If, during the day, you sleep when you don’t want to or you notice that you fall asleep uncontrollably at intervals during the day, then you are wondering what it is. Without mincing words, there is a high possibility that you have a condition called narcolepsy. But don’t worry. You have no reason to panic. It can be managed, so this is a good read for you. Read through to get a narcolepsy meaning, understand its causes, and know how to handle this condition.

What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is the uncontrollable need to sleep. It is a disorder that is relatively uncommon. Suffering from narcolepsy will mean that you feel drowsy a lot during the daytime, even drift off into sleep, and it’s usually beyond your control. This condition—narcolepsy—can start at any age; it has been discovered to begin in the teenage years through young adulthood. Most times, it could be present throughout a lifetime.

Narcolepsy does not inflict severe or semi-permanent issues with your physical health. However, it could affect your life and be an emotional baggage. Having narcolepsy might mean that they begin to withdraw from social activities because of the baggage that this condition puts on them.

When people have narcolepsy, they find being awake for a long time an arduous task. They fall asleep suddenly, even if they do not want to. When treated, this condition usually responds well. Though serious, it is possible to manage it and adjust to its effects with care. Now that we know what it means let us identify what causes narcolepsy. It will help us understand the condition better.

What causes narcolepsy?

Lack of hypocretin is what causes narcolepsy. This brain chemical, hypocretin, which is also called orexin, is responsible for regulating alertness and appetite. Narcolepsy is a condition that prevents people from deciding when to sleep or wake up. The brain is not able to regulate sleeping and waking routines.

The absence or shortage of hypocretin is assumed to be caused by the immune system wrongly attacking the cells that stimulate it or the receptors that enable it to work. However, this does not explain every case of narcolepsy, and the specific cause of the condition has remained undetermined.

Narcolepsy symptoms

Still, we can identify narcolepsy symptoms and triggers to pinpoint whether a person has it. Here are some of the narcolepsy signs and symptoms.

Narcolepsy signs

Sleep paralysis or stiffness

People with narcolepsy always experience sleep paralysis. During sleep paralysis, you cannot talk or move while falling asleep or waking up. This can be scary, but it is usually quick; it lasts for a few seconds or, sometimes, a few minutes. You may be conscious of it as it happens and can recollect it afterwards.

Changes in rapid eye movement (REM sleep)

Rapid eye movement sleep, also called REM sleep for short, is the stage of sleep where dreaming occurs. REM sleep can occur at any period of the day. Naturally, REM sleep happens 60 to 90 minutes after falling asleep. However, people with narcolepsy always reach REM sleep earlier. They reach REM sleep in about 15 minutes after falling asleep.

Excessive daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks

In this case, you’d start to feel sleepy throughout the day, making it hard to focus and remain awake. This has nothing to do with whether or not you slept at night. It is as intense as this: Even if you slept all night, you’d still feel dizzy during the day.

There are also sleep attacks, which means the ‘sudden falling asleep’ experience without prior notice or not having control over when you fall asleep.

Hallucinations associated with sleep

These occur immediately after falling asleep or before waking up. Sometimes, during sleep stiffness, people see things that are not there. Hallucinations may also occur in bed when there is no sleep paralysis. If the hallucinations happen as you fall asleep, they are called hypnagogic hallucinations. If the hallucinations occur while waking, they are called hypnopompic hallucinations. For example, you might feel that a stranger is in your bedroom or standing right before you. These hallucinations may be intense and startling because you may not be completely asleep when you start dreaming.

Cataplexy: a considerable effect

The unexpected loss of muscle tone is a condition called cataplexy. It can cause slurred speech or total weakness in most muscles. This weakness may last up to a few minutes. This can have dull effects, affect one side of the body, or only faint muscle weakness.

Cataplexy can not be monitored or controlled. What triggers it most often is intense emotion. Most emotions that cause cataplexy are positive; examples are Laughter or excitement, making jokes, or another humour-related attitude, and sometimes surprise, anger, or fear causes the loss of muscle tone. For example, when you laugh, your neck may bend without you controlling it, and your knees may abruptly lose their strength, which may cause you to fall.

Some people with narcolepsy experience episodes of cataplexy once or twice a year. Others may have several episodes in a day. It is also noteworthy that not everyone with narcolepsy will experience these symptoms.

Types of narcolepsy related to cataplexy

There are two significant types of narcolepsy and cataplexy differentiates the two types. Note the types are needed to decide on the form of Narcolepsy treatment. The types, therefore, are:

Type 1 Narcolepsy:

This one includes cataplexy. About 20% of narcolepsy conditions are type 1. Orexin was discovered In 1998 by researchers. This chemical molecule is generated and used by specific brain neurons for communicating. The neurons that use orexins are located in the hypothalamus in the brain, and those neurons play an essential role in staying awake.

Orexin, or hypocretin, is a molecule produced by neurons that is always detectable in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the thin layer of fluid surrounding and cushioning the brain and spinal cord. However, people with narcolepsy usually have deficient levels of CSF. This means that the cells that produce orexin either stop working or are destroyed by something.

Further research shows that your neurons stopped working primarily because of an autoimmune problem. This means your immune system attacks the neurons that make and use orexins. It is recorded that About 90% to 95% of people with type 1 narcolepsy have a particular genetic mutation (the identifier for this mutation is HLA-DQB1*06:02) which affects their immune system. However, about 25% of people also have this mutation but don’t have or experience narcolepsy.

As a result, experts don’t always test for this mutation because they are not confident of its role. There is also some evidence that this condition can be hereditary, as having a relative (a parent, sibling, or child) with narcolepsy puts you at higher risk for developing it.

However, people can also develop type 1 narcolepsy after certain viral and bacterial infections, especially strains of H1N1 influenza and bacteria like those that cause strep throat. Experts suspect that’s because conditions can sometimes trigger changes and malfunctions in your immune system.

Type 2 Narcolepsy

This form does not include cataplexy. Most, or about 80%, of narcolepsy conditions are type 2. Usually, your brain turns off most of the muscle control in your body to restrain you from acting out your dreams. People with cataplexy will have unexpected muscle weakness, like your body blocking movements during REM sleep.

Mild cataplexy only affects your face and neck. For example, your jaw drops uncontrollably. Severe cataplexy can result in collapse, which can cause injuries. These usually last a few minutes, but you may find it difficult to move or speak.

Cataplexy can be different in children and people who started having or noticing the symptoms of Narcolepsy in the past six months. Cataplexy can look sudden to them, uncontrollably frowning or face-squeezing, projecting their tongue, or losing muscle tone, making their muscles feel very soft and their limbs “floppy” throughout their body without anything associated with emotion.

People with narcolepsy may suddenly speak up and say something, usually words or statements that are nonsensical or gibberish and irrelevant to what is going on around them. When this happens to people with narcolepsy, they are likely startled back to consciousness and become fully awake. Most people who do this don’t always remember doing it, which can be unpleasant for them.

Sidebar: forgetfulness (Amnesia)

It is prevalent for people with narcolepsy to forget and not recall what they were doing or what was happening right before they fell asleep.

Some possible triggers are:

  1. Hormonal changes, which can occur during Puberty or the menopause,
  2. Major psychological stress
  3. Infections such as swine flu or the medicine used to vaccinate against it (Pandemrix)

Is narcolepsy transmittable?

Not at all. Narcolepsy is not transmittable and cannot be passed from one person to another.

Treatment for narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is 100% treatable but, sadly, cannot be cured. It is best to visit a professional for treatment. The treatments usually start with medications and adjusting your daily lifestyle and routine. You can respond well to treatment; people do. A positive response to treatment reduces the disturbances the symptoms of Narcolepsy can cause.