What Is Narcolepsy?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 70 million people in the U.S. are getting insufficient sleep due to sleep disorders. Major contributing factors, such as chronic disease, mental health struggles, injury, and stress related to work or rising healthcare costs, all play a role in America's ongoing sleep problems. While it's normal to experience a bout of sleepiness from time to time, some sleep issues are more severe than others. Out of the 80 different types of sleep disorders defined by medical professionals, the Cleveland Clinic reports that narcolepsy is among the most common.

As defined by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, "Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that affects the brain's ability to control sleep-wake cycles." Most often diagnosed between the ages of 7-25, roughly 135,000-200,000 people are thought to have narcolepsy in the United States. Some individuals may only experience one symptom of the condition, while others may experience multiple symptoms, such as excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep paralysis, loss of voluntary muscle control, or hallucinations. Narcolepsy exists within 2 categories: Type 1 and Type 2 — the difference being that Type 2 narcolepsy does not include the muscle weakness that usually accompanies Type 1 narcolepsy.

Research suggests narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease

Recent research has suggested that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disorder (via Nature Communications). In a 2019 study that looked at 72 blood samples — 20 from individuals with narcolepsy and 52 without — autoreactive CD8 T cells were found in the samples of those with narcolepsy. CD8 T cells help manage the body's sleep-wake cycle, but research findings revealed these autoreactive cells were capable of both self-attacking and attacking other sleep-related neurons. While CD8 T cells were also detected in the blood samples of those without narcolepsy, they did not appear to be active.

"We also found autoreactive cells in some of the healthy individuals, but here the cells probably have not been activated," researcher and associate professor Birgitte Rahbek Kornum told Science Daily. "It is something we see more and more often with autoimmunity — that it lies dormant in all of us, but is not activated in everyone. The next big puzzle is learning what activates them."

Sleep problems are important to have examined by a healthcare provider, as symptoms may impact one's quality of life, job performance, and safety. For narcolepsy, treatment options can include prescription stimulant medications or antidepressants (via National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke). Additional lifestyle changes may also prove helpful, such as taking short scheduled naps, avoiding caffeine or heavy meals before bed, and routine physical activity. Those with narcolepsy should also exercise caution while driving.