Suddenly sleepy: understanding narcolepsy

Harleen Saini
3 November 2017

Above: Image © AntonioGuillem,

You’re out with your friends after school. Someone cracks a joke. You laugh your way into a laughing fit. And, before you know it, you’re fast asleep - in broad daylight!

Or you simply fall asleep without warning, even though it’s nowhere near your bedtime. Kind of sounds like Sleeping Beauty from the movie Shrek, doesn’t it?

These are actually symptoms of a real-life neurological condition called narcolepsy. It has a variety of symptoms, including excessive sleepiness. It affects nearly 1 out of every 2000 people!

Of course, many of us feel sleepy, sometimes quite often! But narcolepsy is more than just not wanting to get out of bed for school. Read on to discover the symptoms of narcolepsy, its connection to the immune system, and what people with narcolepsy can do to stay awake.

Symptoms of narcolepsy

Some of the most common symptoms of narcolepsy include:

“Sleep Attacks” (or Excessive Daytime Sleepiness)

Have you ever been up all night studying for a test? Think of that super-tired feeling you had the day after. Now imagine having that feeling even after getting a good night’s sleep. That’s what most people with narcolepsy feel. Even if they sleep a good 7-9 hours the night before, they can feel utterly tired the next day. These feelings of sleepiness don’t necessarily last all day. People with narcolepsy can actually be alert throughout the day until a “sleep attack” occurs. Then they suddenly get very tired.

Cataplexy (Sudden loss of muscle control)

This symptom is rarer, and its intensity varies from person to person. A person with cataplexy will suddenly lose strength in some of their muscles - even though they’re fully awake!

In less severe cases, the person may only lose control of their eyelids, which will start drooping as if they were falling asleep. In more intense cases, though, the person might lose full strength in their body and fall to the ground.

Did you know? Cataplexy is usually brought on by intense emotion, like happiness, anger, or sadness. So, it is not uncommon for someone with narcolepsy to be laughing one second, and then to literally fall asleep the next!

Sleep Paralysis

A person in sleep paralysis can’t move or speak. It’s a little like cataplexy, but the difference is that it happens either as the person is falling asleep, or just waking up. In other words, a person might be laying in bed, slowly drifting off to sleep, and feel like they can’t move their body - not even to roll over!


This is when someone sees, hears, feels, smells, or even tastes things that seem real, but aren’t. It is almost like dreaming. For example, you might feel like you taste vanilla ice cream, even though you haven’t eaten any! Sometimes, hallucinations can happen along with sleep paralysis.

Some people may experience only one symptom, while others may experience all four - plus more!

Did you know? Dogs can get narcolepsy, too!

Narcolepsy and your immune system

Scientists are still researching why humans get narcolepsy, and they still aren’t completely sure. They have, however, identified a number of factors. For example, narcolepsy patients may have an autoimmune disorder, a disorder in which your immune system attacks part of your body thinking it’s a foreign invader.

The immune system of a person with narcolepsy can attack specific neurons. Neurons are the cells in the brain. They send little messenger molecules called neurotransmitters. For example, let’s imagine that you forgot to tell your brother to buy brownies before he comes home. What do you do? You send him a text message saying “Please don’t forget the brownies,” and in return, your brother returns home with your favorite snack. That’s kind of how neurons work, except that they use neurotransmitters to talk to each other (instead of texting).

Scientists think the immune system in people with narcolepsy attacks neurons that release a neurotransmitter called orexin/hypocretin. When neurons release orexin/hypocretin, they tell other neurons (and ultimately the brain and body) to stay awake. So, when these neurons are destroyed, your body doesn’t know it’s supposed to stay awake. Instead, you end up falling asleep when you are not supposed to.

Did you know? If one of your parents has narcolepsy, there’s a greater chance that you may have it, too.

How can people with narcolepsy stay awake?

Although there is no cure for narcolepsy yet, researchers have found that some types of medicine can help patients feel less tired. For example, stimulants help keep patients awake during the day, and sodium oxybate helps patients sleep better at night.

Regular exercise, naps, and trying to stick to a regular sleep schedule can also help people with narcolepsy feel better.

If you think you or someone you know might have narcolepsy, it’s best to talk to your doctor before trying any sort of treatment.

Now that you’ve learned about narcolepsy, go out there and share your knowledge on this mysterious disorder!

Learn more!

Meet the real Sleeping Beauty, who suffers from sleeping disorder narcolepsy (2015)
N. Ferguson, The Daily Telegraph

Narcolepsy: Let the Patient’s Voice Awaken Us! (2015)
J. Flygare and S. Parathasarathy, Am. J. Med. 128

Understanding Narcolepsy (2013)
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School

Narcolepsy Fact Sheet
Office of Communications and Public Liaison, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Harleen Saini

Hello everyone! I am a premedical student from the United States who is hoping to become a physician one day. My love for science began with watching shows such as Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus series. These helped make science fun and exciting, and eventually led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences which I completed in 2016. I enjoy being able to share my passion for STEM topics, especially health science and biology, and hope to help others fall in love with the sciences as well. Outside of this, I am also a musician, enjoy dancing and love to learn foreign languages!

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