Sleep Disorders Narcolepsy

Few sleep disorders are as misunderstood as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that causes abnormal rapid eye movement (REM) sleep activity. People with narcolepsy are prone to excessive daytime sleepiness, sometimes falling asleep while talking, watching television or performing other tasks.

Narcolepsy affects 1 out of every 2,000 Americans, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (2010). Men and women are affected equally, and narcolepsy can be found among people of all ethnic backgrounds.

What Causes Narcolepsy?

Exactly what causes narcolepsy remains unclear. One popular theory is that disorders in REM sleep trigger narcolepsy.

Most people have sleep cycles that begin with non-REM sleep and change to REM sleep after 80 to 100 minutes, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (2010). REM sleep is the stage of sleep where people dream. People with narcolepsy often enter REM sleep shortly after falling asleep, which impairs their ability to enter restorative deep sleep stages. This abnormal sleep cycle appears to be what causes narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy Symptoms

Narcolepsy symptoms include daytime sleepiness, cataplexy, sleep paralysis and hallucinations. Narcolepsy symptoms vary from person to person, with each individual exhibiting slightly different symptoms. A wide range of sleep disorders and health conditions mimic narcolepsy symptoms, making a diagnosis of narcolepsy difficult.

Narcolepsy and Cataplexy

Cataplexy occurs when an individual suddenly loses muscle tone, causing weakness or loss of muscle control. Narcolepsy and cataplexy often develop together, with cataplexy symptoms developing in the weeks, months or even years after the onset of excessive daytime sleepiness.

Cataplexy attacks may be relatively mild, lasting only a few seconds, or they can be severe, causing a complete physical collapse. Narcolepsy and cataplexy can be misdiagnosed as seizures due to the loss of muscle control experienced during a cataplexy attack.

What Causes Narcolepsy and Cataplexy?

Cataplexy associated with narcolepsy appears to stem from the same process that causes paralysis during REM sleep. In cases of narcolepsy and cataplexy, this paralysis, intended to prevent people from acting out dreams, occurs during walking hours.

Cataplexy symptoms have specific triggers. Cataplexy maybe triggered by strong emotions. Positive feelings, such as laughing and excitement, are common cataplexy triggers.

Narcolepsy Treatment

Narcolepsy treatment includes lifestyle modifications and medications. Sufferers may need stimulants to stay awake during the day. Antidepressants may help control narcolepsy symptoms such as sleep paralysis, cataplexy and hallucinations because they suppress REM sleep.

Lifestyle changes are an important part of narcolepsy treatment. Narcolepsy may require scheduled naps to counter daytime sleepiness. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule and avoiding stimulants before bedtime are narcolepsy treatment options. Getting regular exercise and eating light meals may also be helpful.

Narcolepsy symptoms can cause people with the disorder to suffer from social embarrassment and misunderstandings. Narcolepsy support groups help people deal with the challenges of living with narcolepsy and cataplexy.


Mayo Clinic staff. (2010). Narcolepsy. Retrieved August 23, 2010, from

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2010). Narcolepsy fact sheet. Retrieved August 23, 2010, from

National Library of Medicine. (2009). Narcolepsy. Retrieved August 23, 2010, from

University of Maryland Medical Center. (2009). Narcolepsy. Retrieved August 23, 2010, from