Sleep Attack? It may be Narcolepsy.


A new article in the NY Times by Tara Parker Pope suggests doctors don’t diagnose narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a nervous system disorder, not caused by mental illness or anxiety.

It may be due to reduced amounts of a protein made in the brain called hypocretin. It isn’t known why some people make less of it although it does tend to run in families.

People with narcolepsy tend to have extreme drowsiness every 3-4 hours that lasts for about 15 minutes and causes the person to have a “sleep attack” and have to take a short nap.  They can happen at any time – while driving, in the middle of a conversation or after a meal. A short while later, the person wakes up refreshed.

People with narcolepsy might have dreams that seem like hallucinations, or may be “paralyzed” and unable to move around the time of the “attack” or experience strong emotions like laughter or anger.

If you think you could have narcolepsy, see your doctor or get referred to a sleep clinic. The doctor there may get some blood tests, get an EKG to measure your heart’s electrical activity or an EEG to measure your brain’s activity and monitor your breathing. Because there is a narcolepsy gene, your doctor may test for that as well.

There isn’t a cure so the focus of treatment is to help control the symptoms and explain ways for you to deal with the symptoms like eating light or vegetarian meals during the day and avoding heavy meals at night. Short naps during the day may help as well and letting teachers or co-workers know that you have the condition will help others realize you aren’t lazy and just falling asleep.

The most common drug used to treat the symptoms is a stimulant drug called modafinil (Provigil). There are other stimulant medications such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, DextroStat) and methylphenidate (Ritalin) and antidepressant medications such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline, and venlafaxine or tricyclic antidepressants such as protriptyline clomipramine, imipramine, and desipramine.

Many times people with narcolepsy have driving restrictions. Restrictions vary from state to state. If you have a problem with sleep or menopause affecting your sleep, talk with your doctor. Click here for a FREE sleep diary and see if you are getting enough sleep.


Dauvilliers Y, Arnulf I, Mignot E. Narcolepsy with cataplexy. Lancet. 2007 Feb 10;369(9560):499-511.

Morgenthaler TI, Kapur VK, Brown T, Swick TJ, Alessi C, Aurora RN, et al. Practice parameters for the treatment of narcolepsy and other hypersomnias of central origin. Sleep . 2007 Dec 1;30(12):1705-11.


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