Some conditions, like sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome, interrupt sleep and keep you awake. Narcolepsy is a condition that causes you to sleep, but at all the wrong times. In people with narcolepsy, the brain is unable to properly regulate the body’s normal sleep-wake cycles, leading to disjointed sleep at night and an uncontrollable urge to sleep during the day.

About 1 in 3,000 Americans have narcolepsy, and many don’t realize they live with the condition because it can be difficult to diagnose. People with narcolepsy sleep for the same number of hours each night as those without the condition; however, their sleep doesn’t follow normal patterns. Typically when people fall asleep, they first drift into a stage of light sleep. Then, after about 90 minutes, they enter the deeper rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage. Those with narcolepsy enter REM sleep right away, and may experience periods of REM sleep throughout the day.

The primary symptoms of narcolepsy are excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden sleep attacks, which can occur often enough to interfere with normal activities. Many people report falling asleep at work, in school, or in the middle of social situations. Often these sleep episodes last for just a few seconds. It’s common for people to continue what they were doing. For example, taking notes in class or cooking a meal, while they sleep. Cataplexy; a sudden loss of muscle tone and control, is another hallmark symptom of narcolepsy. Some people experience sleep paralysis during transitions between sleep and wakefulness. During these episodes, they are suddenly frozen and unable to move for seconds to minutes at a time.

Two drugs; modafinil (Nuvigil) and sodium oxybate (Xyrem) are FDA-approved to treat narcolepsy. These medicines help recharge the central nervous system to create a feeling of alertness. Tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help control cataplexy. Doctors also prescribe sedatives to improve sleep at night. Taking naps during the day, and following a set sleep schedule at night can also help with narcolepsy.

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