A physical disorder called “narcolepsy” significantly impacts daily life for some patients. People with this condition find themselves unexpectedly falling asleep throughout the day. For example, a narcoleptic may suddenly, and unpredictably doze off in the middle of an important conversation. Episodes of sleeping sometimes disrupt the patient’s daily life in potentially hazardous settings.
Today, physicians believe narcolepsy stems from a disorder of the nervous system. Some researchers believe the body of a person afflicted with narcolepsy cannot produce a sufficient amount of a chemical called “hypocretin“. They maintain this substance in healthy individuals helps control rapid eye movements which occur at specific periods during a sleep cycle. Hypocretin contributes to wakefulness in most people.
Paradoxically perhaps, people afflicted with narcolepsy do not necessarily suffer from a lack of sleep. Despite obtaining a full eight hours of sleep at night, a patient may also feel tired during the daytime. Some symptoms that frequently occur in narcoleptics include:
- Sleep Paralysis: About 60% of people suffering from narcolepsy experience a transient inability to move or speak while falling asleep or awakening. They may even experience difficulty breathing.
- Cataplexy: The majority of narcoleptics also experience sudden incidents of cataplexy when they feel strong emotions. Cataplexy causes an abrupt loss of muscle tone. These incidents may lead a narcoleptic to topple over or fall down suddenly.
- Hypnagogic or Hypnopompic Hallucinations: When falling asleep or awakening, a narcoleptic may experience a dream-like state producing vivid hallucinations. These conditions resemble the experience of healthy people while dreaming during periods of REM sleep.
Some narcoleptics also report feeling persistently tired — the majority report experiencing episodes of waking up at night for brief periods. A narcoleptic may not remember awakening.
Although researchers have not yet developed a cure for narcolepsy, they have made significant progress in assisting patients in controlling the condition. Results vary widely. Some narcoleptics sustain unwanted sleeping incidents on a daily basis, while others suffer from the condition sporadically.
Physicians prescribe medications such as stimulants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and tricyclic antidepressants to help control narcolepsy. Prescriptions of sodium oxybate help some patients alleviate cataplexy.