Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness. People living with it often experience drowsiness during the day, which greatly reduces their productivity at work. If you or someone you know has narcolepsy, know that it can be managed with the right strategies and lifestyle adjustments. In this guide, we’ll shed light on everything you need to know, from what narcolepsy actually is to its symptoms and practical lifestyle tips that can help you stay alert and focused during your work hours. Let’s get started.
What Is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness and overwhelming drowsiness during the day. It affects the normal sleep-wake cycle, causing people experiencing it to fall asleep at inappropriate times and places. If left unaddressed, narcolepsy can cause vivid dreams, fragmented nighttime sleep, and hallucinations, reducing one’s overall quality of life.
There are two main types of narcolepsy: NT1 (narcolepsy type 1) and NT2 (narcolepsy type 2). NT1 is the most common type of the condition. It is characterized by an accompanying muscle weakness (cataplexy) in addition to normal drowsiness or excessive sleepiness. NT1 is often caused by a lack of hypocretin, a neurotransmitter in the brain tasked with regulating wakefulness .
On the other hand, NT2 is a type of narcolepsy characterized by a feeling of excessive drowsiness or sleepiness without cataplexy (sudden muscle weakness and loss of voluntary control). People with this type of narcolepsy may experience symptoms such as fragmented nighttime sleep, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations shortly before or after waking up. Scientists are still yet to find the real cause of NT2; however, they believe it may be linked to certain viral infections .
At this point, it is worth noting that this sleep disorder cannot be permanently treated. However, it can be managed with certain medications and lifestyle changes. We will shed more light on this in the following sections.
The exact causes of narcolepsy are not known. However, scientists have found that people with type 1 narcolepsy often have low levels of the neurotransmitter hypocretin. While the deficiency has been found to be common in people with narcolepsy, the actual cause of the drop in cells that produce the neurotransmitter remains unknown. Another school of thought holds that genetics may also play a role in the disorder. However, studies have shown that the risks of the disorder, passing from parent to child, sit at as low as about 1% to 2%.
Symptoms and Causes of Narcolepsy
The symptoms of narcolepsy typically show up early in life. However, in rare conditions, people with it may realize they have it in late adulthood. Here are some of the most common symptoms :
- excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS): People with narcolepsy find it incredibly difficult to stay awake during work hours. They typically find themselves falling asleep at unusual places and times without any warning. For example, you may be driving or operating machinery at work and suddenly fall asleep. In most cases, the sleep sessions typically range from a few minutes to a half hour. This is usually the most noticeable and first symptom to pop up. It typically affects focus, alertness, and productivity at work or in school;
- cataplexy: This is a sudden loss of muscle strength or tone due to intense emotions such as laughter, fear, anger, or shock. Cataplexy can cause people with it to have slurred speech even when they try to speak properly. It may also cause weakness in the knee, which may lead to a sudden fall to the ground. Its effects typically last for a few minutes per session. Some people with NT1 often experience this symptom once or twice a year. Others often experience it several times a day;
- sleep paralysis: Sleep paralysis is characterized by a sudden inability to move or speak while falling asleep or upon waking up. Even though it typically lasts a few seconds or minutes, it can often be very scary, leading many to consider it a paranormal occurrence. In some cases, people who experience them may feel some sort of pressure on their chests as well as vivid hallucinations;
- hallucinations: People with narcolepsy may see things that aren’t there shortly before or right after waking up from sleep. In some cases, it happens alongside sleep paralysis, making the situation much scarier. In other cases, it happens all alone. Hallucinations may make you believe there is a stranger in your room staring at you when, in reality, there is no one. It often feels incredibly real, as it may be accompanied not only by visual but also auditory and sensory sensations, creating an unsettling experience that can be difficult to distinguish from reality.
At this point, it is worth noting that not everyone with narcolepsy will experience all the above symptoms. Additionally, the disorder may introduce other symptoms such as anxiety, obesity, and depression. While the severity of these symptoms may vary from individual to individual, it is important to seek urgent medical attention if they persist.
Can a Person with Narcolepsy Work?
Yes, a person with narcolepsy can still work. Many people living with these conditions often successfully maintain their careers and go on to lead fulfilling professional lives. However, they achieve this by managing the disorder properly so it doesn’t interfere with their work. Managing narcolepsy may involve making certain lifestyle adjustments and accommodations to ensure that symptoms don’t pop up during work hours.
For instance, minimizing stress and engaging in regular physical activity can help reduce drowsiness during work hours. There are actually several ways to deal with the symptoms and ultimately improve performance at work, and we will be sharing details about it in the following sections.
Top Simple Tips and Proven Ways for Managing Narcolepsy at Work
Managing narcolepsy at work requires an approach that involves a combination of practical lifestyle adjustments, nutrition, and effective coping strategies. These strategies are straightforward and can yield noticeable results if you follow them. Without further ado, here are some of the best practical tips on how to manage narcolepsy :
Sleep hygiene is practices and steps taken to help improve overall sleep quality. It involves establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and avoiding brain-stimulating activities before bedtime. People with narcolepsy can improve their symptoms by adopting good sleep hygiene.
Flexible Work Schedule
Try to negotiate a flexible work schedule with your employer. Choosing to work during hours in which you experience peak alertness can help you improve your performance at work and productivity.
Stress is known to worsen some of the symptoms of narcolepsy and certain other sleep disorders. Engaging in stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, deep breathing experiences, and managing social media time can help minimize your stress levels and ultimately improve your productivity at work.
Regular Physical Activity
Engaging in regular physical activities such as taking walks (for 30 minutes a day), cycling, or jogging can improve overall sleep quality and ultimately reduce excessive sleepiness during the day. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Be sure to spread out the exercise sessions over a few days or more so it doesn’t increase your stress levels.
Limit Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol
Excessive caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol intake can disrupt your normal sleep pattern and ultimately worsen the symptoms of narcolepsy. Try to limit your consumption of these substances, especially in the evening, before bedtime. This will help improve the quality of your sleep and ultimately reduce sleepiness during the day.
Some people with narcolepsy have found that certain supplements, including vitamin D, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, help them reduce their symptoms and ultimately improve their performance at work. Others find that modafinil does a better job at increasing their alertness, improving their focus, and overall productivity levels. However, while supplements and wakefulness-promoting medications such as modafinil and armodafinil may be able to help you, it is important to only use them under the guidance of your doctor or healthcare provider.
Types of Work Suitable for People with Narcolepsy
Choosing the right career path is an important decision that people living with narcolepsy must make. There are certain jobs for people with narcolepsy, and focusing on them may help improve your performance at work. Whether you have this sleep disorder or not, the kind of job you settle for will influence your work-life equilibrium, productivity, and your overall quality of life.
Some professions provide more flexibility and accommodation, making it easier for people with the disorder to manage the condition while excelling in their careers. Others may increase your stress levels, ultimately worsening your symptoms and leading to a dramatic reduction in your productivity.
Some of the jobs suitable for people with narcolepsy include :
- remote or freelance work;
- desk-based or sedentary jobs;
- customer support roles that offer shift flexibility;
- creative or artistic professions.
Generally, the best jobs for people with narcolepsy are those that provide flexibility. These jobs are considered the best types as they allow individuals to thrive professionally without suffering their overall health and well-being.
If you’ve been looking for how to stop feeling sleepy at work and improve the quality of your life, following the above tips and exploring suitable jobs for people with narcolepsy can help you greatly. This includes minimizing stress, improving sleep hygiene, and engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. These strategies will improve your sleep quality, boost your alertness, and by extension, your productivity levels.
Oral medications such as modafinil and armodafinil may also help increase alertness and focus and promote wakefulness. Many people with narcolepsy often use them because of their quick onset of effects and long duration of action, often spanning 15+ hours. Regardless of the strategy you decide to apply to improve your symptoms, be sure to first consult your doctor.
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