Link Between Hypersomnia and Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy and Idiopathic Hypersomnia


It is believed that both genetic and non-genetic predisposing factors contribute to the development of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy equally affects both men and women. It usually starts during adolescence but the onset can start as early as five years of age or even after the age of 60. It affects roughly 130,000 Americans or about one out of every 2,000 people. Although narcolepsy is perceived as a relatively rare disorder, its prevalence is similar to multiple sclerosis. As noted above, researchers believe that narcolepsy is caused by a loss of the neuropeptide hypocretin in the brain. The loss of hypocretin containing neurons is believed to be due, in most cases, to an autoimmune cause.


The chronic course of the disease and the potentially devastating socioeconomic impact (diminished self-esteem, strained relationships, accidents, lost jobs, etc.) make narcolepsy a significant problem. Nodding off when relatively inactive can happen anytime or anywhere, while you read or talk, eat, or even drive, and can put your life and others in danger. Patients with narcolepsy should not drive a motor vehicle if untreated. However, narcoleptics have minimal restrictions as long as they seek and adhere to medical therapy. If events of everyday life such as joking, playing sports or even making love become intimidating because of excessive sleepiness or a potential of developing cataplexy, seek help and no longer feel the need to avoid such situations out of fear or embarrassment.


As a symptom, sleepiness is often confused with fatigue in the medical community. Fatigue is usually described as a feeling of low energy or malaise, whereas sleepiness is the actual propensity to fall asleep when inactive. Many medical conditions may cause fatigue, as in patients with thyroid disorders, depression or heart disease, but these other conditions are generally not associated with excessive sleepiness. That is, although patients with congestive heart failure may feel “fatigued,” they typically will not nod off when sitting inactive (unless they also have a sleep disorder).


Although no treatment can cure narcolepsy or idiopathic hypersomnia, your symptoms can be greatly improved through behavioral and drug therapy.

Behavioral Therapies
You may be recommended to take one or two short naps during the day and exercise regularly to promote alertness. You should also maximize your total sleep time at night, keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, and avoid heavy meals and alcohol, which may induce sleepiness. It may be helpful to educate family members, friends, or colleagues to avoid feeling embarrassed or misunderstood by your condition.

Medications that increase alertness are commonly used to treat narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia. You should receive a tailored treatment plan so as to find the right balance between benefits and potential side effects.


Hypersomnia is characterized as excessive sleepiness during the day. Narcolepsy, a sub-condition of hypersomnia, is a chronic sleep disorder characterized by severe daytime sleepiness and multiple sleep episodes lasting 10 to 15 minutes. It is a dangerous condition as narcoleptics fall asleep randomly throughout the day at moments beyond their control, such as in the middle of a conversation or while operating a vehicle.


Hypersomnia means excessive daytime sleepiness. People who suffer hypersomnia are unable to get the sleep that the body needs, potentially resulting in depression, poor quality of life and excessive sleepiness during the day. The most common cause of hypersomnia is sleep deprivation. Chronic sleep deprivation, getting less sleep than needed for long periods of time, can cause as severe sleepiness.


Excessive daytime sleepiness can result in a multitude of additional symptoms. Those who lack the necessary amount of sleep may struggle with concentration, learning and memory and reaction times are slower than rested people. They are also prone to microsleeps, periods of 1 to 5 seconds where they are essentially asleep, which can result in dangerous consequences including car crashes and workplace accidents. The symptoms of hypersomnia can also be caused by other sleep fragmentation disorders. Hypersomnia is also one of the main symptoms of primary sleep drive disorders such as narcolepsy.


The first step in treating hypersomnia is identifying the underlying cause, and developing a treatment plan accordingly. If the hypersomnia is due to a sleep disorder, the treatment is aimed at working to correct it.  Stimulant medications may be helpful for hypersomnia caused by the primary sleep drive disorders.

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