In this article, I’ll define Narcolepsy, discuss the difficulties with proper diagnosis; and then talk about some treatment options. As well as ultimately answer the question, ‘is there a cure for Narcolepsy?’
So just what is Narcolepsy anyway? And where did this crazy word come from? The word itself actually comes from two Greek words which basically means ‘numbness attack’.
And there are essentially two types of this disorder; Those who experience muscle weakness during a strong emotional event, and those who don’t. And while this disorder occurs in about 1 out of every 2,000 people, yet most remain undiagnosed. In fact, Narcolepsy without muscle weakness is the most difficult to diagnose.
Furthermore, this disorder affects both men and women equally. Age of onset depends on whether it runs in your family or not. However, if there’s a family history, it’ll start earlier in life; otherwise, it can start just about anytime. Interestingly, it usually occurs earlier in African Americans; who also suffer more severe daytime sleepiness.
Now, let’s see what Narcolepsy looks like.
Signs and Symptoms
The four classic signs of this disorder are:
- Excessive sleepiness with ‘sleep attacks’.
- Hallucinations, which really are dreams breaking through into the waking mind.
- Feeling paralyzed just before falling asleep, or just after waking up. This is known as sleep paralysis.
- Muscle weakness caused by strong emotions. This is called Cataplexy.
Also, some people will exhibit something called ‘automatic behaviors’. This usually involves habitual behaviors, where a person will be doing something, then suddenly ‘zone out’. They’ll continue to do what they were doing, only at a lower quality level; but not be aware of anything.
Additionally, while people without Narcolepsy generally sleep for 1 1/2 to 2 hrs before entering dream sleep, someone with Narcolepsy can fall asleep and immediately be in dream land.
Not only that, but sleep comes on suddenly. However, some say they don’t just ‘pass out; yet others say they do. All the while having a crazy sleep schedule; along with laying awake at night, but fighting sleep during the day.
Eating disorders are also common in this disease. In fact, binge eating in childhood onset narcolepsy leads to obesity. These, as well as impulsive behaviors, are more prevalent in narcolepsy with muscle weakness (cataplexy).
There are also people who have thought they were going crazy because they would see things that weren’t there. Again, these hallucinations are actually dreams breaking through into waking life.
However, sleep paralysis is probably the most terrifying symptom. You see and hear things that aren’t there, all while not being able to move; and breathing can even be difficult. Sometimes you sense a presence in the room with you, which can be quite unsettling, to say the least.
What Causes Narcolepsy?
There’s strong evidence that, at least in some cases, it is hereditary. But there are other factors as well; and in some cases, the cause is unknown.
For example, there are certain neurons that regulate our energy levels. When these guys are firing full tilt, you become anxious; which is part of the fight-or-flight response. If there are low numbers of these cells, they cause sleepiness and eating disorders which can lead to obesity.
And people with Narcolepsy, have lower numbers of these neurons. That’s why if you have this disorder, you can also suffer from eating disorders and struggle with obesity. There’s also the possibility of it being an autoimmune disorder, where the body literally attacks itself.
Other possible causes include Food intolerance, brain damage, or tumors. As a result, diagnosis can take many years, especially if cataplexy is present. One reason for this is because Narcolepsy without muscle weakness can be misdiagnosed as depression.
With that in mind, what was it like to have Narcolepsy before people knew what it was? Especially considering the alternative.
Let’s take a look at something that’s quite intriguing.
Narcolepsy or Schizophrenia?
Part of this disorder involves hallucinations, and these can become so intense, and the person so delusional, that they could be misdiagnosed with Schizophrenia. The question is, has this actually happened? Or, has anyone ever been admitted to an insane asylum, when really all they had was Narcolepsy?
Yet, while there are similarities between the two, there are also clear differences. Narcoleptic hallucinations are more visual; whereas Schizophrenic hallucinations are mostly auditory. And although both disorders exhibit delusional states, the more intense delusions in Narcolepsy are related to medications, not the disease itself.
So then, in order to properly diagnose Narcolepsy, you would first spend a night in a sleep lab. This would do 2 things: 1-Either establish or eliminate the possibility of sleep apneas the cause of daytime drowsiness. And 2-Establish a baseline for the follow up daytime study.
The daytime study consists of a series of naps to determine how fast you fall asleep, and if you enter dream sleep early on. Once properly diagnosed, getting the right treatment is next.
Let’s take a brief look at both conventional and alternative treatment options.
Some of the common prescription medications are Provigil and Nuvigil for excessive daytime sleepiness. Medications that reduce the amount of dream sleep treat sleep paralysis and hallucinations. These include anti-depressants such as Prozac and Effexor.
However, drugs only mask the symptoms and don’t address the cause of this disorder. Let’s look at some treatment options that do.
Considering the evidence that Narcolepsy could be an autoimmune disorder, intolerance to certain foods is worth considering. If that’s something you want to explore, talk with your Nutritionist or Dr. about an elimination diet.
Also, Calcium, Magnesium, and a little guy called Co-Enzyme Q10, have been shown to reduce sleep paralysis.
In addition to these, studies show a supplement called 5-HTP help reduce Cataplexy and improve nighttime sleep. 5-HTP also naturally occurs in your body and helps build up Serotonin levels. And if you remember, Serotonin helps us sleep.
Keep in mind that regular exercise and nap times can be very beneficial as well.
So, Narcolepsy can very crippling, and go undiagnosed for years. This must be very frustrating to that person who might begin to question their own sanity. Moreover, the cause of Narcolepsy in some people remains a bit of a mystery.
But the question is, is there a cure for Narcolepsy? Unfortunately, not at this time; however, as you’ve seen, there are some pretty effective treatment options available. Therefore, if you have Narcolepsy, or if you know someone with this disorder, a Doctor visit is a good place to start.
Till next time, blessings.
, please post a comment; maybe get a conversation started on this rather debilitating disorder.