Addicted to sleep – is that possible? Narcolepsy is a neurological dysfunction and leads to extreme daytime sleepiness, sudden sleep attacks or unwanted muscle relaxation. Find out here what exactly is behind “sleeping sickness” and how it can happen that we suddenly become tired and fall asleep uncontrollably.
Table of Contents
- What is narcolepsy?
- Typical symptoms of narcolepsy
- Severe daytime sleepiness
- Suddenly falling asleep / sleep attacks
- Cataplectic seizures / Uncontrollable muscle relaxation
- Disturbed night sleep
- Other symptoms
- Causes and triggers of sleeping sickness
- This is what those affected can do
- Addicted to sleep?
We all know the feeling when tiredness overcomes us and we fall asleep faster than we would like. Anyone who suffers from narcolepsy is not only tired sometimes, but actually always. 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. The fact that sleeping sickness not only makes everyday life more difficult and significantly affects 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 arise?
1. 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, in extreme sleepiness or uncontrollable sleep attacks during the day, so that those affected suddenly tire and fall asleep, even in unusual situations. These days naps usually only last approx. 5 to 30 minutes, but also short-term muscle failure, sleep paralysis and disturbed night sleep are among the classic symptoms of narcolepsy.
Although “sleep addiction” is not life-threatening, it severely affects the everyday life and quality of life of those affected and, according to the current state of science, cannot be cured. The symptoms can begin in childhood and can change over the years. So while most of us suffer from a lack of sleep, those suffering from narcolepsy have to fight against the urge to sleep every day.
2. Typical symptoms of narcolepsy
Severe daytime sleepiness
The most common symptom of sleeping sickness is excessive and difficult to control daytime sleepiness, which, however, cannot be attributed to lack of sleep or poor sleep at night. 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.
Suddenly falling asleep / sleep attacks
Due to the extreme phases of tiredness, those affected can no longer withstand the pressure of sleep and fall asleep repeatedly or suddenly. These sleep attacks particularly occur in monotonous situations such as reading, watching TV or as a passenger in the 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 expect restrictions even in seemingly harmless, everyday activities and must prevent dangers in everyday life.
Cataplectic seizures / Sudden muscle relaxation
Cataplexy is the uncontrolled relaxation of the body muscles that is triggered by the feeling of 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 facial or leg muscles. This sudden muscle failure usually only lasts a few seconds and is not dangerous in itself, but can under certain circumstances lead to falls or minor accidents.
Disturbed night sleep
The disruption of sleep-wake regulation in the brain also affects sleep at night and leads to generally lighter sleep and frequent awakenings. People with narcolepsy often fall asleep quickly, but are more sensitive to waking stimuli and find it difficult to stay asleep. This means that sleep at night becomes generally less restful and the already severe tiredness during the day increases.
Other symptoms of narcolepsy include sleep paralysis, sleep-related hallucinations and automated behavior.
3. Causes and triggers of narcolepsy
It was only a few years ago that 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, i.e. not psychological, impairment of 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, for example melatonin, plays an important role in the maintenance and regulation of our sleep-wake behavior.
In narcolepsy patients, according to current knowledge, the very cells that produce hypocretin are impaired or destroyed. Without the hormone, there can be no regulated coordination of our sleep and waking states and the sleep-wake rhythm as well as the control of the sleep phases and REM or non-REM sleep become confused. The fact that hypocretin also influences reward, emotional and nutritional behavior could be one of the reasons for emotion-driven cataplexy.
4. This is what those affected can do
Narcolepsy is generally not curable, but is not life-threatening either. Drug therapy is possible, but ultimately those affected have to learn to live with the daily fatigue and sleep attacks. Stress, emotionally moving moments and an irregular daily rhythm should be avoided. Observing a few rules of behavior in everyday life has proven to be particularly effective in avoiding the occurrence of muscle relaxation and sudden sleep attacks. These include, for example, a regulated daily rhythm with regular rest or Sleep breaks during the day or avoiding stimulating substances such as caffeine, alcohol or nicotine, on the one hand not to encourage falling asleep quickly, but on the other hand to promote sleep itself. 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 tiredness. 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 what importance the quality of our sleep actually has for our health, our everyday life and our entire life. Because sometimes less is more and less, but good sleep is usually more restful than we think.
Narcolepsy is a neurological disease caused by reduced production of the hormone hypocretin due to a dysfunction in the brain.
Common symptoms of narcolepsy are extreme daytime sleepiness, sudden sleep onset and uncontrollable muscle relaxation (cataplexy) as well as sleep disorders.
The “sleeping sickness” cannot be cured, but can be treated in everyday life with the help of medication and behavioral adjustments for those affected.
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