The condition is called narcolepsy and affects an estimated 1 in every 2 000 people in the United States and approximately 3 million worldwide. It is however estimated that only 25% people who have narcolepsy have been diagnosed and are receiving treatment.
Narcolepsy has been described as: “It’s more like overwhelmingly bad jet lag. Like you can’t possibly stay awake, no matter how hard you try.”
Famous narcoleptics include Curt Cobain, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Nastassja Kinski and Louis Braille.
What is narcolepsy?
According to NHS Choices narcolepsy is a rare long-term brain disorder that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times. It doesn’t cause serious health problems, but can cause difficulties on a day-to-day basis.
- Excessive sleepiness/drowsiness during the day and sudden sleep attacks
- Cataplexy – a temporary loss of muscle control resulting in weakness and sometimes collapse
- Sleep paralysis – the inability to move or speak when waking up or falling asleep
- Hypnagogic hallucinations – excessive dreaming (and waking up) during the night
Cause of narcolepsy
Narcolepsy can be caused by a lack of the brain chemical hypocretin which regulates wakefulness, but it doesn’t explain all cases.
Possible triggers may include hormonal changes during puberty or menopause, psychological stress and infections like swine flu.
It’s not easy to diagnose narcolepsy because symptoms like fatigue are common to many conditions. The condition is diagnosed by means of a sleep study which requires an overnight stay in a sleep lab.
Misdiagnosis of narcolepsy is common and it may be mistaken for depression, insomnia and obstructive sleep apnoea.
Narcolepsy cannot be cured, but improving sleeping habits and taking the correct medication can help to lessen the impact of the condition on one’s daily life.
Frequent, brief naps throughout the day can help to manage excessive daytime drowsiness.
Going to bed at the same time each night can make a big difference.
There are medications that can help reduce daytime sleepiness, prevent cataplexy attacks and improve nighttime sleep.