Narcolepsy affects one in 2,000 Americans. While sudden bouts of sleep and daytime sleepiness are common symptoms of narcolepsy, severity of the condition varies among individuals. No single cause or cure has been linked to narcolepsy--medication and behavioral modification minimize symptoms. Diet therapy involves timing of meals and incorporating (and avoiding) certain foods into a daily routine.
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People with narcolepsy fall asleep, without warning, throughout the day. Sudden sleep attacks last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. According to Mayo Clinic, 70 percent of people with narcolepsy also experience cataplexy--their speech becomes slurred and they lose muscle tone and control over their muscles for a few seconds or minutes. Others experience sleep paralysis and are unable to move or speak right before falling asleep or right after waking up. Automatic behavior is another symptom and occurs when a person is asleep, but functioning as if he were awake.The condition interferes with daily living, work, relationships and symptoms may cause feelings of depression or anxiety.
No cause has been established for narcolepsy. Genetics, damaged brain cells and abnormal immune responses may play roles in its development. People with narcolepsy have low levels of hypocretin, a chemical in the brain that prevents people from falling asleep and manages the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep. People with narcolepsy skip the sleep cycle that slows down brain waves (non-rapid eye movement cycle) and go straight into the REM cycle. Low levels of hypocretin may contribute to the improper sleep cycling. Scientists are researching a link between narcolepsy and a hypocretin deficiency.
Who Is At Risk?
Narcolepsy is more common among men than women. Initial symptoms (daytime sleepiness is the first) usually begin between the ages of 10 to 25 years old. Having a family member with narcolepsy increases the risk of developing the sleeping disorder.
Diet & Narcolepsy
People with narcolepsy should limit alcohol, chocolate and caffeine intake and should avoid consuming any of them several hours before bed. Avoid eating large meals three to four hours before bedtime (many people with narcolepsy experience trouble sleeping at night). People with narcolepsy benefit from a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, low fat dairy and lean sources of protein. Refined sugars and processed foods cause peaks and drops in blood sugar and energy levels--eliminating them from a diet contributes to even distributions of energy throughout the day. Meal times should be scheduled regularly and persons with narcolepsy should avoid eating heavy meals prior to a meeting or before bed.
Persons with narcolepsy may take different medications to minimize symptoms. Stimulants help persons stay awake, depressants help reduce cataplexy and sleep paralysis while sodium oxybate controls cataplexy. Sleep schedules, regular naps, being smoke-free and exercising on a regular basis help reduce symptoms of narcolepsy.