Narcolepsy is usually caused by low levels of a, called hypocretin, that helps you stay awake by keeping your brain from entering a deep state of sleep. Sometimes people have narcolepsy that is not caused by low hypocretin levels, but the reason for the condition is not known.
and include extreme daytime sleepiness; falling asleep without warning, called sleep attacks; difficulty focusing or staying awake; and waking often at night. Other common symptoms that occur when falling asleep or waking up are and sleep paralysis, which is a feeling of being awake but unable to move for several minutes. Rarely, people who have narcolepsy may experience loss of muscle tone, called cataplexy, which occurs with strong emotions such as laughter. People who have narcolepsy usually feel refreshed after a brief nap or a full night’s sleep but become sleepy again soon after.
To diagnose narcolepsy, your doctor will consider your medical history, family history, physical exam, and test results. You may have an overnight sleep study, including a sleep test that looks at daytime naps to identify disturbed sleep or a quick onset of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Spinal fluid tests may show low levels of hypocretin. If your hypocretin levels are normal, your doctor may ask you to track your sleep habits in a sleep diary and may record information from special devices called actigraphs that track activity and rest periods throughout the day.
Treatment for narcolepsy combines medicines and behavior changes. Medicines used to treat narcolepsy include stimulants and modafinil to treat daytime sleepiness, sodium oxybate to treat daytime sleepiness and cataplexy, and sedatives to improve nighttime sleep. Daytime sleepiness often improves with enough good-quality sleep at night and scheduled naps during the day.
Even with treatment, people who have narcolepsy may still have daytime sleepiness and may experience depression. Talk to your doctor about safety issues, including the risk of car accidents. Therapy, education, and counseling may help you manage your symptoms.
Visit Narcolepsy for more information about this topic.
Research for Your Health
Improving health with current research
Learn about the following ways the NHLBI continues to translate current research into improved health for people with narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. Research on this topic is part of the NHLBI’s broader commitment to advancing sleep science and sleep disorders scientific discovery.
- NHLBI’s National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR). For 25 years, the NCSDR has led foundational research on sleep and circadian biology across the NIH and has worked with federal and private organizations to disseminate sleep health information. The NCSDR administers sleep and circadian research projects, offers training and educational awareness programs, and serves as an NIH point-of-contact for federal agencies and public interest organizations. The Center also participates in research translation and dissemination of scientific sleep and circadian advances to healthcare professionals, public health officials, and the public.
- Improving the Quality of Medical School Education on Sleep Disorders. As part of its efforts to ensure that research advances are utilized by healthcare providers, the NCSDR has supported the development of medical school curricula and durable educational materials on sleep disorders, including narcolepsy.
- Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board (SDRAB). The NHLBI has administered this specialty program advisory panel since 1993. Board members, including medical professionals, federal partners, and members of the public, meet regularly to provide feedback to NIH on sleep-related research needs and to discuss how to move sleep research forward. Visit the Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board for more information.
- National Sleep Research Resource (NSRR). This resource was established by the NHLBI to provide biomedical researchers a large, well-characterized data collection from NIH-funded sleep research studies. These data can be used in new research studies to advance sleep research. Visit the National Sleep Research Resource for more information.
- Research Conference on Sleep and the Health of Women. This 2018 conference focused on the importance of sleep for women’s health. It showcased a decade of federally funded research advances that have helped in understanding the health risks, societal burden, and treatment options associated with sleep deficiency and sleep disorders in women. Learn more from the 2018 Research Conference on Sleep and the Health of Women.
- Understanding How Sleep Problems Affect the Risk for Disease. The Cardiovascular Health Study, which ran from 1989 to 1999, found that older people with trouble sleeping are more likely to have poor health, depression, angina, and problems with the activities of daily living.
Advancing research for improved health
In support of our mission, we are committed to advancing narcolepsy research, in part through the following ways.
- We perform research. Our Division of Intramural Research, which includes investigators from the Systems Biology Center, performs research on sleep and sleep disorders.
- We fund research. The research we fund today will help improve our future health. Our Division of Lung Diseases and its National Center of Sleep Disorders Research oversee much of the research on sleep disorders we fund, helping us understand narcolepsy. Search the NIH RePORTer to learn about research the NHLBI is funding on narcolepsy.
- We stimulate high-impact research. Our Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine (TOPMed) program includes participants who have sleep disorders, which may help us understand how genes contribute to differences in disease severity and how patients respond to treatment. The NHLBI Strategic Vision highlights ways we may support research over the next decade.
Learn about exciting research areas the NHLBI is exploring that are related to narcolepsy and how sleep affects health.
- Advances in medical devices to track sleep disorders. We support a study that is testing a device that can be used at home to track a person’s sleep before and after treatment of a sleep disorder such as narcolepsy.
- Irregular sleep may increase diabetes risk. Researchers have found that shifting sleep schedules lowers your body’s insulin sensitivity. This may increase a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Visit Study: Irregular sleep may raise diabetes risk by lowering insulin sensitivity for more information.
- Not getting enough sleep may increase risk of heart disease. NHLBI-funded researchers have found that lack of sleep may increase a person’s risk of heart disease. When healthy young adults had sleep restricted to five hours per day for eight days, they had an increase in levels of a stress hormone called norepinephrine, which raises blood pressure levels. This may lead to a higher risk of heart disease. Visit NHLBI-funded study links insufficient sleep to heart disease for more information.
- Understanding circadian rhythms. Researchers are looking at the relationships between circadian rhythms, hypocretin, and sleep in people who have narcolepsy to gain a better understanding of how circadian rhythms work.
- Clarifying sleep’s impact on hormones and weight. This study uses data and blood samples collected over decades for the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study. It is investigating how sleep length and quality over time are tied to participants’ hormone activity and body build.
Participate in NHLBI Clinical Trials
We lead or sponsor studies on narcolepsy. See if you or someone you know is eligible to participate in our.
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Related Health Topics
- A Good Night’s Sleep (National Institute on Aging [NIA])
- The Benefits of Slumber: Why You Need a Good Night’s Sleep (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke [NINDS])
- Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep (NINDS)
- Narcolepsy (National Library of Medicine [NLM], Genetics Home Reference)
- Narcolepsy Information Page (NINDS)
- Sleep (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)
- Sleep and Sleep Disorders (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Sleep Disorders (NLM, MedlinePlus)
- Sleep Disorders (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health [NCCIH])
- Sleep Disorders and Complementary Health Approaches (NCCIH)