Have you ever been talking to someone during the day and suddenly in mid conversation they’ve dropped off to sleep for a short nap? Then, a few seconds or minutes later, they’ve woken up. Well, that’s narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is one of the chronic sleep conditions that can happen to people of all ages and episodes can occur many times a day. The word narcolepsy itself actually comes from the Greek meaning “seized by sleepiness” and this perfectly sums up what happens.
It's believed around one in 2,000 people have narcolepsy. It’s also one of the chronic sleep conditions that affect men and women equally, and in the majority of cases it begins between the ages of 15 and 30.
The cause of narcolepsy remain unclear. Research into narcolepsy and similar sleep conditions point to an abnormal functioning of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Another school of thought suggests that narcolepsy is the result of an autoimmune process, when the body attacks itself.
Some people may also be genetically predisposed to the sleep condition, and narcolepsy causes can be triggered by infections such as measles or mumps, accidents and the hormonal changes that take place in puberty.
As well as suddenly falling asleep in the middle of the day, other signs to look out for and lead to narcolepsy diagnosis include temporary paralysis on falling asleep or waking up, and experiencing hallucinations. People may wake during the night too with their heart racing, feeling flushed and agitated, and with intense cravings for sweets. So it’s not great for the diet either.
And because it’s a neurological condition, about four out of five people with narcolepsy also experience a sudden loss of muscular control. This is usually triggered by emotion, such as laughter, and can cause the jaw to drop and the head to slump, or even the legs to collapse.
To properly diagnose narcolepsy, the person’s sleep must be monitored overnight using an EEG or electrical tracing that demonstrates distinct brain wave patterns.
Narcolepsy, being a chronic sleep condition, means that’s it not yet possible to cure the problem. But it can be treated to help people lead as normal a life as possible. This means taking the right steps to ensure plenty of good quality sleep, such as going to bed at a regular time, and trying to get seven and a half to eight hours sleep every night. Another area of narcolepsy treatment is avoiding heavy meals and alcohol.
It almost goes without saying that people with narcolepsy should avoid driving or operating heavy machinery when they are feeling sleepy. But apart from that it’s perfectly possible to live a healthy, normal life by managing your narcolepsy.
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