Every Body: A Concise Guide to Narcolepsy

How is it diagnosed?

Sleep deprivation is a common ailment, and it’s estimated that around 20 percent of Americans suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness whether it’s caused by narcolepsy or not. As a result of this, only 25 percent of all patients suffering from narcolepsy get a diagnosis, and on average it takes around seven years after the onset of symptoms for the condition to be identified.

The first step toward being diagnosed with narcolepsy is a physical exam and a discussion of one’s medical history and sleeping habits with a doctor. Patients may be asked to take an Epworth Sleepiness Scale test, which consists of a number of questions regarding their sleep habits and the activities that can trigger sleep episodes. While it’s common to fall asleep during quiet activities such as watching TV or reading, it’s less common to experience sleepiness while talking or operating a vehicle and their answers to this test may indicate a sleep disorder like narcolepsy.

Patients will likely also be asked to participate in an overnight sleep study, in which sleep experts conduct a nocturnal polysomnogram to measure muscle movement and electrical activity in the patient’s brain and heart while they’re asleep. A multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) may also be conducted during the day in order to measure how quickly a patient falls asleep in a quiet environment during daytime hours. Finally, a spinal fluid analysis may also be conducted to test hypocretin levels, as low levels could indicate that someone is suffering from narcolepsy.

Peerawat Kamklay / Getty Images

What causes Narcoplepsy?

The cause of narcolepsy is still being researched and is largely unknown, however one indicator is a lack of a hypocretin, a neurotransmitter that controls sleep and wakefulness. Although scientists aren’t exactly sure what causes low levels of hypocretin, it’s believed to be an autoimmune issue, meaning that the body abnormally attacks and destroys hypocretin-containing brain cells.

Another possible cause is thought to be a genetic defect that inhibits the production of hypocretin, thus resulting in atypical sleep patterns. Research into the cause of narcolepsy is on-going, however recent studies suggest an unusual link to streptococcus infections. Many sufferers have reported that the onset of their narcolepsy occurred in the spring or summer following an upper airway infection in the winter. Research is being conducted to investigate the link between narcolepsy and streptococcus infections like strep throat, sinusitis and pneumonia.

Lia Koltyrina / Shutterstock


Although there is no cure for narcolepsy, there are several effective treatments that depending on the severity of the symptoms can greatly reduce the impact the disorder has on a patient’s life. Often, a treatment plan consists of a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and therapies.

Medications that are frequently prescribed in order to treat narcolepsy and its symptoms include stimulants like Ritalin, Adderall, or Dexedrine to combat sleepiness, attention, and focus issues. Cataplexy and excessive daytime sleepiness can be treated with drugs like Xyrem, Provigil, and Nuvigil. Antidepressants like Zoloft or Prozac that are known to inhibit REM sleep may also be prescribed, particularly for patients who experience hallucinations and sleep paralysis.

One of the first things a patient can do to combat narcolepsy is make several changes to their lifestyle to regulate their sleep and better combat their symptoms. It’s recommended that people suffering from narcolepsy aim to schedule naps and nighttime sleep and try to get the same number of hours every night whenever possible. It’s also important to avoid substances like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, all of which have been known to disrupt sleep patterns, and refrain from looking at their phones or TV screens before bed. Finally, it’s advised that narcoleptics eat a healthy diet and keep up with a regular exercise regime in order to help get them back on a normal sleeping schedule.

For those who suffer from narcolepsy with cataplexy, it’s recommended that they avoid activities that could potentially be dangerous should they fall asleep such as driving, climbing things, or operating machinery. It can be a good idea to wear a medic alert bracelet and to keep the people around you informed of your condition and what they should do for you should you experience a narcoleptic episode in their presence.

Alternative therapies are also often prescribed as treatment for narcolepsy. Light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a daylight lamp for 10 to 30 minutes every day and is intended to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, is often recommended to help promote wakefulness during the day. Since narcolepsy can be triggered by stress and emotions, many narcoleptics find that relaxation therapies like yoga, meditation, acupuncture, massage, and other alternative treatments can help them better handle their disorder.

So, if any of these symptoms sound familiar to you, consider talking to your doctor about the possibility of a narcolepsy diagnosis. The sooner you find the cause of your problems, the closer you’ll be to a good night’s sleep.

JGI / Jamie Grill / Blend Images / Getty Images
2 of 2