Narcolepsy - The Myth of Somnolence

Addicted to sleep - is that possible? Narcolepsy is one of the neurological disorders and leads to extreme daytime sleepiness, sudden sleep attacks or unwanted muscle relaxation. Find out here what exactly is behind the "sleeping sickness" and how it can happen that we 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. Disrupted night's sleep
    5. Other symptoms
  3. Causes and triggers of sleeping sickness
  4. Those affected can do
  5. Addicted to sleep?
  6. Conclusion

We all know the feeling when we get tired and fall asleep faster than we would like. Those who suffer from narcolepsy are not only tired sometimes, they are actually always tired. Approx. 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 every day. It is often forgotten that sleeping sickness not only makes everyday life more difficult and significantly impairs the quality of life, but can also lead to dangerous accidents. But what exactly is behind the myth of narcolepsy and how does the unusual addiction to sleep come about?

1. What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder of the areas of the brain that control our sleep and wakefulness. It throws our sleep-wake behavior off course and manifests itself, among other things, in extreme sleepiness or uncontrollable sleep attacks during the day, so that those affected suddenly tire and fall asleep even in unusual situations. These daytime naps usually only last approx. 5 up to 30 minutes, but also short-term muscle failure, sleep paralysis and disturbed sleep at night are among the classic symptoms of narcolepsy.

Although the "sleep craze" is not life-threatening, it severely affects everyday life and the quality of life of the sufferer and, according to the current state of science, cannot be cured. The symptoms can already appear in childhood and also change over the years. So while most of us tend to be sleep deprived, people with narcolepsy struggle to resist the urge to sleep on a daily basis.

2. Typical symptoms of narcolepsy

Tagesmüdigkeit: Junge Frau gähnt müde während der Arbeit

Pronounced daytime sleepiness

The most common symptom of sleeping sickness is excessive and difficult to control daytime sleepiness, which is not due to lack of sleep or poor sleep at night. Because although people with narcolepsy wake up rested in the morning, they usually become tired again after just a few hours and can fall asleep again shortly after waking up.

Sudden falling asleep / sleep attacks

Due to the extreme phases of tiredness, those affected can no longer withstand the pressure of sleep and fall asleep again and again or suddenly. These sleep attacks occur particularly in rather monotonous situations such as reading, watching TV or as a passenger in a car, but can also occur during actually active, more complex activities such as eating, writing or speaking. This poses a high risk of accidents and poses a danger to those affected or, for example, other road users. Anyone who suffers from sleeping sickness must therefore reckon with limitations in 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, which is triggered by feeling strong emotions such as anger, fear, joy or laughter. Depending on the intensity, those affected lose control of one or more muscles in a part of the body, such as the face or leg muscles. This sudden muscle failure usually lasts only a few seconds and is not dangerous in itself, but it can lead to falls or minor accidents.

Disrupted night's sleep

Disrupting the sleep-wake regulation in the brain also affects sleep at night, leading to generally lighter sleep and frequent awakenings. Although people with narcolepsy often fall asleep quickly, they react more sensitively to waking stimuli and have difficulty sleeping through. As a result, sleeping at night is generally less restful and the already severe tiredness during the day increases.

Other symptoms

Other symptoms of narcolepsy include sleep paralysis, sleep-related hallucinations, and automated behaviors.

3. Causes and triggers of narcolepsy

Only a few years ago, researchers were able to find a cause for the mysterious sleeping sickness. As a neurological dysfunction, the origin lies basically in an organic, i.e. not psychological impairment of the brain function. The hypothalamus is an important control center in the brain and is 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 well-known hormones, such as melatonin, plays an important role in maintaining and regulating our sleep-wake behavior.

Hirnaktivität bei Narkolepsie im Schlaf: Der Hypothalamus

According to current knowledge, precisely those cells that produce hypocretin are impaired or destroyed in narcolepsy patients. Without the hormone, there can be no regulated coordination of our sleeping and waking states and the sleep-wake rhythm and the control of the sleep phases and REM or non-REM sleep become confused. The fact that hypocretin also influences reward, emotion, and eating behavior could be one of the reasons for the emotion-driven cataplexy.

4. Those affected can do this

Narcolepsy is basically not curable, but it is not life-threatening either. Drug therapy is possible, but ultimately those affected have to learn to live with the daily tiredness and sleep attacks. Stress, emotionally moving moments and an irregular daily rhythm should be avoided. The observance of a few rules of conduct in everyday life has proven itself to avoid the occurrence of muscle relaxation and sudden sleep attacks. These include, for example, a regular daily rhythm with regular rest or Sleep breaks during the day or the abstinence of stimulating substances such as caffeine, alcohol or nicotine, in order not to promote falling asleep quickly on the one hand, but to promote sleep itself on the other. Because despite many short sleep breaks during the day, it is essential for people with narcolepsy to sleep sufficiently long and restfully in order to be healthy and productive in the long term.

5. Addicted to sleep?

There can be a variety of reasons behind an increased need for sleep or persistent daytime sleepiness. While sleep disorders, lack of sleep and exercise or poor diet are rather harmless, the "sleeping sickness" narcolepsy is a serious illness and makes it clear how important the quality of our sleep actually is for our health, our everyday life and life as a whole. Because less is sometimes more and less, but good sleep is usually more restful than we think.

6. Conclusion

  • Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder caused by reduced production of the hormone hypocretin by a dysfunction in the brain.
  • Common symptoms of narcolepsy are extreme daytime sleepiness, sudden falling asleep and uncontrollable muscle relaxation (cataplexy) and sleep disturbances.
  • The "sleeping sickness" cannot be cured, but it can be treated with the help of medication and behavioral adjustments by those affected in everyday life.

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