5 Things You Need To Know About Narcolepsy

Feeling extremely tired or exhausted is very common. About 15% of women and 10% of men report feeling this way nearly everyday. This feeling is common enough that it's often considered a normal part of adult life, but being constantly exhausted isn't actually normal. It can be a sign of serious sleep disorders that need treatment. One of these sleep disorders is narcolepsy.

What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a type of sleep disorder that keeps your brain from regulating your sleep cycle. People with a normal sleep cycle fall asleep, slowly transition from a light to a deep sleep, and then enter a phase called REM sleep. REM means rapid eye movement, and this phase is often associated with dreaming. In people with narcolepsy, this cycle isn't properly regulated, and you may enter the REM phase too quickly or you may not enter it at all. 

How do you know you have narcolepsy?

Feeling very tired is the main clue that you might have narcolepsy. You may even feel so tired that you fall asleep at inappropriate times, like when you're waiting at a red light. Some people with this condition fall asleep multiple times during the day. About 75% of people with narcolepsy have another symptom: cataplexy. Cataplexy is a loss of muscle control, and it strikes suddenly.In its minor form, you may notice that your arms or legs feel a bit weak, but in its more serious form, you could collapse suddenly. Other people with narcolepsy report hallucinations right before they fall asleep, sleep paralysis, or frequent wakings during the night. 

What do some people develop narcolepsy?

Doctors have a few theories as to the causes of narcolepsy. In some cases, it seems to be caused by a lack of certain chemicals in the brain. These chemicals are responsible for regulating sleep. Not everyone with narcolepsy is missing these chemicals, however. In other cases, the immune system seems to be at fault. The white blood cells are only supposed to attack germs, but sometimes, they attack your own healthy tissues. When the white blood cells attack certain parts of the brain, narcolepsy is the result.

Other factors have also been linked to narcolepsy. Everything from menopause to stress to the flu has been blamed for narcolepsy, so your doctor may not be able to tell you for sure what caused your case.

How common is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy occurs in about 0.07% of the general population, according to an estimate by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. That doesn't sound like much, but it works out to about 200,000 people in the United States. Only about 50,000 of these people have been diagnosed with the condition while the rest are currently undiagnosed. 

Can narcolepsy be cured?

Right now, narcolepsy is incurable, but researchers are trying to figure out a cure. Until that happens, the condition can be managed with constant prescription medication. These medications include stimulants that will keep you awake and alert during the day and anxiety medications which can help treat the muscle weakness. 

There are also some lifestyle modifications that some narcolepsy sufferers find helpful. Going to bed at the same time everyday and waking up at the same time everyday is one of these modifications. Some people also like to schedule naps during the day so that they can control when they fall asleep. 

Being exhausted all the time isn't normal, even though many people act like it is. If you're always tired, you may have a sleep disorder like narcolepsy. Getting treatment will make you feel better, so make an appointment with your doctor right away.