcolepsy at home and abroad, contact Smarter Health.

Prevention of Narcolepsy

By implementing a healthy lifestyle, you protect yourself from having narcolepsy:

  • Regulate the same sleep/wake cycle every day, including weekends.
  • Schedule short naps throughout the day. A 20-minute nap at strategic times during the day can refresh and reduce sleepiness for 1 to 3 hours. Some people may need a longer nap.
  • Avoid the use of nicotine and alcohol, as the substances contained can worsen the symptoms of narcolepsy.
  • Exercise regularly at least 4 to 5 hours before bedtime – this can help you feel more energized during the day and sleep better at night.

Home Remedies for Narcolepsy

Until now, there is no cure for narcolepsy. However, proper treatment can improve the symptoms and eventually the lives of people with narcolepsy. 

To improve your quality of life, implement the following narcolepsy care measures: 

  • Identify the trigger factors of intense sleepiness and cataplexy.
  • Pay attention to the types of food you consume and exercises you do
  • Pay attention to how the medications affect your symptoms, including what time you take the medication and how it works.
  • Try to take naps and see if, when and how long a nap makes you feel less sleepy
  • Know when to rest.
  • Maintain a good and consistent sleep cycle by having regular sleep/wake times, if possible. Keep your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark.
  • Find a community that provides support for people with narcolepsy. Learning from others can be helpful and will make you feel connected.
  • Educate people around you about narcolepsy. Use clear and accurate descriptions of disorders and symptoms. This will increase their empathy and support for you.

Have further questions about narcolepsy? Write them down in the comment section below or consult a neurologist at home and abroad through Smarter Health for proper narcolepsy treatment. 

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