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Narcolepsy & the Ketogenic Diet

author image Berit Brogaard
Dr. Berit Brogaard has written since 1999 for publications such as "Journal of Biological Chemistry," "Journal of Medicine and Philosophy" and "Biology and Philosophy." In her academic research, she specializes in brain disorders, brain intervention and emotional regulation. She has a Master of Science in neuroscience from University of Copenhagen and a Ph.D. in philosophy from State University of New York at Buffalo.
Narcolepsy & the Ketogenic Diet
A low-carb diet may improve the symptoms of narcolepsy. Photo Credit Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Narcolepsy is a central nervous system disorder that is associated with daytime sleepiness, sleep attacks and lack of muscle control. Amphetamine-like medications such as modafinil can usually control the sleep-related symptoms of narcolepsy. However, you may develop a tolerance for these medications so they no longer work at previous doses. Research suggests that low-carb, or ketogenic, diets may help control daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks.


Narcolepsy is a chronic disease that results from a defect in brain cells that produce hypocretin, a neurotransmitter that controls sleep. The condition may arise as a result of an autoimmune disease, a disease in which the immune system treats the hypocretin-producing brain cells as foreign invaders. Other causes include psychological disorders such as trauma or stress. The most common symptoms of narcolepsy is daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks. Other symptoms include irregular night sleeping patterns, a lack of muscle control, muscle paralysis and hallucinations associated with falling asleep and waking up.

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Standard Treatment

Narcolepsy can be extremely debilitating; it can also lead to serious accidents if you fall asleep or lose muscle control while driving or walking down stairs. The risk of accidents disappears with proper treatment. The standard treatment of narcolepsy consists of a combination of stimulants such as modafinil that can keep you awake during the day and antidepressant medications that can prevent episodes of muscle weakness or paralysis. The stimulants used to treat narcolepsy usually don’t work long-term, because you tend to become tolerant over time.

Ketogenic Diets

R.M. Wilders, M.D., invented the ketogenic diet in the 1920s as a remedy for epileptic seizures.The original version of the ketogenic diet requires restricting carbohydrates to 10 to 15 g a day. Protein should be kept at 1 g a day per kilogram of body weight; a kilogram is about 2.2 pounds. This composition of nutrients forces the body to switch from glucose to fat metabolism, which has a stabilizing effect on the brain. Newer diets such as the Atkins diet are modifications of the original ketogenic diet, but they allow a slightly higher intake of carbohydrates and do not require a restriction of protein. Unlike the original ketogenic diet, they are primarily used for weight loss.

A Ketogenic Diet and Narcolepsy

According to a study published in the June 2004 issue of “Neurology,” a diet low in carbohydrates can alleviate the symptoms of narcolepsy. In the study, nine patients followed the Atkins diet for eight weeks. One patient couldn’t complete the study. The eight patients who completed the study experienced significantly less daytime sleepiness, fewer sleep attacks and fewer incidents of sleep paralysis. The researchers suggest that it is possible that the low glucose intake on the ketogenic diet improved the symptoms of narcolepsy by activating hypocretin-containing neurons.

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