Jimmy Kimmel's Rare Sleep Disorder Explained

It seems a little ironic for a late-night talk show host to have a sleep disorder. Jimmy Kimmel is one celebrity that suffers from an invisible illness called narcolepsy. Portrayals of narcolepsy on TV or in movies often present extreme cases, in which people fall asleep mid-conversation. Even though narcolepsy is rare, it affects everyone differently. While Jimmy Kimmel reports having a more mild case of narcolepsy, others are not so lucky (via Esquire).

Since narcolepsy is so rare, it is often misunderstood. Those who are diagnosed are often seen as lazy or unmotivated, when in reality, they are just extremely tired and often have to focus a lot of their energy on not falling asleep in the middle of the day. It's helpful for celebrities who do suffer from chronic illnesses to speak publicly about them in order to create awareness and understanding about invisible conditions that we can't always see.

What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a rare neurological sleep disorder in which the brain fails to regulate the body's sleep-wake cycles (via Wake Up Narcolepsy). This often causes people who suffer from narcolepsy to have trouble falling asleep at night when we are usually supposed to be sleeping and fall asleep suddenly during the day. It can be difficult to stay awake for prolonged periods of time, which as you might imagine, can be very intrusive on your daily activities. 

In a normal sleep cycle, the brain enters rapid eye movement sleep (REM) about an hour after falling asleep. REM sleep is where dreams happen and is often the deepest sleep we experience, since the brain keeps the body limp during this time. Unlike people with a normal sleep-wake cycle, people with narcolepsy enter REM sleep after about 15 minutes (via NINDS). They can also experience muscle weakness or dreaming while they are still awake, which is why some of the symptoms of narcolepsy occur.

What are the signs and symptoms of narcolepsy?

One of the most common symptoms of narcolepsy that almost everyone who is diagnosed experiences is excessive daytime sleepiness, or EDS, which is usually the symptom that people suffering from narcolepsy notice first (via NINDS). Regardless of how much sleep you get at night, people with narcolepsy still feel very tired during the day. The sleepiness comes on suddenly, not like the nagging tired feeling when you don't get enough sleep the night before. 

Other symptoms of narcolepsy include sleep disruptions, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and cataplexy (via Wake Up Narcolepsy). Cataplexy describes a sudden loss of muscle tone, which can cause people with narcolepsy to fall to the ground, unable to move. Cataplexy is usually caused by intense emotions, both positive and negative. Not everyone that is diagnosed with narcolepsy experiences cataplexy, but it can affect everyone to different degrees (via Mayo Clinic). While some people with narcolepsy never experience cataplexy, others have episodes of cataplexy every single day.

How is narcolepsy treated?

There have been several different factors thought to cause narcolepsy, including family history, injury, and autoimmune factors. In certain types of narcolepsy, especially when people experience cataplexy, the brain doesn't produce enough hypocretin, a chemical that helps regulate sleep (via Mayo Clinic). Doctors aren't sure what causes the lack of hypocretin, but they have been able to successfully treat some symptoms of narcolepsy with medication.

None of the common medications prescribed will completely eliminate narcolepsy, but they can help treat symptoms, such as the excessive daytime sleepiness that all people with narcolepsy experience. This way, narcolepsy isn't something that controls every aspect of your life and doesn't stop you from doing what you want to. 

There are also several lifestyle changes that people with narcolepsy can make in order to keep it from having too great of an impact on their lives. Things like maintaining a regular sleep schedule, exercising, and avoiding caffeine or alcohol before bed can help improve sleep (via NINDS).

Can narcolepsy ever be cured?

For most people who are diagnosed with narcolepsy, symptoms will be lifelong. Medications and other treatment options can help reduce the severity of narcolepsy symptoms, but they will never completely go away. However, there is research being done in an attempt to understand more about narcolepsy, in the hopes that someday we will be able to have more control over the symptoms and causes of narcolepsy (via NINDS).

The loss of hypocretin, a chemical in the brain that helps regulate sleep, is currently being studied, but it is thought that the loss of this neurochemical is not reversible and will be lifelong to those who experience it. Being diagnosed with narcolepsy can be a lengthy process, but it helps to have more patients that are confirmed to have a condition, so there are more people who can contribute to treating it. Since narcolepsy affects everyone differently and some cases are milder than others, treatments for narcolepsy vary quite a bit.

What is life like with narcolepsy?

Because the symptoms of narcolepsy can be uncontrollable at times, people who are diagnosed with it often have to take extra care to make sure they are not seriously affected or hurt by their narcolepsy diagnosis. Narcolepsy, especially excessive daytime sleepiness, can affect a person's ability to concentrate or remember things, and as a result, many people who are diagnosed with narcolepsy struggle in school or work because their tiredness is perceived as laziness. 

People who have particularly bad EDS or cataplexy also have to take care when they are doing things outside their home, like driving. Having an episode of cataplexy or falling asleep while driving can cause serious harm to not only the person driving but others around them as well (via Wake Up Narcolepsy). Like with many other chronic conditions, it's important to have a good support system and people who can help you navigate the challenges those conditions present.