It seems like the older we get, the more we cherish our sleep time. Sleep is our time to relax, to let go of our worries, to disconnect from the world for a bit. But even something so seemingly innocuous and desirable can pose a problem due to a glitch in our system.
There exist many sleep disorders today, one of which is narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder in which people have trouble staying awake for any long period of time. Affecting about one in every 2000 people, it can involve sudden attacks of sleep and drowsiness without any warning.
What causes it? There isn’t really a specific cause that scientists have been able to identify. But there are certain genes that produce chemicals controlling the sleep cycles. Scientists were able to pinpoint a specific chemical called hypocretin that may be produced less in those who have narcolepsy. Hypocretin is a brain chemical that is involved in alertness and prevents REM sleep from occurring abnormally. Currently, studies are being done to determine if abnormalities in other parts of the brain cause narcolepsy.
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So, what exactly happens, you ask? When we sleep normally, we go through periods of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During NREM sleep, our brain waves slow down. During REM sleep, the activity of the brain yet again changes and dreaming is possible. With narcolepsy, you bypass the NREM sleep and go straight to REM sleep. This happens suddenly and without warning.
What are the symptoms to look for? Things such as excessive daytime sleepiness, cataplexy (sudden loss of muscle tone), hallucinations, and sleep paralysis upon sleeping or waking up are usual occurrences when dealing with narcolepsy. Symptoms may begin as early as when a patient is 10 years old. They may worsen over time and continue for the rest of their life.
One way to diagnose this disorder is to take a test called polysomnogram (PSG), which reads the patient’s brain waves when they are sleeping in order to gauge abnormalities. The multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) is done during daytime to measure if or how often a person falls asleep. Through these tests, narcolepsy can be diagnosed and then treated with drugs such as Xyrem.
Sadly, there is no absolute cure for it. But multiple methods exists to accommodate this disorder, such as scheduling sleep periods, avoiding caffeine, exercising, and eating healthy. After all, famous people, such as Harriet Tubman, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Edison, suffered from it and were fine. Jimmy Kimmel, another narcoleptic, also made light of the situation by referring to his ability to easily sleep through a long plane flight due to his narcolepsy. Thus, with proper treatment, it is possible to live as a narcoleptic and have a functioning and enjoyable life.
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