People with narcolepsy experience sudden and irresistible urges to sleep during the daytime; these sleep episodes last anywhere from a few seconds to 30 minutes, but they are not planned naps. They are more appropriately referred to as sleep "attacks" that can occur repeatedly throughout the day during normal activities such as talking, eating, and even driving. One minute the person is awake and alert, the next they are sound asleep.
You might think these folks are dozing uncontrollably because they are sleep-deprived, but people with narcolepsy may be getting an adequate amount of rest at night. The culprit seems to be the degeneration of certain cells in the brain, which in turn leads to abnormalities in alertness control and REM sleep.
The typical person starts a sleep cycle in non-REM sleep and ends it in REM sleep. Researchers have found that people who have narcolepsy, on the other hand, often begin a cycle with REM sleep.
As if those symptoms weren't enough, another important one that accompanies narcolepsy is cataplexy. This is sudden, partial or complete muscle paralysis brought on by emotions such as joy, anger, or elation. So imagine this embarrassing scenario: You're out on a date. Something humorous is said. You spontaneously respond with hearty laughter, and in the next breath your face is in your soup. Not the way you wanted to finish your meal or the date.
Cataplexy is caused by a REM sleep mechanism that is similar to the partial paralysis that the brain naturally triggers to keep us from acting out our dreams at night. This same mechanism may cause another symptom of narcolepsy called sleep paralysis, in which the person is awake but unable to move or to speak for a few moments.
The paralysis occurs as the person is just falling asleep or waking up. Frightening hallucinations, which are actually dreams or nightmares, can occur during the sleep paralysis, which is yet another sign that the REM sleep mode has not disengaged. When sleep paralysis and hallucinations occur together, it can be extremely distressing.
Narcolepsy usually begins in late childhood or adolescence, and excessive sleepiness is almost always the first symptom. There is a strong genetic link among the quarter of a million Americans coping with this difficult sleep disorder.
Although there is no cure for narcolepsy, symptoms can be lessened by taking brief naps as needed throughout the day. Other treatments include prescription medications such as antidepressants and stimulants. The stimulants are used to combat the severe daytime sleepiness, and the antidepressants are used to control the cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and sleep-related hallucinations.
Sleeping during the day can also be a sign of hypersomnia. Learn about this disorder on the next page.
For more information on how to get a good night's sleep, see:
- How Sleep Works
- Causes of Insomnia
- How to Fall Asleep
- Sleep Medications
- Natural Sleep Aids
- How to Help A Child Who Is Having Trouble Falling Asleep
- Is Lack of Sleep Making Me Fat?
- Is Science Phasing Out Sleep?