Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes overwhelming sleepiness and difficulty staying awake. It affects an estimated 3 million people worldwide, but the majority of people with the condition are undiagnosed and untreated. Without treatment, the condition can cause serious difficulties and disruptions in an individual’s life.
Potential narcolepsy causes include low levels of hypocretin, a chemical that helps the brain regulate sleep and wake cycles, and exposure to the H1N1 virus. However, in many cases, the specific narcolepsy causes are unknown.
There are several noticeable signs and symptoms that may indicate that someone has the disorder. Here are six of the most common early symptoms to watch out for:
1. Excessive Sleepiness
Excessive daytime sleepiness is the most obvious and most well-known symptom of the disorder. All people with the disorder experience this symptom, but the duration and severity of episodes of sleepiness may vary. Typically, periods of sleepiness last for under 30 minutes, and they often occur after experiencing strong emotions.
Daytime sleepiness may be accompanied by “brain fog” or mental cloudiness, difficulty focusing, and memory problems. These issues may seem very similar to depression, and people are often misdiagnosed.
2. Falling Asleep Suddenly
Because of the extreme daytime sleepiness, the condition often causes people to fall asleep suddenly in the middle of the day. People with this disorder can fall asleep without any warning, even if they’re in the middle of a conversation. However, it’s most common for people to fall asleep when they’re watching TV, sitting in a meeting, or doing anything else where they’re not active. Friends or family members might wake up their sleeping loved one after noticing them dozing off or snoring, but the individual may deny falling asleep at all.
Some people also experience automatic behavior after falling asleep in the middle of the day. They may continue to go through their normal daily activities even though they’re technically sleeping. When they wake up, they have no recollection of completing these activities.
3. Quick Entry to REM
If you notice that you begin dreaming immediately after falling asleep, you could be moving rapidly into REM sleep, which is a common symptom of this sleep disorder. People usually only experience REM after sleeping for an hour or more, but narcolepsy can cause people to move into REM sleep after just five minutes. It’s also common to be able to easily recall your dreams in great detail.
Some people experience hypnogagic hallucinations as they fall asleep and hypnopomipic hallucinations as they wake up. These are dreams that feel extremely vivid and often involve sensory input from the individual’s surrounding environment, including visuals, sounds, and smells.
5. Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis prevents you from moving or speaking right after waking up. You remain fully conscious during sleep paralysis, and although it only lasts a couple minutes, it can be very frightening. During REM sleep, your body becomes temporarily paralyzed, and sleep paralysis is a similar occurrence but happens during consciousness.
6. Loss of Muscle Tone
Sudden loss of muscle tone, or cataplexy, is often triggered by strong emotions. It can cause your head to droop or your knees to buckle, and it can last for several minutes. Not everyone with this sleep disorder experiences cataplexy, but some people have multiple episodes every day.
If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to contact a doctor to be tested for this sleep disorder. You can undergo sleep tests for diagnosis, which will rule out other conditions like sleep apnea, a disorder that blocks the airways and causes snoring. If you’re diagnosed with narcolepsy, you and your doctor can determine the best treatment plan for you. Although there is no cure, the condition can be managed with medications and lifestyle changes.