We all struggle with disturbed sleep and tiredness now and again, but it’s part of everyday life for people with narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a rare long-term brain condition that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep at inappropriate times.1 In a typical sleep cycle, we enter the early stages of sleep and then the deeper stages. Finally, after about ninety minutes, we reach Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. People with narcolepsy go into REM sleep almost immediately – even when they’re awake. This can get in the way of work, school, socialisation, and everyday life, which can be troubling and challenging for anyone who suffers from it. As a sleeping disorder, narcolepsy can be a serious problem as it disrupts your sleep, which is essential for your physical and mental health. However, there are ways for you to help ease the symptoms to make everyday life a bit easier.
What Are the Symptoms of Narcolepsy?
It’s estimated that narcolepsy affects about 30,000 people in the UK. Symptoms can often begin during adolescence, although it’s usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. When someone has narcolepsy, their brain is unable to regulate sleeping and waking patterns normally,2 which can result in:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Sleep attacks (falling asleep suddenly and without warning)
- Cataplexy (temporary loss of muscle control – results in weakness and possible collapse, often triggered by strong emotions, such as laughter)
- Sleep paralysis
- Excessive dreaming and waking in the night
- Disrupted sleep due to vivid dreams, breathing problems, or body movements
- Dream-like hallucinations and paralysis as you’re falling asleep or waking up
If you have narcolepsy, it’s possible that you could also have sleep apnoea, a sleeping disorder where your breathing often pauses while you sleep. Read more about it here.
Narcolepsy does not cause serious or long-term physical health problems. However, as it significantly disrupts your sleep pattern, it can affect your daily life. Also, as you struggle with poor sleep, you may be at risk of developing depression. You can find out more in our article, ‘Sleeping with Depression’.
What Causes Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is often caused by a lack of the brain chemical hypocretin, which regulates wakefulness. A lack of hypocretin is thought to be caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the cells that produce it or the receptors that allow it to work. However, this does not explain every case of narcolepsy, and the exact cause is still unknown. There are possible triggers that include hormonal changes, major psychological stress, an infection, or medicine used to vaccinate against infections.3
Also, if you’ve got a family history of narcolepsy, then your risk of experiencing it can be 20 – 40 times higher.4
How Can You Help Yourself Sleep Better?
There is no cure for narcolepsy, but making changes to your sleeping habits can help to minimise the effect of narcolepsy on your everyday life.5
Try to nap. Taking frequent, brief naps that are evenly spaced throughout the day is one of the best ways to manage excessive daytime sleepiness6. This can be difficult to manage if you’re at work or school, but your doctor may be able to devise a sleep schedule that’ll help you get into a routine of taking naps.
Keep a bedtime routine. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day will help to regulate your sleep pattern, which can help with feelings of tiredness during the day.
Have a relaxing bedtime routine. Having some time each evening before going to bed where you do some relaxing activities will signal to your brain that it’s time to settle for sleep. You could have a warm, soothing bath and then read for a while before going to sleep. Being consistent is important, as your brain needs to learn the routine before it completely accepts it.
Have a good sleeping environment. Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet, and dark. It’s also a good idea to make sure that your bedroom is free from distractions – this includes the TV, phone, tablet, or laptop. Avoid looking at them for about an hour before you go to sleep, as the blue light that’s emitted from these screens disrupts the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. This’ll keep you from drifting into a deep sleep, which will make you feel worse during the day. Read more about how technology affects your sleep in our article here.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Although the first cup of coffee can make you feel more alert in the morning, drinking it during the day can keep you from sleeping well at night. Similarly, while alcohol can make you feel drowsy, drinking it before you go to bed can keep you from drifting into a deep sleep and you’ll likely wake up during the night.
Don’t exercise close to bedtime. It’s true that exercise helps you sleep well at night but exercising close to going to bed will make it harder to get to sleep. You can read more about how exercise helps improve your sleep in our article, ‘Five Ways Exercise Helps You Sleep’.
Watch what you eat. Avoid heavy, large meals late in the evening.
While these are tips for helping to improve your sleeping habits to ease the symptoms of narcolepsy, the best way to help yourself is to visit your doctor. Your doctor may ask you about your sleeping habits and any other symptoms. They could also carry out tests to help rule out any other conditions that could be causing excessive daytime sleepiness, such as sleep apnoea or restless leg syndrome. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may want to refer you to a sleep specialist so that you get the best care. You may be prescribed medicine that can help to reduce daytime sleepiness, prevent cataplexy attacks, and improve your sleep at night. Therefore, it’s important that you go to your doctor if you think you have narcolepsy.