Scientists don’t know exactly what causes narcolepsy. Evidence suggests the sleep disorder is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors that affect a person's ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles. One thing we know for sure: living with narcolepsy can cause chronic sleep problems and severe sleep deprivation. Narcolepsy-related sleep problems can pose a threat to one’s overall health. Maintaining a healthy mood, diet, and exercise can improve sleep quality — a critical treatment goal for people with narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a rare, chronic neurological sleep disorder characterized by low levels of a chemical in the brain called hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical that helps regulate a person’s natural urges to sleep and to wake up and be productive. This hypocretin deficiency prevents a person's natural sleep clock from functioning as it should.
In a person with narcolepsy, the four stages of sleep — including rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep — are less distinct. This disrupts a person’s waking state. For people without narcolepsy, sleep cycles are more consistent.
Low Quantity, Poor Quality, Off Schedule: Sleep Problems in Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy impairs the brain’s ability to properly regulate sleep-wake cycles. During the day, when it's normal to be up and about, narcolepsy makes it hard — if not impossible — to stay awake. Narcolepsy also disrupts a person’s ability to fall and stay asleep at nighttime, when people typically get their much-needed rest.
Sleep plays a critical role in our general health. Each phase of sleep is vital to physical rest, recuperation, regeneration, and certain brain functions that allow us to absorb information and create memories.
Good sleep improves overall health, increases productivity, and betters quality of life. Ample, restful sleep also helps with the management of narcolepsy symptoms. Unfortunately, people with narcolepsy often experience insomnia or fragmented sleep that makes it challenging to get enough rest. Here are a few lifestyle tips and tweaks to sleep hygiene practices that could make a big difference in sleep quality for those with narcolepsy.
Managing Insomnia in Narcolepsy
Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterised by a recurring inability to fall asleep. Insomnia is something people living with narcolepsy often encounter. Even if they feel extremely sleepy during the day — and sleep deprived after days, months, or years with the condition — people with narcolepsy often experience difficulties falling asleep.
Adopt a Routine
In preparation for a good night’s sleep, routines and rituals are the name of the game.
- Go to sleep at the same time each day. This helps your body get into a rhythm in which sleep might come more easily. Keep the same schedule on weekends.
- Relax in your lead-up to bedtime. Avoid stressful activities, such as reading work emails.
- Try meditation and mindfulness practices to reduce your stress levels.
- Treat your bedroom and bed like a sleep sanctuary. Avoid engaging in other activities in bed, such as reading or watching television. This way your body and mind become accustomed to the association that bedroom means sleep.
Living with narcolepsy requires being careful about what you put in your body and when you do so — eating and drinking more of some foods while totally avoiding others.
- Avoid large, heavy meals right before bedtime. Eating very close to bedtime can make it harder to sleep.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. This has been shown to help with narcolepsy symptoms and narcolepsy-related sleep issues.
- Avoid consuming caffeinated beverages for several hours before bedtime. Some advise cutting the caffeine off as early as 4 p.m. to make sure it doesn’t interfere with your sleep.
- Increase your intake of fermented foods and drinks, such as kimchi and kombucha. This may help with the balance of the neurochemical hypocretin, which plays a role in sleep cycle regulation.
Make Sure To Move
Exercising and maintaining a healthy weight go a long way toward managing narcolepsy’s symptoms and good health overall.
- Exercise for at least 20 minutes per day to improve sleep quality and help maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise during the day, which can tire you out and better prepare your body for a good night of uninterrupted rest. Try to avoid exercising for four or five hours before bedtime.
Improving Fragmented Sleep in Narcolepsy
Fragmented sleep, or frequent sleep interruptions throughout the night, is another common sleep problem for people with narcolepsy. Consistently staying asleep through full, consecutive sleep cycles is integral to your sleep quality. Issues that disrupt sleep and contribute to being chronically under rested include vivid dreams (or even hallucinations), night terrors, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome.
Aim for Regular Exercise
The benefits of exercise and diet on sleep quantity, quality, and duration can help alleviate narcolepsy symptoms and disordered sleep in several ways. Exercise can help tire you out and ensure you sleep better throughout the night. Exercise, together with a healthy diet, helps regulate metabolism and reduces the risk of obesity and weight management issues that frequently accompany narcolepsy.
Watch What You Eat Before Bedtime
Avoiding spicy foods in the hours before bed may also be helpful. Spicy foods have been found to increase body temperature, which is the opposite of what a person’s body naturally does when asleep.
Alcohol can contribute to sleep fragmentation. For better sleep, people with narcolepsy should try to decrease the amount of alcohol they consume or not drink at all. Avoid alcohol for at least four to five hours before going to sleep.
Create a Healthy Sleep Environment
Try to eliminate the external factors that might interrupt your sleep through the night. Consider sensory deprivation devices, such as a white noise machine, blackout curtains, or an eye mask to keep your surroundings optimal for getting a solid night’s sleep.
No cure for narcolepsy exists, at present. There are new, better, and more treatment options available than ever. Fortunately, through a combination of medical interventions, complementary therapies, and lifestyle changes, narcolepsy is treatable and manageable. So are the sleep disorders that often accompany narcolepsy. Additionally, research into managing narcolepsy and living your healthiest continues to show promise.
At The Alaska Sleep Clinic we specialize in treating patients with all kinds of sleep disorders including narcolepsy. If you, or someone you know, may have un-diagnosed narcolepsy please contact your primary care physician and see if a sleep study may be needed to diagnose your disorder. While there is no cure for narcolepsy, the treatments available can help relieve you of many of the symptoms giving you a more wakeful, fulfilling life. For more information about narcolepsy or any other sleep disorders feel free to contact us by clicking the link below.
Author: Nyaka Mwanza
- Narcolepsy Fact Sheet — National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
- Narcolepsy — National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD)
- Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep — National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke