Every Body: A Concise Guide to Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is perhaps one of the most misunderstood conditions out there, and for many their first point of reference is a cartoonish depiction of someone who sleeps all day or who falls asleep mid-sentence while hilarity ensues. But in reality, it can be a serious condition that can greatly affect one’s independence, abilities, and overall quality of life and is thought to affect more than 200,000 people in the United States and three million people worldwide.

Here is everything you need to know about the sleep condition known as narcolepsy and how it can be treated.

What is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that is thought to affect one in every 2,000 people, but many of those cases often go undiagnosed. Narcolepsy affects the part of your brain that controls sleeping and wakefulness and can affect people differently depending on the severity of the disorder.

People suffering from a mild form of narcolepsy may experience daytime sleepiness, poor nighttime sleep, and may tend to fall asleep during relaxing activities. Those who suffer from more extreme forms of narcolepsy are at risk of falling asleep or experiencing sudden muscle paralysis while carrying out even non-relaxing activities which can affect their overall quality of life. Not only does it pose a threat to their physical safety, but also their mental well-being, their relationships, their memory and attention spans, and their ability to provide for themselves and live independently.

Narcolepsy can develop at any age, but it commonly starts in the second to third decade of a person’s life between the ages of 10-30. Narcolepsy is equally common in both women and men but can be more common among people of certain ethnicities.

According to statistics, the highest occurrence rate of narcolepsy is found among the Japanese, among whom it affects around one in every 600 people. The lowest occurrence rate is found among Israeli Jews, where it is found in one out of every 500,000 people.

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One of the first indicators of narcolepsy is excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), in which a person experiences an overwhelming sense of tiredness during the day. This can make it difficult to carry out activities like studying, working, driving, and anything else that requires alertness or attention.

For some, EDS can be connected to their emotions, and many find they tend to experience it during emotionally charged periods of sadness, happiness, anger, or frustration. Those suffering from EDS often report experiencing mental fogs, memory lapses, and depressive moods. While EDS is the main symptom of narcolepsy, it can also be caused by poor sleep habits, sleep apnea, or medications and is often experienced by shift workers.

Another common symptom of narcolepsy is cataplexy, or the sudden loss of reflexes and muscle control. Cataplexy can cause sufferers’ knees to buckle and their body go limp, and like EDS, it can be triggered by emotional responses such as laughing or crying. While people suffering from mild cataplexy often have enough warning to sit down or support themselves before losing control of their muscles, people with more extreme forms of cataplexy can experience it very suddenly and are apt to harm or injure themselves while falling. Some people suffering from extreme cataplexy choose to wear head protection to prevent head injuries should they experience a sudden loss of muscle control.

Narcoleptics can also experience uncontrolled microsleep, in which they fall asleep suddenly during almost any activity. Microsleeps can range from just a few minutes to several hours, and some patients will even continue with their activities while asleep but have no recollection of that time upon waking.

Another common characteristic in narcoleptics is their ability to fall into a rapid eye movement sleep cycle (REM) almost immediately, which normally takes a typical sleeper around 90 minutes to reach. Due to their ability to enter rapidly into REM sleep, some narcoleptics experience sleep paralysis, a frightening symptom in which your mind is awake while your body remains paralyzed while falling asleep or waking up. Sleep paralysis is oftentimes accompanied by frightening and lifelike audio and visual hallucinations, making it a particularly disturbing symptom that can greatly affect your mental wellbeing.

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