What is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is the most well-known of hypersomnia’s affecting 1/2000 people in its various forms. With this condition, you may experience excessive sleepiness during the day with the onset occurring at anytime and lasting from a few seconds to twenty minutes. You may also experience attacks of muscle paralysis that come on suddenly (cataplexy) and these are normally stimulated by normal emotions such as laughter, excitement and so on. Sleep paralysis affects some sufferer’s and occurs when an individual is not fully awake - they are going in to or coming out of sleep and become aware that their body is paralysed. Sleep paralysis normally lasts for up to a minute. Hypnagogic hallucinations can also occur in which you experience a dream-like state during wakefulness and they are usually very vivid.

Evidently, narcolepsy is a very complex disorder and does not just affect you during the night but also during the day. The brain mechanisms that control sleep and wakefulness are affected, meaning that REM sleep is permitted to occur during wakefulness, resulting in the symptoms described above. The symptoms vary in severity; some narcoleptics will suffer full body paralysis where as others are only effected in their arms and legs. As the symptoms are brought on during moments of emotion, it is evidently a distressing disorder for anyone to suffer and you may tend to avoid moments of emotion in order to avoid suffering an attack, which can be both upsetting and embarrassing. The disorder can also have an impact on social and professional life. However, there are solutions to help control and improve narcoleptics lives and it is important that the disorder is recognised and treated effectively.

The brain mechanisms that are affected in a narcolepsy sufferer involve the hypothalamus which secrets a protein called hypocretin which is involved in regulating sleep and wakefulness. Lack of hypocretin has been noticed in people who suffer from narcolepsy and cataplexy. Narcoleptics then experience rapid movements into REM sleep, which are experienced during wakefulness and during attacks. Equally, when you go to sleep at night you often enter far more quickly into REM sleep, meaning that you have less time in NREM sleep. NREM sleep is vital as it contains two stages of deep sleep which are essential for us as it allows our brains to relax, our muscles to repair and our immune system to re-build. The lack of NREM sleep that narcotics suffer from causes the excessive daytime sleepiness that they experience. Narcolepsy is also thought to be carried in genes which means it can be passed from one generation to the next.

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