What Is Narcolepsy?

Published on August 13th, 2020

Updated on January 7th, 2024

What Is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a condition that causes sleepiness. The sleepiness experienced extends past typical fatigue a person feels in a day. It causes a person to feel consistently drowsy during waking hours.

People with narcolepsy have to battle intense drowsiness. Sometimes the urge to fall asleep can be managed, but there are moments when affected people may feel drowsy hazardous situations. Such situations can include operating machinery, driving, exercising, cooking, or eating. The urge to sleep can also occur at inconvenient times of the day, like when working out socializing with friends.

Narcolepsy can harm a person’s daily life. It is a chronic condition that a person needs to battle daily. Extreme exhaustion can affect a person’s relationships, ability to perform at work, and overall mental health. It is exhausting, and can also take a toll on the affected person’s body.

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Symptoms and Warning Signs of Narcolepsy

It is not uncommon for a person to suffer from narcolepsy and not know it initially. Since narcolepsy causes extreme tiredness, it can sometimes be misunderstood for laziness or simple fatigue. For an affected person, experiencing narcolepsy without knowing can make each day a major challenge.

Narcolepsy can cause frustration and can negatively impact relationships. It can affect a person’s relationships with teachers, professors, and supervisors, along with friends, family, and partners.

Symptoms of narcolepsy are often not identified at first. Because of this, it is important to be educated on the warning signs that a person may be suffering from the condition. The following are symptoms of narcolepsy:

Narcolepsy can affect a person’s REM sleep. REM sleep is one of the five stages of the sleep cycle. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement.

Dreams typically occur during REM sleep. REM sleep is also thought to play an important part in learning and the storage of memories. This stage of sleep plays a critical role in memory and emotional regulation. Without restful REM sleep, a person may experience emotional reactivity and memory loss.

A person who suffers from narcolepsy may experience REM sleep during waking hours. This causes the brain to enter a dream-like state during waking hours. It can trigger uncomfortable and alarming symptoms, like:

A person with narcolepsy may or may not experience these more severe symptoms of narcolepsy. Those who do experience these symptoms struggle to cope peacefully.

Types of Narcolepsy

There are two types of narcolepsy. You can either have narcolepsy with cataplexy or narcolepsy without cataplexy. Those who suffer from narcolepsy with cataplexy will experience a sudden loss of muscle tone. This tends to cause symptoms like slurring and muscle weakness, which can last for about 1 to 3 minutes. It is often triggered by strong emotional upset or excitement.

Whether or not an affected person suffers from cataplexy, they are at risk of suffering from hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Both of these symptoms are distressing. Hallucinations may cause an affected person to see people in the shadows who are not there. Sleep paralysis causes temporary paralysis as the brain exits the sleep cycle. This causes a person to be awake but temporarily paralyzed and unable to move.


How Narcolepsy Is Diagnosed

Narcolepsy is considered a neurological condition. This means that the condition stems from an issue with the affected person’s brain chemistry. There may be a genetic link to the onset of narcolepsy. A person is at higher risk of suffering from narcolepsy if they have a family member who also suffers from the condition.

People who suffer from narcolepsy tend to begin noticing symptoms between adolescence and young adulthood. The condition is typically diagnosed after a physical exam and sleep exam. The affected person may also be asked to track their sleep schedule and symptoms.

Cases of narcolepsy may require clinical testing. An affected person may be asked to spend time in a sleep lab, where their sleep cycle and quality of rest are carefully examined.

The following are popular exams to assess a condition of narcolepsy:


A polysomnogram is an overnight sleep exam. The affected person is asked to spend the night in a sleep lab to be monitored. Brain waves are monitored while they sleep. Eye movements and oxygen levels are tracked to rule out sleep apnea or another sleep-wake issue.

Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT)

A Polysomnogram is often followed up by the MSLT. The MSLT is a test that examines your quality of sleep and resulting sleepiness during waking hours. Your sleep quality may be examined by looking at:

Treatment Of Narcolepsy

There is no cure for narcolepsy at this time. It is a chronic condition that an affected person needs to manage. Because it is difficult to manage, having support from family, friends, and coworkers can be helpful for coping.

Treatment for narcolepsy tends to consist of medication and lifestyle changes. A doctor may prescribe stimulants, SSRIs, or antidepressant medication.

Sleep hygiene changes are an important part of treating narcolepsy. The following can help with managing a condition of narcolepsy:

It is also important to maintain a healthy diet and minimize the use of alcohol and other mood-altering substances. Incorporating each of these lifestyle changes along with getting medical treatment can significantly improve the condition of narcolepsy.

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