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What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the part of the brain that controls sleeping and waking. People with this disorder experience extreme daytime sleepiness and sometimes even irresistible attacks of sleep. These episodes can occur at any time of the day irrespective of what the person is doing; they could be talking, eating or even driving. Most people suffering from narcolepsy are unaware that they are suffering from it. It is an extremely serious condition, but with medication and some lifestyle changes, the symptoms of narcolepsy can be managed. 
Merely feeling tired or sleepy throughout the day does not necessarily mean you have narcolepsy. This feeling could be a result of other sleep disorders or mental health issues, or merely a poor sleep routine. It is best to meet a mental health expert if you are suffering from excessive daytime sleepiness for a significant period of time.

What are the symptoms of narcolepsy?

The main symptoms of narcolepsy are:
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness: You tend to feel tired throughout the day even though you've slept well the previous night. This may cause you to take a nap after which you feel refreshed but a few hours later you feel tired again.
  • Cataplexy: A condition in which you lose control of your muscles. Depending on the type of muscle affected, you may experience slurred speech or even buckled knees, causing you to collapse. Not everyone who suffers from narcolepsy experiences cataplexy in their lifetime.
  • Hallucinations: Sometimes you may experience vivid hallucinations just as you are about to fall asleep. Since these visions begin when you are still somewhat awake, they feel even more real. In most cases, these hallucinations bring about a feeling of fear and dread.
  • Memory loss: You may have trouble remembering things, owing to your semi-awake state when you first registered them.
  • Sleep paralysis: Sometimes, while you are falling asleep or waking up, you may feel an inability to move or speak. This usually lasts for a minute or two and does not affect your ability to breathe, but can be extremely frightening nonetheless. 

If someone you know has been suffering from any of these symptoms, you can speak to them about their possible condition and suggest that they consult a mental health expert.

What causes narcolepsy?

The exact cause of narcolepsy is not known. However, research suggests that there may be genetic factors that cause a deficiency in the production of the brain chemical hypocretin, which is responsible for regulating our sleeping and waking routine. The deficiency of this neurotransmitter results in sudden switches from wakefulness to sleep and vice versa. This is only one of the possible causes.

Getting treatment for narcolepsy

There is no known cure for narcolepsy, but with medication and a few lifestyle changes, you can manage the symptoms of the disorder. You may be prescribed some stimulants to help you stay awake during the day. The doctor may also prescribe antidepressants which help control cataplexy, hallucinations and sleep paralysis.
Lifestyle changes also help control the symptoms of narcolepsy. Following a strict sleep routine and scheduling short daytime naps can help avoiding daytime sleepiness. To increase your energy levels, you should follow a regular exercise routine. Also, avoid alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

Caring for someone with narcolepsy

The general public is unaware of narcolepsy and may look down upon people who display the symptoms. For instance, in an office environment, showing excessive sleepiness or suffering a sleep attack may attract a lot of negative feedback. As a caregiver, it is important that you show a lot of support to the person suffering from this disorder. Talk to them about the condition and suggest that they meet a mental health professional. Encourage them to stop consuming alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. Let them know that you are always willing to listen and understand their problems. Along with the medications, support from family and friends is equally important in managing the symptoms of narcolepsy.

Coping with narcolepsy

Living with narcolepsy can be challenging, but with a few adjustments, you can manage a normal life. Firstly, it is important that you talk to people at work or at school (employers, teachers) about your problem, so that you can work out a way to manage your need for rest. Avoid driving or any other potentially hazardous activity if you are experiencing even a hint of sleepiness. If you start to feel sleepy while driving, pull over to the side and take a break. It would be helpful to develop a regular exercise routine as this would increase your general energy levels. Try to avoid alcohol, tobacco and nicotine. If your doctor has prescribed a treatment plan, it is essential that you follow it strictly and inform them promptly about any side effects or changes in symptoms.