Narcolepsy, characterized by falling asleep unexpectedly during the day, generally affects young people between 15 and 25, though it can be found in all age groups as it carries forward.
Scientists have yet to identify the cause of narcolepsy, but many trace it largely to genes. That is, it can run in families. Some researchers trace the condition to a deficiency in the production of a chemical called hypocretin by the brain, which causes confusion between deep-sleep and REM cycles, the latter of which is characterized by vivid dreams and muscle paralysis.
Other scientists trace narcolepsy to unidentified abnormalities in the brain that affect REM sleep. The problem with narcolepsy, however, as with many sleep disorders, is that its sufferers often don’t realize they have it, reasoning that being tried and falling asleep in the daytime is somehow “normal.”
The symptoms of narcolepsy include:
Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). EDS can occur even with what seems to be a full, good night’s sleep when one suffers from narcolepsy. As a result, sleepiness (and falling asleep) pervade in the daytime, along with lack of focus, mental fatigue and even depression.
Cataplexy. This refers to loss of muscle control, which can result in slurred speech and even in a complete loss of voluntary muscle control.
Hallucinations. These hallucinations are generally visual — and often frightening — and can occur both while awake and while asleep.
Sleep paralysis. While falling asleep or arising, those suffering from narcolepsy can experience a complete bodily paralysis lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes, though recovery does occur.
Rapid entry into REM sleep. In a natural sleep cycle, you shouldn’t enter the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep for 90 minutes after falling asleep, but those with narcolepsy may enter REM and start dreaming as soon as they conk out.
Obviously, if you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, it’s time for action. You need to seek professional medical help immediately. Generally, diagnosis has to be performed using specialized tests conducted in a sleep lab. Two tests that are considered essential in confirming a diagnosis of narcolepsy are the polysomnogram (PSG) and the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).
Treatment might begin with weight loss, as being overweight often contributes to many sleep problems. You may also be placed on stimulants or amphetamines, beginning with the mild stimulants Provigil or Nuvigil. Treatments can progress from there, but the first step is to get a professional evaluation if you suffer any of the above-mentioned symptoms.