Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder of the dream and wake switch. Patients may enter dream sleep while awake or waken during their dreams.

Symptoms of Narcolepsy

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Sudden, involuntary episodes of falling asleep during normal daytime activities
  • Vivid dreams that are difficult to tell from reality
  • Dreaming during naps
  • Dreaming before fully asleep
  • Never waking up rested
  • Sleep paralysis or partial wakening, yet unable to move
  • Cataplexy (weakness of your face, arms or legs with strong emotion)
  • Frequent sinus and upper respiratory infections

Individuals suffering from narcolepsy fall almost immediately into deep REM sleep; this may also occur during waking hours, disrupting normal activities and leading to uncontrollable bouts of daytime sleepiness. The exact cause of this sleeping disorder is unknown, but researchers theorize it is the result of genes that are responsible for the production of chemicals that alert the brain to sleep and wake cycles. Some scientists believe excess production of hypocretin in the brain may lead to the onset of narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy is diagnosed in the sleep lab. Patients stay overnight for a regular sleep study, and then stay the next day for a Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT). During this test, patients take a series of four or five naps approximately two hours apart. If they fall asleep quickly and enter dream sleep during two of the naps, then the diagnosis of narcolepsy is made.

There is no cure for narcolepsy, but medications such as stimulants can help combat excessive daytime sleepiness, while nighttime medications and antidepressants can help with abnormal REM sleep. Lifestyle changes – limiting caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine consumption, avoiding heavy meals, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, taking brief daytime naps – can all help reduce the severity of symptoms and lead to an improved quality of life for many patients.