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Biomedical Research

Narcolepsy: The Chronic Sleep Disorder

Narcolepsy is a rare chronic sleeping disorder that affects 1 in 2,000 people. This sleeping disorder can affect one lives in various dangerous ways. Those who suffer from narcolepsy find an urge to constantly fall asleep and this could lead to dangerous scenarios like falling asleep while doing normal activities like driving.

By Mary Mai

Published 4:11 PM EST, Wed March 3, 2021

Introduction

Many have heard of the term narcolepsy but not have experienced it before. After all, it is an extremely rare condition to have. Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder with excessive sleepiness throughout the day and falling asleep during regular activities. Since narcolepsy is extremely rare, it only affects 1 in 2,000 people, affecting both men and women equally. In the United States, it is estimated that 135,000 to 200,000 suffer from this chronic sleep disorder. However, everyone who is affected by this condition doesn’t necessarily experience the same symptoms because there are different types of narcolepsy. To offer more information on this rare disease, the goal is to cover the causes, the types of treatments,  how it affects people, and also additional facts about this sleeping disorder.

The Two Different Types Of Narcolepsy

  There are two major types of narcolepsy known as type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is narcolepsy with cataplexy, which results in one abrupt muscle weakness in the body. The afflicted will usually start to lose control of the muscles on their face, arms, legs, or torso. This diagnosis is usually based on whether or not the person has low levels of hypocretin, a brain hormone. The second type of narcolepsy is narcolepsy without cataplexy. An individual who has narcolepsy without cataplexy will usually have symptoms like extreme sleepiness, occasional sleep attacks, sleep paralysis while falling asleep, and also dream-like hallucinations. On the contrary, people with this type of narcolepsy do not have the muscle weakness that is triggered by emotions and instead have normal levels of hypocretin.

What Causes Narcolepsy

The causes of narcolepsy are still not entirely understood but researchers were able to uncover many factors that would cause narcolepsy, one of them being autoimmune disorders. Cataplexy causes the brain to lose cells that produce hypocretin which affects the brain negatively. Hypocretin plays a very important role because it regulates wakefulness and rapid eye movement sleep. However, when the body’s immune systems start to only attack the hypocretin chemical, it leads to narcolepsy. Researchers suspect genetic and environmental factors could be a reason why hypocretin is affected. Another cause of narcolepsy could be severe brain injuries. Although it is quite rare, some people have experienced narcolepsy after severe injuries to the brain, specifically parts of the brain that regulate wakefulness.

Symptoms

The symptoms of narcolepsy usually consist of excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, vivid dreaming, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and disrupted nighttime sleep. People with narcolepsy experience EDS ( excessive daytime sleepiness) very often. Individuals will feel very sleepy and tired throughout the day no matter the amounts of sleep they have gotten during the nighttime. They will also have a difficult time remaining awake throughout the day and could also fall asleep during the daytime while doing daily routines. This is actually extremely dangerous because people with narcolepsy could fall asleep any time during the day and anywhere. For example, they could fall asleep while cooking, driving, walking, and also swimming. It is also possible for an individual with narcolepsy to fall asleep while doing an activity and wake up and continue doing the activity without any recollection that they had fallen asleep earlier.

Treatment

There is no cure for narcolepsy, but there are many medications for certain symptoms a person can take to improve one’s daily lifestyle. There is indeed medication for cataplexy that helps control EDS. Medications can include modafinil, antidepressants, sodium oxybate, and amphetamine-like stimulants. Modafinil helps reduce daytime drowsiness which is beneficial for someone who suffers from narcolepsy as it helps them be more alert throughout the day. Antidepressants are frequently used to improve cataplexy and also control it. On the other hand, the downside is that this medication has many side effects like high blood pressure and also rhythm irregularities. Sodium oxybate is also very commonly used by those who suffer from narcolepsy. It is usually taken during the night time and improves nighttime sleep while reducing daytime drowsiness.

Conclusion

While not many struggles with this chronic sleep disorder, the people who do suffer face many obstacles during their day-to-day life. Narcolepsy affects one well-being by causing one to fall asleep excessively during the daytime which could result in consequences for the individual. Researchers have been able to find out the possibilities of what could cause this disorder to occur but there is still more to be researched and discovered. Because there are two different types of narcolepsy, those who suffer from it still have to face their own different struggles that come with it. Even though there is no medical cure for narcolepsy, there are a variety of medical treatment options an individual could take to improve their daily lifestyle. There is still much to learn about narcolepsy and hopefully, in the near future, we will be able to discover more treatments and more information about this chronic sleep disorder.

Mary Mai, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References

Narcolepsy Fact Sheet. (2020, September 30). Retrieved January 31, 2021, from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/fact-Sheets/Narcolepsy-Fact-Sheet#3201_4

Narcolepsy – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment. (2021, January 25). Retrieved January 31, 2021, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/narcolepsy

By Mary Mai

Mary Mai is a student at Balboa High School in California. She is interested in fields of medical genetics, neurology, psychiatry, and pediatrics.

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