Narcolepsy: spontaneously falling asleep during day time

Narcolepsy: spontaneously falling asleep during day time

Sleep Centre

Narcolepsy: spontaneously falling asleep during day time

Feeling tired and occasionally falling asleep at work after a night on the town is normal but imagine talking to your boss or being in your car on the highway and spontaneously falling asleep. That’s no joke at all!

Sleeping like a baby

Many people struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep at night and are often diagnosed as having a sleep disorder such as insomnia, sleep apnoea or other disorders such as restless legs syndrome. They usually complain feeling sleepy the next day and may even fall asleep at work. This is not narcolepsy.

Although some experience fragmented night time sleep, most people with narcolepsy usually fall asleep easily at night and also sleep deeply. However, come daylight their real agony starts. They may have several episodes during the day when sleepiness overwhelms them and they spontaneously fall asleep at the most inappropriate times. These episodes may be brief (30 seconds) or they may last up to 30 minutes or more. To further complicate matters people with narcolepsy fall into the deepest of sleeps, the REM sleep stage, immediately, just like babies do!

Diagnosing narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is often confused with sleep apnoea because they share the same main characteristic; excessive day time sleepiness. It is, however very important to distinguish between the two as they are treated totally different.

You may be suffering from this disorder if you experience one or more of the following symptoms.

  1. Excessive day time sleepiness and falling asleep spontaneously at inappropriate times without being able to control it
  2. Waking up in the morning but realising that though your mind is awake your body is not (sleep paralysis) and that you are unable to talk or move
  3. Experiencing very real, weird and colourful dreams just before falling asleep or waking up (hypnogogic hallucinations)
  4. Sudden muscle weakness, dizziness and falling down after experiencing trauma or sudden, strong, emotions such as anger, surprise, laughter or exhilaration (cataplexy).

Despite the abovementioned, narcolepsy is not a psychological disorder such as depression but a REM sleep disorder that can only be properly diagnosed with the help of appropriate sleep and daytime nap tests such as the MSLT (Multiple Sleep Latency Test).


Doctors admit that they can’t cure and are not sure what causes narcolepsy except that the body’s wake/sleep “switch” does not seem to work. However, there are drugs that offer some form of control over sudden attacks of sleepiness that they are able to prescribe. Fortunately, a breakthrough discovery has been made with the finding that people with narcolepsy seem to be deficient in a brain protein called orexin/hypocretin and hope has surfaced that further tests and studies may help researchers find a cure.

Self-help remedies

Other remedies that have been suggested to help suppress (not cure) narcolepsy symptoms, include the following.

  • Diet changes such as cutting out all processed, junk and genetically modified foods, carbohydratess, bleached sugar, unnecessary diary and high fructose corn syrup that aggravate the sluggishness, brain fog and exhaustion that those with narcolepsy often have to endure. Drinking filtered water and getting a regular intake of protein or following a strict organic diet seems to help too
  • Eating at the same time every day and eating five smaller meals instead of one or two large ones also help as it helps eliminate blood sugar highs and lows
  • Taking apple cider vinegar in water or with honey. It is, however, important not to take it on an empty stomach and not to drink milk before or after having it. After breakfast is a good time to take it. It may aggravate acid reflux in some
  • Taking vitamin supplements especially the B-complex vitamins (with extra vitamin B-2), vitamin D and magnesium
  • Eliminating allergy triggers such as fungus and mold and checking for gluten and wheat intolerances and allergies
  • Following a fixed sleep schedule at night
  • Avoiding stimulants such as energy drinks, nicotine and coffee as they may increase the heart rate.

What to do

If you have any of the abovementioned symptoms and suspect narcolepsy, your first move should be to consult a medical expert with knowledge of sleep disorders. Second, inform those you work with and at home what the disorder is all about. People with narcolepsy are often mistakenly labelled as lazy, undisciplined and unmotivated. Having the support and understanding of colleagues, friends and family makes it bearable. Also, be practical. If you suffer from narcolepsy you may not be able to work with dangerous machinery or go on extended road trips as you may very well fall asleep on the job or while driving. However, this does not mean that you can’t have a fulfilling life. Work around the difficulties and accept all the help you can get.

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