Iowa Sleep Blog

What Is Narcolepsy?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Many people wake up some mornings feeling tired, but others wake up every day feeling that way, and it persists throughout their day. Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that involves poor control of a person’s sleep and wake cycles. People who suffer from this sleep disorder find it difficult to stay awake for long periods of time, regardless of where they are or what they’re doing. It is characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep that can happen at any time. These “sleep attacks” can last for a couple seconds to several minutes.

Almost 40 percent of people with narcolepsy are prone to automatic behaviors during short sleep attacks that only last for a couple seconds. This means they can perform simple, usually habitual, second-nature type tasks like reading, taking notes or even driving, but have no memory of doing it. When this happens, they will lose their spot in the book, their writing or typing may become illegible and if driving, they may become lost or cause an accident.

Signs and Symptoms:

Both men and women can start showing symptoms of narcolepsy between the ages of 10 and 25, and symptoms can continue through their lifetime. Most people with narcolepsy have low levels of hypocretin, a neurotransmitter that promote wakefulness in the body. But, the biggest sign of narcolepsy is persistent excessive daytime sleepiness, and it is usually the first to become clinically apparent. Individuals who experience this excessive sleepiness describe it as the constant feeling of mental cloudiness, having a lack of energy, mood swings and having trouble concentrating at school or work.

People may also experience cataplexy, which is the sudden loss of muscle control that is triggered through emotional stimuli such as laughter, anger or surprise. An episode may last for a couple seconds to a few minutes, where you may experience your knees buckle, your words may be slurred or have a weakness in your arms. Consciousness is usually maintained, but the person may to unable to speak to tell you what is wrong.


While there is not yet a cure, there are treatments available. A variety of drug treatments are available if deemed appropriate by your and your sleep doctor, but there are also many things you can do in your everyday life that can help. Be sure to create and stick to a consistent sleep schedule, get regular exercise and maintain a healthy diet. If left untreated, the early onset of narcolepsy can interfere with the psychological, social and cognitive development of the brain and transfer into affecting academic and social activities.

If you suffer from narcolepsy or think someone you know may be showing signs, get in touch with one of the sleep doctors at Iowa Sleep. They can work with you to discuss your symptoms and habits to determine the best and most effective treatment for you.