For most of us, sleep comes at night and it’s only when we’re exhausted or haven’t slept well the night before that we nap in the day. However, for about 1 in every 2,000 Americans, daytime sleepiness and daytime sleep attacks occur regularly. The condition is known as narcolepsy and it’s a chronic sleep disorder. It can rob sufferers of quality of life. At its most severe, it can make doing ordinary tasks dangerous as the threat of a sleep attack is ever looming. Narcolepsy is sometimes combined with another condition called cataplexy where muscle tone is lost in response to strong emotions like crying and laughter. This intensifies the severity as sufferers can injure themselves when driving, cooking, swimming, etc.
Narcolepsy is a neurological sleep disorder characterized by extreme daytime sleepiness and sudden attacks of sleep. The condition is chronic and there’s no cure. People with narcolepsy may have other sleep disorders like sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome. In some cases, it’s accompanied by cataplexy where the body loses muscle tone and becomes weak in response to intense emotions.
Scientists haven’t yet found what causes narcolepsy but there are a couple of theories. In people with type 1 narcolepsy – where cataplexy also occurs – it’s believed that low levels of hypocretin may be to blame, which is a chemical that regulates REM sleep and wakefulness. It’s not known what causes hypocretin levels to fall. In type 2 narcolepsy, cataplexy is absent. Again, it’s not known what causes it.
Narcolepsy manifests itself in several ways. Patients suffer from bouts of excessive daytime sleepiness even if they’ve had a full night’s rest. They may also experience sleep paralysis, which is a temporary inability to speak or move when falling asleep or waking up. Some patients may also have hallucinations. Despite feeling sleepy, people with narcolepsy usually sleep poorly at night, which contributes to daytime sleepiness. Those who suffer from narcolepsy with cataplexy (type 1 narcolepsy) lose control of their muscles and may fall when they experience strong emotions.
The risk factors for narcolepsy are only a few. They include family history and age. Patients whose parents, children or siblings have narcolepsy are up to 40 times more likely to have it. It also occurs more frequently in people between the ages of 10 and 30.
Narcolepsy has no cure but there are medications that can help patients stay awake during the day. Managing symptoms is the goal and patients can improve their quality of life with lifestyle changes.
Training yourself to sleep and wake up at normal times is important. It helps your brain associate these times with sleep and wakefulness. Try to sleep at a certain time each night and wake up at a specific time, even on weekends so you don’t disrupt the habit.
A sleep routine will help schedule sleep time but you may still feel sleepy in the day. Instead of dozing off at odd hours, space out nap times of 15-20 minutes. Don’t sleep longer than this as it can interfere with night time sleep.
These are stimulants and must be avoided especially at night. Alcohol may lull you to sleep but it disrupts it especially in the second half of the night. Keep in mind that caffeine isn’t found only in coffee but in tea, fizzy drinks, energy bars, and dark chocolate.
Exercise early in the day to boost energy levels and keep you awake. The post-workout dip in body temperature can also make it easier to fall asleep as a cooler core body temperature encourages sleep.
A clutter-free, cool, dark and quiet bedroom is key to sleeping better at night. Draw the blinds closed, dim or turn off the lights and remove distractions like work and gadgetry. Your bedroom should only be used for sleep and sex as using it for anything else means you won’t be able to associate it with sleep.
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You should also use a good mattress to prevent discomfort at night. The Nuvanna mattress is designed for this purpose. Created by a mattress scientist with over 20 years of experience, it features three layers that work to give you the best sleep. The top layer is infused with cooling gel to help keep your body cool and comfortable. The middle layer isolates motion so you and your bed partner can move freely without disturbing each other. The bottom layer supports individuals parts of the body and the spine to keep you from sinking and developing back pain.
We don’t know how long it will be before there’s a cure for narcolepsy. Lifestyle changes don’t guarantee that managing symptom will be a breeze either. However, they do help significantly and it’s important to make them. Having a support network, speaking to your doctor about possible medication, and taking safety precautions when driving, handling equipment, etc. should also be priorities.