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What Is Narcolepsy: Everything You Need to Know

There are quite a few factors disturbing sleep. Some of them are minor, and temporary disruptions, but others are more serious and come in the shape of sleeping disorders. Narcolepsy is one of the more severe sleeping disorders. It can disturb your sleep quality and even the best mattress couldn't help with fixing it. 

It’s quite an inconvenience and can even be dangerous. Although not much is commonly known about narcolepsy. So, let’s answer what is narcolepsy, what causes narcolepsy, and find out the treatment for narcolepsy

What Is Narcolepsy

Let’s start by figuring out what is narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that has a lot of dangerous symptoms. Those symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and cataplexy, which is muscle paralysis, that occurs naturally in the REM sleep stage, but in this case, it occurs while awake.  

Normally, a person’s sleeping cycle consists of 4 sleep stages, REM, the rapid eye movement sleep stage, being the fourth one.

Those who have narcolepsy experience the REM sleep stage after 15 minutes of sleep or even sooner instead of after around 90 minutes, which is the normal sleep cycle. And REM sleep cycle also occurs randomly during the waking hours.

Muscle paralysis happens in the REM sleep stage, mainly for the reason so that we don’t act on our dreams. This can really interfere with your daily life if you experience muscle paralysis during the day time.

what is narcolepsy: man asleep in public

Narcolepsy with cataplexy, which is the name for muscle paralysis, is caused by the loss of a chemical in the brain called hypocretin. This chemical is responsible for keeping us awake, regulating sleep cycles, and keeping us alert.

Those who have narcolepsy have some damage in the hypothalamus[1], a part of the brain that’s responsible for hypocretin production. That’s the reason that causes the sleeping-waking cycle disruptions. Although this condition isn’t that wide-spread. Approximately 1 out of 2000-3000 people[2] have to deal with narcolepsy. 

But not everyone’s experience with narcolepsy is the same. So it’s not that easy to answer what is narcolepsy. This disease ranges from mild to more severe forms.

Those who struggle badly with it may be in danger. Narcolepsy can cause sudden falling asleep during any time of the day. One of the examples could be driving, which can result in severe consequences

What Is Narcolepsy?

We’ve covered the basics of what is narcolepsy, so let’s now look more deeply into the narcolepsy causes.

Narcolepsy Causes

Knowing the answer to what is narcolepsy, we should continue and find out what causes narcolepsy. Although the reasons for narcolepsy remain somewhat unknown. There are a lot of speculations of narcolepsy causes, but not many direct links have been found.

The only thing that’s known for certain is that people with narcolepsy have lower levels of hypocretin’s[3], the hormone’s that’s responsible for keeping us awake, production

Although it is also said that our immune system has a link to narcolepsy. Our immune system is responsible for managing the antibodies that enter our organisms. Usually, it does a pretty good job protecting us, but sometimes it makes mistakes. One of the errors is attacking healthy cells and tissues

what is narcolepsy: brain scan

That’s exactly what happens with narcolepsy. What causes narcolepsy is a reaction that's called autoimmune disease. And narcolepsy is caused when your hypothalamus is attacked by your immune system, disrupting the hypocretin's production. 

Having figured out what is narcolepsy and what causes narcolepsy, let’s talk about its symptoms.

Narcolepsy Symptoms

As you have learned, narcolepsy can cause many issues. All the symptoms disrupt a person's life and may lead to serious consequences or distress. Let’s talk about each of the symptoms of narcolepsy to understand it better. 

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

The first thing that defines what is narcolepsy is daytime sleepiness. Excessive daytime sleepiness is a common problem for many sufferers of sleeping disorders.

As the name suggests, it shows itself by making you sleepy throughout the day. While many of us might get sleepy after a poor night’s sleep, those who suffer from narcolepsy experience it more intensely

what is narcolepsy: woman sleepy at work

This daytime sleepiness might result in poor concentration, memory lapses, brain fog, exhaustion, and overall decreased energy. Also, it might provoke sleep attacks. Those are occurrences when you randomly doze off. It might cause a lot of harm, especially if it happens when driving or operating other vehicles at work. 

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Hallucinations

Another one of narcolepsy’s symptoms that answers what is narcolepsy is hallucinations. Hallucinations are hyper-realistic perceptions. Most often, they’re visual, but they can also include other senses. Usually, they’re frightening and may cause a lot of distress

There are two prominent types of hallucinations that occur to those who experience narcolepsy. One of them is hypnagogic hallucinations, which occur when the person is falling asleep. The other type is hypnopompic hallucinations that occur when the person is waking up.

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Sleep Paralysis

Another symptom of narcolepsy and also an answer to what is narcolepsy is sleep paralysis. It might occur by itself with no relation to narcolepsy, but if you’re experiencing this and other symptoms, chances that you have narcolepsy are high.

what is narcolepsy: sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis has a lot to do with hallucinations mentioned before, as one of its symptoms is hallucinations. But the most essential part of defining sleep paralysis is the actual paralysis. It occurs when the person is falling asleep or waking up. The paralysis may last from a few seconds to minutes and is rather terrifying. 

If you’d like to learn more about sleep paralysis, check out our article covering it

Cataplexy

Cataplexy is a sudden loss of muscle tone. The strength of muscle tone loss depends on the intensity of narcolepsy. It may range from slight muscle weakness such as jaw or head drop, but in some cases, it might result in a complete body collapse.

It’s usually triggered by intense emotions such as shock, laughter, surprise, or anger. These episodes may last up to a few minutes and are rather irritating. The frequency also ranges from person to person. Some may experience it several times a day, while others may only get a few times a year or even less often. 

Disrupted Sleep

The last symptom you might experience is disrupted sleep. It is also one of the answers to the question of what is narcolepsy. Your sleep might be disturbed due to various reasons having to do with narcolepsy. Those include vivid dreams or nightmares, breathing problems, or body movements.

what is narcolepsy: waking up at night

This can affect your health negatively as sleep is a really important part of your life. If you want to increase your sleeping quality and get healthier, you might want to invest in a good mattress. If you’re looking for a new mattress, check out our best mattress guide

Treatment 

While narcolepsy is not yet curable, there are ways to treat it to alleviate the symptoms. Let’s find out how to do that.

Stimulants

The medicine you most likely will be prescribed as a treatment for narcolepsy if you’re dealing with it is stimulants. Their primary purpose is to tackle the drowsiness that narcolepsy causes. They would help you be more lively and less sleepy throughout the day, and that might also help with sleep attacks

Although it’s important to understand that you shouldn’t self-medicate with stimulants.

what is narcolepsy: taking medicine

The only occurrence when you should take this medication is when your doctor prescribes it. What’s also important to note, is that some stimulants show up in drug test results, so you might want to notify your employers to avoid misunderstandings.

Antidepressants 

There are a few different kinds of antidepressants that could be prescribed as a narcolepsy treatment.

These include tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). While their main function is to regulate mood disorders, they also help with narcolepsy.

These medicines adjust your brain’s chemistry, regulate your sleep, treat cataplexy, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis. Although they’re not prescribed freely. If you’re looking for medications, you first have to consult your doctor, and they’ll find the right medication for you. 

Keep a Consistent Sleep Schedule

One of the natural narcolepsy treatments is a consistent sleep schedule. A regular sleep schedule has many advantages not only for those who struggle with narcolepsy but also those who don’t.

Having a consistent sleep schedule helps with regulating your circadian rhythm, getting better quality of sleep, and even falling asleep and waking up easier

what is narcolepsy: woman sleeping

Those who suffer from narcolepsy should take that into consideration even more. It’s vital for those affected by narcolepsy to get consistent sleep so that they can avoid sleep attacks, as their organism performs better when it knows when it’s getting sleep. 

Consistent sleep can also help ease other symptoms. Regular sleep makes you overall healthier, this way, reducing the prevalence of symptoms such as cataplexy or sleep paralysis

Get Enough Sleep

One more narcolepsy treatment is getting a sufficient amount of sleep. The amount of sleep is as essential as, if not more important, than getting consistent sleep. Adults should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night[4].

If you notice that you don’t get enough sleep, you should adjust your lifestyle to make sure you’re not sleep-deprived

If you have narcolepsy, the amount of sleep you get is even more important. Not getting enough sleep takes a toll on your health and can make the symptoms of narcolepsy more intense.

what is narcolepsy: get enough sleep

One symptom that’s affected the most is daytime sleepiness. When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re even more sleepy in the day time, making you more prone to sleep attacks

Get Good Quality Sleep

Another thing you shouldn’t forget if you’re looking for treatment for narcolepsy is your sleep quality. It depends on many factors, including your lifestyle, stress levels, and many more. But one of the most easily adjustable things is your sleeping environment.

If you’re looking for sleep environment adjustments, the most important thing you should focus on is your mattress. It has to be comfortable for you, not too old, has to suit your sleeping position and other preferences.

what is narcolepsy: choosing a suitable mattress

Choosing one isn’t an easy task, so if you’re looking for a new mattress, check out this mattress guide to help you find the best one.

Another thing you definitely shouldn’t ignore, but it’s often forgotten, is your pillow. You should replace it every 1-2 years. It’s not as long-lasting as a mattress is, so chances that you might need a replacement are higher. If it’s about time to replace your pillow, check out our best pillow guide, to choose the one that suits you. 

Take Naps

While naps might not be vital for healthy people who get enough sleep nightly, they’re highly beneficial to those who struggle with narcolepsy. Naps can help you combat daytime drowsiness, so you should incorporate them into your daily routine.

It would be for the best if you could find time to nap routinely. Finding a consistent time to nap helps your circadian rhythm to adjust your body’s needs. If not, you should nap before an important task that you have to do to prevent drowsiness and falling asleep while doing it. 

Lead a Healthy Lifestyle

Another answer to the question of “what is narcolepsy and how to deal with it?” is that it is a disorder that affects your health a lot, and you should try to make sure to stay as healthy otherwise as possible. Leading a healthy lifestyle can help with managing symptoms of narcolepsy.

what is narcolepsy: woman exercising

You should focus on your diet and also exercising. Exercising is crucial as it’s one of the factors that can impact your sleep quality positively. Also, it might help you with staying more alert throughout the day. 

Conclusions

If you’re wondering what is narcolepsy, it’s a sleeping disorder that shows itself by causing excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and disrupted sleep. It’s a severe disorder that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Its primary cause is a lack of hypocretin, a hormone that affects sleepiness. 

If you’re looking for ways to cure it, you should consult your doctor and maybe try medications. But it’s easier to alleviate the symptoms by getting regular sleep, making sure you get enough of it, and that its quality is good. Also, you should lead a healthy lifestyle to ease the symptoms caused by narcolepsy. 

Knowing what is narcolepsy, you're ready to treat it and also deal with other problems you might have concerning sleep.

If you’re dealing with this or any other sleep disorder, the chances are high that you don’t feel well-rested during the day. If you’re looking for help in combating daytime sleepiness, you should try searching for a good quality mattress. Sleeping on a suitable surface would surely help with feeling better upon waking up.

If you’re looking for a new mattress, you should check out our best mattress guide to help you choose. Or maybe you’re looking for one specifically made for side-sleepers. Whichever it is, I’m sure you’ll find the one that suits your needs.


Scientific References

1. Schwartz S., Ponz A, Poryazova R., et al. 'Abnormal activity in hypothalamus and amygdala during humour processing in human narcolepsy with cataplexy'

2. Longstreth W. Jr., Koepsell T., Ton T., et al. 'The epidemiology of narcolepsy'

3. Ebrahim O., Sharief M., Lacy S., et al. 'Hypocretin (orexin) deficiency in narcolepsy and primary hypersomnia'

4. Chaput J., Dutil C. Sampasa-Kanyinga H. 'Sleeping hours: what is the ideal number and how does age impact this?'



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FAQ

Does narcolepsy reduce sleep quality?

Yes, like most of the other sleeping disorders, narcolepsy lowers your sleep quality . To ensure you sleep well, you should try your best to treat narcolepsy. What else you can do is get a good quality mattress to ensure you sleep comfortably and feel less tired during the day.

Why do you experience narcolepsy symptoms?

What happens in your body is that it drifts off to REM sleep stage, causing sudden falling asleep and muscle paralysis. If you'd like to learn more about sleep stages, check out our article about the sleep cycle.

What is a memory foam mattress?

Memory foam mattresses are created mostly from polyurethane and have additional chemicals added that increase its viscosity and density. It’s also often called “viscoelastic polyurethane foam”. In order to create the air movement and let your body “breath” while you sleep, it has open foam bubbles. Memory foam mattresses are created in a way to adapt to your body curves and to also recover their original shape after you get up. Therefore, this kind of top mattresses offer you the feeling as if is created specifically for you.

Do top rated mattresses offer a money-back guarantee? Is there a catch?

All of the top mattress brands offer a money-back guarantee. The free trial usually starts from 90 to 100 nights, and if you don’t like the mattress, you can simply give it back. The majority of best mattress providers will not only give your money back but will also come to get it for free. If the mattress provider is reputable, there won’t be any catch - everyone understands that you have to try the mattress before knowing if it fits you.

What is off-gassing? Is it poisonous?

Off-gassing refers to the odor which comes from a new mattress. It’s the process that happens when volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) leak out of the mattress foam into the air. Those chemicals include both human-made and natural components, including formaldehyde, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), benzene, trichloroethane, and perfluorocarbons. Top rated mattresses will have zero or very minimal off-gassing. Many of them are sent to the customer already after the off-gassing. Is it dangerous, though? Even though the smell can be unpleasant, there’s usually only a very small amount of chemicals that can do no harm to your health.

How long do top rated mattresses serve?

The durability of a mattress depends on the provider and the quality of the materials used. Usually, you get a 10-year warranty, which will be valid in case of any defects. Normally, mattresses will serve you from 7 to 10 years, or even longer. Thus, when you buy the best mattress, you should take it as a long-term investment.