Picture this; you are called up by a bunch of your friends. They wanna have you come over for a nice night of casino games and just general hanging out. Maybe you’ll play poker, have a couple of beers, or watch a movie.
You really want to go, but you had a really terrible night’s sleep last night… You kept waking up for seemingly no reason over and over again. You’d lie awake after the third, fourth, or fifth time waking up, and just wish and beg to fall asleep.
Then, you woke up that morning with a bout of sleep paralysis. You felt the terror of not being able to move, saw shadowy figures seemingly creep about in your room, and an ever present feeling of impending doom.
Finally, when your sleep paralysis wore off, you could get up. But man, did you ever feel so tired! You tried to focus on your work, or your teacher, or even your assignments, but you kept nodding off.
So, you decide to go for a run to ‘get the blood pumping.’ You figure with a little exercise, you will be feeling awake and pumped in no time! So, you pop in your earbuds and start pounding the pavement.
The running feels good, and you stop to take a sip of water. You’re worn out, so you take a knee real quick to catch your breath. Yet… you start to feel that tiredness again…
Next thing you know, you are lying face down in the grass, unsure of how you got there. Maybe you pushed yourself too hard..? You sit up, get up, and walk back home.
You were pumped, but now you feel exhausted. You bend over to take your shoes off, but as you try to right yourself, you find yourself on the floor again. You feel really fatigued, and can’t move or really even speak.
A second later, it wears off and you get up. You figure you had a really rough night last night, so you go to bed early. This begins again the cycle of fractured sleep, sleep paralysis, and random attacks of fatigue or drowsiness.
You also start to swear you see lights or flashes out the corners of your eyes. Was that a face in the window..? You seem to see things that you aren’t sure are really there.
Your friends and family worry about you, and some seem to think you are just lazy or pretending for attention. So, with some encouragement, you go to a doctor.
He runs through all your symptoms, and you are finally diagnosed with a real condition. There is something actually wrong with you, and you finally have an explanation; Narcolepsy.
Causes and Symptoms
What just preceded this was a short description of what someone’s life might be like with the condition known as “Narcolepsy.” Narcolepsy is a very real, and even quite scary condition affecting around 1/2000 people.
According to Doctor Tom Scammell of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, Narcolepsy is a common neurological disorder caused by a lack of neurons in your brain that create a neurotransmitter called ‘hypocretin.’
Those neurons in your brain are located in the hypothalamus, and hypocretin is an essential neurotransmitter that helps promote and sustain the other parts of your brain that keep you awake throughout the day.
Now, as of right now, the research is still ongoing as to why a lack of hypocretin exactly leads to symptoms found in Narcolepsy and Cataplexy. Cataplexy being a condition that can come along with narcolepsy.
Cataplexy is a bout of sudden muscle weakness usually brought on by a strong emotion such as laughter, sadness, exhaustion, etc…
Now, narcolepsy doesn’t always have to be accompanied by cataplexy, however. There are three categories of narcolepsy defined by Harvard Medical School. The first is narcolepsy without cataplexy. This usually has milder symptoms and doesn’t have the random fatigue and muscle weakness.
The second category is narcolepsy with cataplexy. This generally means the person will suffer worse symptoms, including, of course, the effects of cataplexy.
Finally, there is secondary narcolepsy. This is narcolepsy brought on by severe brain damage or trauma. This is usually the worst form of narcolepsy, as it comes with many other neurological disorders from the damage. Sufferers of secondary narcolepsy also usually require large amounts of sleep. Upwards of 10 hours.
The essential idea with all forms of narcolepsy, however, is a blending of the waking and sleeping hours of your day. A “normal” person generally has a distinction between their waking and sleeping hours. Some overlap here and there, but nothing crazy.
People with narcolepsy, however, tend to have their sleep and waking lives blended together. They will fall asleep during the day from tiredness or sleep attacks, and they will have disrupted sleep at night.
Development and Treatment
Narcolepsy usually develops in individuals over a period of months. They will slowly get more and more symptoms, and it is not just a sudden shift overnight from having a normal sleep life to having all of the symptoms that come with narcolepsy.
This development usually takes place in their teenage years from the age of about ten to the age of about twenty. However, it can develop in some people as late as forty or fifty.
Unfortunately, narcolepsy has no cure. When you develop narcolepsy, it is a condition you will have for the rest of your life. Thankfully, however, it is treatable to a degree.
The current treatment for narcolepsy is a treatment of its symptoms. This means the administering of certain medications or drugs to treat the different symptoms that are caused by narcolepsy, and not medications that treat the condition itself.
Some of the current drug treatments are modafinil, armodafinil, amphetamines, or sodium oxybate to treat drowsiness. To treat cataplexy, it has been found that antidepressants or sodium oxybate can work to alleviate symptoms.
Thankfully, although there is no current cure, scientists are researching and working on possible cures or better treatments for narcolepsy. A current idea is to be able to somehow put hypocretins back into the patient in order to regulate their sleep.
This would work like how diabetics take insulin to treat their diabetes. They would probably have to have the hypocretins administered to them regularly, but it would help them more than the current treatment as it is a treatment for narcolepsy, and not narcolepsy’s symptoms.
Although the research is ongoing, and people with narcolepsy can live very fulfilling lives, this treatment could be a “game changer” for people who suffer from this condition. It could allow them to live more normal lives, without the fear of falling asleep while doing something dangerous.
For those with severe symptoms such as cataplexy, it could even mean they could do simple things like holding a baby without being terrified of an attack and dropping it.
Treatments, unlike cures, are generally never a perfect solution. But, with more research, it could improve the lives of sufferers from narcolepsy by quite a large margin. And, who knows? There could possibly even be an actual cure waiting for them just around the bend. All we need to do is search for it.