Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder in humans. It is a disorder that makes a person lose his or her control over sleep and wakefulness. Many people suffer from excessive sleepiness during the daytime. This is a common symptom of narcolepsy. The sleepiness can be at any time during the day, devoid of any environmental factors such as place, time, or activity. This sudden attack of sleepiness compels the person to drift off to sleep at odd intervals. The actual cause of narcolepsy is not known to health professionals, though studies in the field are still in progress.
Difference between normal sleep and narcolepsy sleepiness
Sleep is normally associated with night-time, with maybe 1 or 2 short naps during the daytime. The human sleep cycle involves various phases and levels. One does not slumber into a deep sleep the minute he or she closes their eyes. Studies show that a normal person takes approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep to enter a phase of deep sleep. Clinically, this phase of the sleep cycle is termed as Rapid Eye Movement or REM. This is the phase of sleep in which we have dreams. One does not wake up during this time.
A patient with narcolepsy enters the REM phase almost immediately after falling asleep. This sleep need not take place during the night but can happen anytime during the day and any number of times. This abnormal and untimely sleep pattern often disrupts the person’s regular sleep cycle resulting in disrupted or sleeplessness during the night. Narcolepsy decreases the overall quality of a person’s sleeping pattern.
Causes of narcolepsy
The actual cause of narcolepsy is yet to be pinpointed upon by health experts. Researchers and health practitioners are still conducting studies to find out the exact causes of narcolepsy and understand why some people tend to suffer from untimely daytime sleep. Often, doctors associate this disorder with genes.
Genetics play a critical role in the sleep pattern. Genes develop a chemical called hypocretin or orexin in the human brain, which regulates the sleep pattern. This chemical signals the cycle of sleep in human beings. If there is a disorder in the genetic functioning, there is a possibility of the person to suffer from narcolepsy. The low levels of hypocretin in a patient’s brain might be the main cause of narcolepsy, thus resulting in an irregularity in the sleep cycle. The brain fails to signal the sleep and wake up timings or intervals.
Anybody can be at risk of this disease since the actual causes of narcolepsy are not known. Although the experts in the medical field are still researching about the actual cause of the disorder, some of them have marked a few factors that may trigger the onset of this disorder. Some of these factors are:
- Inherited genetic fault
- Excessive mental or psychological stress
- Sudden change in sleep pattern
- Hormonal imbalances during puberty or menopause
- Sudden rare infections, like swine flu
- Research shows that patients who get infected by the H1N1 virus show signs of narcolepsy as well. However, it is still a question for medical practitioners whether the virus itself is a cause of narcolepsy or whether a swine flu victim faces the possibility of suffering from narcolepsy in the future.
In most cases across the globe, genetics seemed to be one of the most prominent causes of narcolepsy. A person is born with certain genes that put him or her at risk of suffering from hypersomnia or narcolepsy if he or she has someone in the family suffering from this disorder. Any infection may simply act as a trigger and propel the onset of narcolepsy. In such cases, the disease is said to be inherited.
It has been observed that mostly this disorder shows signs during the teenage or early adult stages of the patient. The range of this disorder varies from mild to severe.
This sleep disturbance is a neurological autoimmune dysfunction. The symptoms of narcolepsy are not very rare or unexpected. In fact, most of the symptoms of the neurological disorder go unnoticed as they are not considered abnormal or suspected as causes of narcolepsy. Doctors list some common symptoms of narcolepsy as follows:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Sleep paralysis
The sudden attack of sleepiness and the loss of muscle control often become embarrassing or scary for patients. Ordinary day-to-day activities become difficult.
Narcolepsy diagnosis and treatment
Very few patients undergo proper treatment for narcolepsy because of the unawareness about the causes of narcolepsy. In most cases, patients never realize or are never diagnosed with the disorder and hence do not undergo any treatment for this. Untimely sleepiness is usually regarded as fatigue, weakness, or tiredness. In case a patient visits a doctor complaining of untimely sleepiness during the day, doctors conduct a thorough physical examination and discuss the patient’s lifestyle and habits at large. There are two tests to confirm narcolepsy. They are as follows:
- Polysomnogram or PSG: This is an overnight test that is conducted during the nighttime, when the patient is asleep, to check the abnormality in the sleep cycle.
- Multiple Sleep Latency Test or MSLT: This is a daytime test that measures the person’s tendency to fall asleep during the day. It determines the REM element.
If diagnosed with narcolepsy, the patient is prescribed drugs and medication that help to control and regulate the sleep cycle. Some neurological drugs such as antidepressants are also advised to calm the nerves. Although there is no complete cure for this disorder, proper medicines can control it to a large extent. Apart from medical treatment, certain lifestyle changes are also advised to patients. These include the following:
- Reducing the intake of caffeine, nicotine, and alcoholic products
- Minimizing the intake of heavy meals
- Developing a regular exercise regime
- Planning and sticking to specific meal times
- Scheduling and regulating sleep timings during day and night
- Meditating regularly