Narcolepsy - The myth of insomnia

Addicted to sleep - is that possible? Narcolepsy belongs to the neurological dysfunctions and leads to extreme daytime sleepiness, sudden sleep attacks or involuntary muscle relaxation. Find out here what exactly lies behind "sleeping sickness" and how it can cause us to suddenly tire and fall asleep uncontrollably.

Table of contents

  1. What is narcolepsy?
  2. Typical symptoms of narcolepsy
    1. Pronounced daytime sleepiness
    2. Sudden falling asleep / sleep attacks
    3. Cataplectic seizures / uncontrollable muscle relaxation
    4. Disturbed night sleep
    5. Other symptoms
  3. Causes and triggers of sleeping sickness
  4. What sufferers can do
  5. Addicted to sleep?

We all know the feeling when tiredness overcomes us and we fall asleep faster than we would like. However, those who suffer from narcolepsy are not only sometimes tired, but actually always tired. Approximately 40,000 people in Germany suffer from narcolepsy, also known as "sleeping sickness" or "sleep addiction," and have to live with severe fatigue, sleep attacks and muscle reflexes day after day. The fact that sleeping sickness not only makes everyday life more difficult and considerably impairs the quality of life, but can also lead to dangerous accidents, is often forgotten. But what exactly is behind the myth of narcolepsy and how does the unusual addiction to sleep develop?

What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a neurological dysfunction of the areas of the brain that control our sleep and wakefulness. It throws our sleep-wake behavior off track and manifests itself, among other things, through extreme sleepiness or uncontrollable daytime naps, so that affected individuals suddenly tire and fall asleep even in unusual situations. These daytime naps usually last only about 5 to 30 minutes, but short-term muscle failure, sleep paralysis and disturbed nighttime sleep are also among the classic symptoms of narcolepsy.

Although the "sleep addiction" is not life-threatening, it severely impairs the everyday life and quality of life of the sufferers and, according to the current state of science, is also not curable. The symptoms can occur as early as childhood and can also change over the years. So while most of us tend to suffer from a lack of sleep, people suffering from narcolepsy have to fight day in and day out to resist the urge to sleep.

Typical symptoms of narcolepsy

Tagesmüdigkeit: Junge Frau gähnt müde während der Arbeit

Pronounced daytime sleepiness

The most common symptom of narcolepsy is excessive daytime sleepiness that is difficult to control, but this is not due to a lack of sleep or poor nighttime sleep. This is because although people with narcolepsy wake up rested in the morning, they usually become tired again after a few hours and may fall asleep again a short time after waking up.

Sudden falling asleep / sleep attacks

Due to the extreme phases of fatigue, it happens that those affected can no longer resist the pressure to sleep and fall asleep again and again or even quite suddenly. These sleep attacks occur particularly in rather monotonous situations such as reading, watching television or as a passenger in the car, but can also occur during actually active, more complex activities such as eating, writing or speaking. This carries a high risk of accidents and poses a danger to the sufferer or, for example, other road users. Anyone suffering from sleeping sickness must therefore reckon with restrictions even during supposedly harmless, everyday activities and prevent dangers in everyday life.

Cataplectic seizures / sudden muscle relaxation

Cataplexy is the uncontrolled relaxation of the body's muscles triggered by the sensation of strong emotions such as anger, fear, joy or laughter. Depending on the intensity, affected individuals lose control of single or multiple muscles of one part of the body, such as the facial or leg muscles. This sudden muscle failure usually lasts only a few seconds and is not dangerous in itself, but can lead to falls or minor accidents under certain circumstances.

Disturbed night sleep

The disruption of sleep-wake regulation in the brain also affects sleep at night, leading to basically lighter sleep and frequent awakenings. Individuals with narcolepsy often fall asleep quickly, but are more sensitive to waking stimuli and have difficulty sleeping through the night. Thus, night sleep becomes fundamentally less restful and daytime fatigue, which is already severe, increases.

Further symptoms

Other symptoms of narcolepsy include sleep paralysis, sleep-induced hallucinations and automated behavior.

Causes and triggers of narcolepsy

Only a few years ago, researchers were able to find a cause for the development of the mysterious sleeping sickness. As a neurological dysfunction, the origin is basically an organic, not psychological, impairment of brain function. The hypothalamus is an important control center in the brain and particularly relevant for the coordination and control of our nervous system. Among other things, the messenger substance hypocretin (also called "orexin") is produced here, which, together with other known hormones, for example melatonin, plays an important role in the maintenance and regulation of our sleep-wake behavior.

Hirnaktivität bei Narkolepsie im Schlaf: Der Hypothalamus

According to current findings, in narcolepsy patients it is precisely those cells that produce hypocretin that are impaired or destroyed. Without the hormone, no regulated coordination of our sleep and wake states can take place and the sleep-wake rhythm as well as the control of sleep phases and REM or non-REM sleep become confused. The fact that hypocretin also influences reward, emotional and eating behavior could be one of the reasons for the emotion-guided cataplexies.

What sufferers can do

Narcolepsy is basically not curable, but it is also not life-threatening. Drug therapy is possible, but ultimately sufferers must learn to live with daily fatigue and sleep attacks. Stress, emotionally moving moments and an irregular daily rhythm should be avoided. Observance of a few rules of behavior in everyday life has proven to be particularly effective in preventing the occurrence of muscle slackness and sudden sleep attacks. These include, for example, a regular daily rhythm with regular rest or sleep breaks during the day or the avoidance of stimulating substances such as caffeine, alcohol or nicotine, in order to avoid falling asleep quickly on the one hand and to promote sleep itself on the other. Despite many short sleep breaks during the day, it is also essential for people with narcolepsy to sleep sufficiently long and also restoratively in order to be healthy and productive in the long term.

Addicted to sleep?

A wide variety of reasons can lie behind an increased need for sleep or persistent daytime sleepiness. While sleep disorders, lack of sleep and exercise, or the wrong diet tend to be harmless, the "sleep disorder" narcolepsy is a disease that must be taken seriously and makes it clear how important the quality of our sleep really is for our health, our everyday lives, and our lives as a whole. Because less is sometimes more after all, and less but good sleep is usually more restorative than we suspect.

Conclusion

  • Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder, the cause of which is reduced production of the hormone hypocretin due to a dysfunction in the brain.
  • Common symptoms of narcolepsy are extreme daytime sleepiness, sudden falling asleep and uncontrollable muscle flaccidities (cataplexies), and sleep disturbances.
  • The "sleeping sickness" is not curable, but can be treated with the help of medication and behavioral adjustments of the affected person in everyday life.

Best regards and see you soon!

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