What is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is typically categorised as a disorder of sleeping. Those who suffer from the condition experience symptoms such as daytime drowsiness and the sudden overwhelming need to sleep. Long periods of staying awake are difficult, in all circumstances. Unfortunately, narcolepsy invariably causes significant disruption in a person’s daily routine, which often leads to further sleep deprivation and fatigue.
It is not uncommon for narcolepsy to be accompanied by a loss in muscle tone (this is called cataplexy); this loss in tone is usually accompanied and triggered, by overwhelming emotions. Narcolepsy and cataplexy in tandem are referred to as type 1. Narcolepsy without the cataplexy is type 2.
There is no cure for narcolepsy. Yet, there are medications available and lifestyle changes to help sufferers manage their symptoms. One of the best coping methods for individuals with this condition is to find and maintain a support group – whether friends, family or a more formal support group.
Do I Have Narcolepsy? What are the Symptoms?
There are certain things to look out and usually, these worsen slowly over several years, then persist for life. These symptoms include:
- Intense daytime tiredness – You may begin to fall asleep without warning, anywhere and at any time. These sudden sleep-attacks will come unexpectedly and are hard to control. You could be at work or in the middle of an engaging conversation and end find you have fallen asleep for anything from a few minutes to half an hour. Even though you will likely feel refreshed upon awakening, this does not prevent you from having another similar episode later in the same day.
Your ability to remain alert and focused throughout the day will be reduced; the daytime drowsiness will make it incredibly difficult for you to concentrate and function at your optimal state.
- A decrease in muscle tone – Already mentioned above, cataplexy can cause you to lose power in just some or all of your muscles, at once. This loss in strength may lead to you losing control of your ability to stand, or you might slur your speech. For example, if you are walking, you might fall and need some time to recover your strength to stand again.
You will be able to monitor when might cataplexy strike, as it usually follows intense emotions. These emotions may be excitement, happiness, fear, surprise or even anger. Following heavy laughter, you may experience a momentary loss of muscle control.
If you are affected by cataplexy, you may only experience it one to two times a year up to multiple times a day. However, if you have type 2 narcolepsy, you will not experience cataplexy at all.
- Sleep Paralysis – For some, brief episodes of sleep paralysis can occur. These episodes can be frightening and last between a few seconds to a few minutes.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is where a person may suffer from a temporary inability to move or speak whilst falling asleep or waking. Some people will experience this and will not recall it; others will live these experiences and feel awake throughout.
During rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep), we are in a transition zone between deep sleep and waking. It is during REM sleep that we typically dream; adults will spend 20% of their sleep in the REM stage. Sleep paralysis eliminates the ability to dream REM sleep.
There are plenty who experience sleep paralysis that do not have narcolepsy. Yet, if a person is experiencing sleep paralysis, regularly, it would be worth investigating further.
How REM Sleep can Affect Those with Narcolepsy
For those who have narcolepsy, REM sleep can occur at any time of the day, as it is easier than normal to transition into this type period of sleep.
Hallucinations – There are two types of hallucinations a person may experience as narcoleptic:
- Hypnagogic Hallucinations – These will occur whilst falling asleep.
- Hypnopompic Hallucinations – These hallucinations will occur whilst waking.
Typically, these hallucinations can be vivid and frightening as the person may not be fully asleep. Therefore, the dreams feel very much like reality and they may be convinced there is a stranger in their bedroom.
Can you Have Narcolepsy and Insomnia?
It is possible for those who have narcolepsy to suffer from a range of sleep conditions inclusive of obstructive sleep apnoea (where breathing starts and stops throughout the night), restless legs syndrome and even insomnia.
Research has not yet discovered the causes of narcolepsy. However, certain characteristics remain similar or the same from one case to another.
Those who have narcolepsy type 1 have low levels of the chemical hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical which acts as a regulator of wakefulness and REM sleep. For those who tend to experience cataplexy, hypocretin levels are depressed. It is not known why this is the case, but experts seem to agree that the underlying cause is probably related to an abnormal autoimmune reaction.
Is Narcolepsy Hereditary?
In short, no. The risk of a parent passing on narcolepsy is incredibly unlikely; research has revealed the chance is 1%. However, this does exclude the possibility for genetics to play a role in the condition.
Narcolepsy Test & Treatment
The first step to arranging an appointment for a narcolepsy test at our clinic is to contact our team of patient coordinators. If you are a private patient, you’ll need to provide a referral letter from your GP or other healthcare professional. That way, we can make sure that you see a psychiatrist with the relevant expertise. You can contact our team by filling in the form here or by calling 020 3355 3536