Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that disrupts the lives an estimated three million people throughout the world. This can be a dangerous disease for those who suffer from this illness, as well as those around them, as people with narcolepsy cause accidents inadvertently, by falling asleep at the most inopportune of moments. Scientists have hypothesized on the exact causes of narcolepsy, but ultimately the root cause of narcolepsy remains a mystery that is still being studied.
This leaves the question: What causes narcolepsy?
It is widely believed by doctors of neurology and scientists that narcolepsy is caused by several different factors. One of which is genetics, although this has never been proven, as narcolepsy is rare among relatives. Another theory, which is more solid than the genetics theory, is environmental factors combined with emotional stimuli. This is especially true when looking at narcolepsy with cataplexy. The following is a list of factors that are known triggers for cataplectic attacks:
- Hysterical laughter (More severe than laughter alone.)
- Stressful situations
- Poor sleep habits (Not having scheduled nap times or having insomnia.)
- Poor diet
Another extremely common occurrence is that narcolepsy is misdiagnosed or left completely undiagnosed. E.D.S. or excessive daytime sleepiness is usually the most common symptom a person with narcolepsy suffers, so it is often ignored or thought of as some other problem. In fact, the only truly unique symptom in narcoleptic patients is cataplexy. Cataplexy is the sudden loss of muscle control, which can cause falls and serious injury. This often takes years to diagnose correctly and is often misdiagnosed as epilepsy and depression.
Effects of Narcolepsy on a Person’s Life
Narcolepsy, especially when left untreated or misdiagnosed, can have dire consequences on a person’s life. Ridicule and embarrassment, as well as the risk of injury due to accidents, both to self and others, can weigh heavy on the mind of a person suffering from this ailment. Although it is not thought of as a mental disorder in and of itself, narcolepsy can lead to severe depression in those struggling with its symptoms.
Dangerous activities include:
- Driving and operating machinery
- Working a general labor job
- Cooking and food preparation
- All forms of sports and exercise
Other aspects of a person’s life than can become disrupted are:
- Social and professional relationships
- Mental health due to anxiety and depression
- Personal relationships, such as marriage, can suffer due to lowered sex drive
- Memory and attention may suffer due to sudden sleep attacks
Diagnosing Narcolepsy Correctly
People that suspect that they may have narcolepsy should keep a journal and write down all narcolepsy symptoms they experience such as daytime sleep attacks. When making a doctor visit, this journal should be taken and given to the doctor. This information, combined with the extensive testing and the questionnaire provided by doctors, can give a person years of happiness that they would otherwise miss due to the symptoms of narcolepsy.
The tests performed to help diagnose narcolepsy are as follows:
- E.S.S. or Epworth Sleepiness Scale. This is a questionnaire designed to pin point the symptoms of narcolepsy.
- Nocturnal Polysomnogram. This is a study that is done overnight to measure the electrical activity of a person’s brain and heart, as well as the movement of the muscles and the eyes.
- M.S.L.T. or Multiple Sleep Latency Test. This test helps to measure the time it takes a person to fall asleep during the day.
- Spinal Fluid Analysis. This is a newer test that is done to help diagnose narcolepsy, in which the cerebrospinal fluid is tested for the chemical hypocretin. A lack of this chemical is a red flag for narcolepsy.
What is the Cause of Narcolepsy?
Scientists discovered, after years of research, that patients with narcolepsy have one common factor. They all lack a chemical that is found in the brain called hypocretin. Hypocretin sometimes called orexin, controls a person’s sleeping and waking functions. Without it people fall asleep when they should be fully awake. The neurons that secrete hypocretin are found in lower quantities in narcolepsy patients, which cause the lack of this important chemical.
Self Help Treatment of Narcolepsy
There are many ways a person suffering from narcolepsy can keep sleep attacks to a minimum. First, scheduling naps throughout the day can help one to have control on when he or she falls asleep. Next, the avoidance of drugs, alcohol and caffeine is important, as these can interfere with sleep when it’s needed. It should also be mentioned that some over the counter medications should be avoided, due to the drowsiness they can cause. Another good self-help idea is for a person to involve everyone he or she knows. Telling employers, co-workers, friends and family about this medical situation can save one from much ridicule and embarrassment. Finally, and most importantly, a person who suffers from narcolepsy should always wear a medical bracelet or necklace to alert everyone in case a situation may arise.
Medications, Diagnosis and Treatment
Common medications used to treat this condition include sodium oxybate, antidepressants and stimulants. First, sodium oxybate is a strong drug used in the treatment of patients with cataplexy. Commonly referred to as “the date rape drug”, sodium oxybate is considered safe when used as prescribed to treat narcolepsy, as it reduces sleep attacks and cataplexy, while helping the patient gain needful sleep. Next, antidepressants are used to help lessen the effects of cataplexy, sleep paralysis and hallucinations. Fluoxetine (Prozac) and Sertraline (Zoloft) are the two most commonly used antidepressants used to help treat narcolepsy. Finally, there is the ever popular mainstay of the medical fight against narcolepsy, stimulants. Stimulants increase a narcoleptic person’s awareness and wakefulness. It should be noted that people with a history of psychiatric issues should avoid taking stimulants, due to the increased risk of suicidal thoughts, mania, hallucinations and anxiety.
Medical researchers have been trying to formulate a drug to synthesize hypocretin in a clinical setting. This could help people with a diagnosis of narcolepsy to have less sleep attacks. Combined with an effort to change lifestyles and sleep habits, this synthetic hypocretin drug could in fact wipe out narcolepsy and its causes.