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Woman suffering from narcolepsy fell asleep with her head resting on the keyboard of her laptop

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Here is Polysleep's complete guide on narcolepsy!

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Narcolepsy is often portrayed indirectly and humorously in the media, without informing viewers about the disorder itself.

Indeed, the gags of people falling asleep at any minute and at any time are a reflection of the lives of narcoleptics.

Unfortunately, this disorder has major consequences in the lives of those affected.

Polysleep, your online sleep specialist, has looked into the matter. Keep on reading if you want to know more about narcolepsy!

Clear and major symptoms for the affected individual

 

Illustration of a human head on narcolepsy being a neurological disorder and causing uncontrolled sleepiness

Narcolepsy: definition

Narcolepsy is an incurable and uncommon neurological disorder.

The most well-known symptom, briefly described above, is periods of uncontrolled REM sleep that can occur at any time, including during periods of activity.

This is what distinguishes it mainly from idiopathic hypersomnia, another sleeping disorder with also very incapacitating consequences and manifestations. On the other hand, narcolepsy, like it, is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness.

Two types of narcolepsy

There are two different types.

  • Type 1 narcolepsy, which is characterized by:

    • Excessive daytime sleepiness, not permanent but daily.

    • Irrepressible periods of sleep.

    • Cataplexy (sudden loss of muscle control), often occurring when the subject feels a pleasant emotion. This can be partial or total.

    • Possible hallucinations when falling asleep and waking up.

    • Sleep paralysis.

    • Poor quality of sleep.

 

  • Type 2 narcolepsy, which differs from type 1 by the absence of cataplexy episodes, but may have accompanying symptoms.

 

Finally, narcoleptics often experience difficulties in concentrating, but also in learning. Both adults and children can be affected by narcolepsy.

In the case of narcolepsy in children and adolescents, it’s referred to as pediatric narcolepsy: the symptoms are similar to those of adults.

Origin and complex diagnosis

 

Illustration of a puzzle and sleepiness of a human head depicting the complexity of narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a priori caused by a disturbance in the production of a specific polypeptide neurotransmitter: hypocretin.

This disruption causes a dysfunction of the mechanisms regulating the sleep-wake cycle. However, what is not yet elucidated is what causes this change in the secretion of the above-mentioned substance.

Some people assume that this is the result of a genetic or immunological problem (e.g. immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis). For others, it could be the result of trauma to the brain in those affected, or exposure to toxic products such as pesticides.

The process of determining whether or not a patient is narcoleptic is complex. As a result, the patient needs to make an appointment with a sleep disorder clinic or an expert on the subject, as recommended by their doctor.

One of the methods for diagnosis is the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT): the patient is subjected to repeated short naps for one day.

For each map, an electroencephalogram is produced, and other measurements on muscle tone and eye movements are also collected using special equipment.

If the specialists detect the appearance of REM sleep as soon as the patient falls asleep, it’s very likely that the patient is narcoleptic.

Another, more invasive procedure that can be performed to diagnose narcolepsy is the determination of cerebrospinal fluid, which is the fluid in which the spinal cord is located. The abnormally low presence of hypocretin will confirm narcolepsy in the patient.

Major repercussions, a daily challenge

 

Teacher discouraged that his student falls asleep in his class representing an example of a daily challenge for a narcoleptic

The symptoms of narcolepsy described above can, if left untreated or undiagnosed, have serious consequences for those affected.

The most important ones concern those related to the safety of narcoleptics, but also those of people in their direct physical environment.

In the first case, sudden and irrepressible attacks of sleep, even in full activity, can be dangerous. For example, if one of them occurs while a narcoleptic is driving, it can cause loss of control of the vehicle and accidents.

These same consequences are also valid in the workplace of a narcoleptic, where the unexpected onset of a sleep phase could lead to workplace accidents for the narcoleptic or any other workers nearby.

There are also less serious but very annoying daily risks for social, family and professional life.

The excessive sleepiness characteristic of the disorder makes concentration more difficult and is often at the origin of learning difficulties that can harm the academic career of narcoleptics, but also during their working life. Indeed, this drowsiness can greatly reduce the performance of narcoleptics.

Their family life is also more complicated: they will find it more difficult to engage in intense or longer activities with their close ones. All these limitations may lead some affected patients to depression, which will also need to be treated.

Treatments with varying degrees of effectiveness depending on the patient

 

Study of a patient's brain to find effective treatments to fight narcolepsy

First of all, it’s important to emphasize that narcolepsy cannot be cured, and that it lasts a lifetime in patients who suffer from it. However, it can improve and some of its manifestations can disappear. So how can narcolepsy be cured? There are treatments for this sleep disorder that are more or less effective.

These are primarily aimed at excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy attacks, and poor quality of sleep. The treatment is first medicated with molecules that stimulate the nervous system such as amphetamines (e.g. dextroamphetamine and methylphenidate). Modafinil, a drug that stimulates wakefulness, is also sometimes prescribed.

Other symptoms (cataplexy, sleep paralysis, hallucinations) are treated with tricyclic antidepressants such as desipramine, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as sertraline.

For all that, there is a good chance that drugs alone will not be able to suppress all daytime sleepiness. To remedy this problem, it’s recommended to take 3 to 4 short naps of 20 minutes that will be planned in advance in the narcoleptic's schedule.

If the symptoms are not completely contained, the affected patient may prefer an occupation that does not require driving or the use of dangerous equipment over a long period of time.

In addition to reducing the risk of accidents, the patients will see for themselves that they’re capable of fully performing their professional duties. They will be more fulfilled in their job, which will limit the onset of depression.

Finally, good sleep habits can greatly help. Here are a few of them:

  • Go to bed at a set time each day.

  • Do not watch TV in the bedroom: this room is mainly used for sleeping!

  • Take a bath or a shower before bedtime.

  • Do not consume caffeine, alcohol or nicotine before bedtime.

 

These natural treatment options will maximize the chances of more restful sleep-in individuals suffering from narcolepsy!

Solutions to limit symptoms

 

Illustration of the + sign on the brain of a human head defining a solution to limit the symptoms of narcolepsy

Ultimately, although narcolepsy remains rare, it remains very disabling for those who suffer from it. Potential difficulties at the academic, professional and family levels due to the various symptoms, and the risk of depression increased due to lack of achievement in these areas.

Undiagnosed and/or untreated narcoleptics must face the challenges of this disorder on a daily basis whether it’s type 1 (with cataplexy) or type 2 (without cataplexy).

If it can’t be cured and will remain present throughout the life of the narcoleptic, it can be diagnosed more categorically than idiopathic hypersomnia, although the procedure remains restrictive.

Once the diagnosis is made, the combination of several treatments simultaneously can help. These fall into four main areas:

  • Drugs that stimulate the nervous system or wakefulness to counter excessive daytime sleepiness, and those to treat cataplexy, hallucinations and sleep paralysis (tricyclic antidepressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).

  • Short 20-minute naps, 3 to 4 per day, planned in advance.

  • Healthy lifestyle habits to help in restful sleep (going to bed at the same times, using the room only for sleeping, no use of substances that can interfere with sleep beforehand).

  • The choice of an appropriate occupation to reduce the risk of accidents for the narcoleptic and people nearby.

 

Learn more: What is idiopathic hypersomnia ?

Man suffering from idiopathic hypersomnia during daylight

The combination of these different approaches will allow narcoleptics to better control symptoms while maximizing their development and avoiding the risk of injury to themselves and others.

However, they will first need to consult with experts to determine the best course of action for their situation. If in your case, you’re drowsy during the day because you sleep badly due to a worn mattress, go to our product page to discover our foam mattresses and order directly online!

We’ll deliver your mattress directly to your door, so you can sleep like a baby that night!

Order online

 


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