What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a lifelong sleep disorder that makes you feel overwhelmingly tired. Severe narcolepsy can cause sudden, uncontrollable sleep attacks.

Narcolepsy can impact nearly every aspect of your life. Excessive sleepiness or a sleep attack may occur at any time of the day, in the middle of any activity, including eating, walking or driving. Operating a vehicle with untreated narcolepsy can be very dangerous and some states even have laws against it.
Narcolepsy is a condition characterized by sudden sleep attacks during the day. Individuals with narcolepsy may fall asleep at inappropriate times and without warning several times a day. For every one million people in the U.S., about 550 will have narcolepsy, and about 14 will be diagnosed with the condition every year.

Along with sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and insomnia, narcolepsy is one of the more commonly diagnosed sleep disorders in people seeking treatment in sleep clinics. Often mistaken for depression, epilepsy or the side effects of medications, narcolepsy can occur in men or women at any age although its symptoms are typically first noticed in adolescence and young adulthood. There is some evidence that narcolepsy may run in families; up to 10% of people with narcolepsy report having a close relative with the same symptoms.
Narcolepsy is a condition that causes excessive sleepiness and frequent daytime sleep attacks. The exact cause has not been identified.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Narcolepsy is when your brain in unable to normally regulate your sleep and wake cycles, due to a lack of the chemical hypocretin, in most cases. So you may find it hard to fall asleep at bedtime or perhaps you get enough sleep at night, but feel excessively sleepy during the day. So sleepy, in fact, you often fall asleep at inappropriate moments, like at work or while driving. My patients describe it as embarrassing and scary; it keeps them from doing things they love to do.

Still, this isn't enough to diagnose you. Excessive daytime sleepiness could simply mean you're not getting enough uninterrupted quality sleep due to another reason, like stress, noise, or sleep apnea. Once paired with another symptom of narcolepsy, however, the likelihood goes up. Narcoleptics often experience one or more of these symptoms, which seem to get worse over time:
  • Nightmares or very real hallucinations as your about to fall asleep or wake up.
  • The sudden loss of muscle tone, which can be subtle or cause you to fall (called cataplexy).
  • Feeling like you can't move at all—like you're paralyzed—just before sleeping or as you're waking up.
Narcolepsy is a neurological condition associated with sleepiness in the day, attacks of weakness with emotion (cataplexy), waking up from sleep completely unable to move (sleep paralysis), hallucinations as one falls asleep and disrupted nighttime sleep. The diagnosis can be made based on symptoms and ruling out other disorders. There are also tests that can be done in the sleep laboratory involving overnight and daytime testing.
You might love your sleep--and your naps--but probably not enough to want narcolepsy, one of the more difficult sleep disorders to manage. What few people realize, though, is that narcolepsy isn’t just about falling asleep frequently during the day at inopportune times. About three-quarters of narcoleptics are at the mercy of emotional reactions that trigger their body to physically experience muscle paralysis. So imagine being happily excited or, conversely, suddenly frightened, and all of the sudden your body freezes against your will and you can’t move. 

And imagine this heartbreaking, agonizing disorder coming uncontrollably from within you. From your own immune system.

It’s long been thought that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disorder whereby an individual’s immune system goes haywire; rather than targeting just foreign invaders and germs, it instead turns against the body and begins attacking certain cells. Although this has never been definitively proven, we now have more evidence showing that narcolepsy indeed may be blamed on a misfiring immune system.

Narcolepsy affects 1 in 2,000 Americans and is characterized by uncontrollable attacks of sleepiness. In addition,  some patients experience impaired concentration, blurred vision, brief episodes of muscle weakness without loss of consciousness, total paralysis that lasts a few seconds to minutes usually at sleep onset or offset, hallucinations at sleep onset or offset and disturbed night-time sleep.

Narcolepsy is a potentially serious, chronic sleep disorder that causes uncontrollable fatigue during the day and sleep disturbances at night. If you have narcolepsy, you regularly feel very sleepy during the daytime, and you may even fall asleep up to several times a day. These episodes may be accompanied by muscle weakness.

Narcolepsy is an uncommon sleep disorder whose main symptom is powerful daytime sleepiness. During the day, a person with narcolepsy may be overwhelmed with sleepiness, fall asleep for 10-20 minutes, wake up refreshed but within 1 or 2 hours begin to feel sleepy again. The sleepiness usually occurs in situations when the person is quiet, inactive or bored (for example, listening to a boring lecture, play or movie). At first the person can usually fight the sleepiness, but over time the sleepiness can be overwhelming and at least a brief nap is needed.

Continue Learning about Narcolepsy

Is narcolepsy a sleep disorder?
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How does narcolepsy affect the body?
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When do symptoms of narcolepsy appear?
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Can narcolepsy be prevented?
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.