9 Facts About Narcolepsy

Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images
Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone experiences occasional daytime sleepiness, but just a small fraction of the population knows what it’s like to have narcolepsy. The disorder is defined by persistent drowsiness throughout the day, and in some cases, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and the sudden loss of muscle control known as cataplexy. Having narcolepsy can make doing everyday activities difficult or dangerous for patients, but unlike some chronic conditions, it’s also easy to diagnose and treat. Here are some facts you should know about the condition.

1. There are two types of narcolepsy.

If everything you know about narcolepsy comes from movies and TV, you may think of it as the disease that causes people to go limp without warning. Sudden loss of muscle control is called cataplexy, and it’s the defining symptom of type 1 narcolepsy. Type 2 narcolepsy, on the other hand, is mainly characterized by fatigue. Losing motor function while awake isn’t a problem for those with type 2.

2. Type 1 narcolepsy stems from a chemical deficiency.

Almost every patient with type 1 narcolepsy has low levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical that regulates the wake-sleep cycle. When there isn’t enough of this chemical in the brain, people have trouble staying conscious and alert throughout the day. Most people with the second, less severe type of narcolepsy have normal hypocretin levels, with about a third of them producing low or undetectable amounts. Type 2 narcoplepsy has been studied far less than type 1 of the disorder, and scientists are still figuring out what causes it.

3. The exact causes of narcolepsy aren’t always clear.

So why do some people’s brains produce less hypocretin than others? That part has been hard for scientists to figure out. One possible explanation is that certain autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack the healthy brain cells that make this chemical. This disorder can be the result of genetic and environmental factors. Although people with narcolepsy rarely pass it down to their offspring (this happens less than 1 percent of the time), the sleep condition does occasionally crop up in family clusters, suggesting there is sometimes a genetic component at play. Head trauma that impacts the area of the brain responsible for governing sleep can also lead to narcolepsy in rare cases.

4. There are tests to diagnose narcolepsy.

If patients believe they might have narcolepsy, their doctors might ask them to detail their sleep history and keep a record of their sleep habits. There are also a few tests potential narcoleptics can take to determine if they have the condition. During a polysomnography test, patients spend the night at a medical facility with electrodes attached to their heads to monitor their breathing, eye movement, and brain activity. A multiple sleep latency test is similar, except it gauges how long it takes patients to fall asleep during the day.

5. Strong emotions can trigger cataplexy.

Cataplectic spells can sometimes be predicted by triggers. In some patients, feeling strong emotions—whether they’re crying, laughing, angry, or stressed—is all it takes for them to lose muscle control. These triggers vary from patient to patient, and they can even affect the same person randomly. Some people deal with them by avoiding certain situations and closing themselves off emotionally, which can disrupt their social lives.

6. Narcolepsy can make sleep terrifying.

Narcoleptics don’t just worry about their disorder during their waking hours. When they’re trying to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning, narcolepsy can complicate things. One symptom is experiencing vivid, dream-like hallucinations while transitioning in or out of consciousness. These visions are often scary and may involve an intruder in the room with the sleeper. If they happen as the patient falls asleep, the hallucinations are called hypnagogic, and if they occur as they wake up, they’re hypnopompic.

A related symptom is sleep paralysis. This happens when a person’s brain cuts off muscle control of their body before they’re fully asleep or as they’re waking up. This combined with hypnagogic or hypnopompic nightmares can cause frightening experiences that are sometimes confused for real encounters.

7. Narcoleptics sometimes do activities half-asleep.

To outside observers, narcolepsy is sometimes hard to spot. A narcoleptic patient overcome by sleepiness won’t necessarily pass out in the middle of what they’re doing. Some act out “automatic behavior,” which means they continue with their actions—whether that’s walking, driving, or typing—with limited consciousness. This can cause poor performance at work or school, and in worst case scenarios, accidents while driving a car or operating machinery.

8. Harriet Tubman may have had narcolepsy.

One of the most famous likely narcoleptics in history is Harriet Tubman. The African American abolitionist was known to suffer from what were probably sudden narcoleptic episodes. The condition may have stemmed from the severe head trauma she sustained when a slave master threw an iron at another slave and hit her instead. The injury left her with permanent brain damage: In addition to narcolepsy, she also experienced chronic seizures and migraines throughout her life.

9. Medications and lifestyle changes are common narcolepsy treatments.

Though there’s no way to cure narcolepsy completely, there are many treatment options available. Taking medication is one of the most common ways to manage the disorder. Stimulants such as modafinil and armodafinil can be used to combat mild sleepiness, while amphetamines are often prescribed for more severe forms of fatigue. For hallucinations and sleep paralysis, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors—drugs that suppress REM sleep—can help.

As an alternative or supplementary treatment to medications, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes. Sticking to a sleep schedule, exercising regularly, avoiding nicotine and alcohol, and taking naps during the day can all reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy.

'Secret Santa' Causes Millennial Anxiety, Report Finds

RTimages/iStock via Getty Images
RTimages/iStock via Getty Images

Secret Santa—the practice of drawing names via a hat or an app and purchasing a gift for that person under anonymity until the gift is revealed, sometimes with rules about a dollar value maximum—has become a common tradition at home and in workplaces around the holidays. It’s intended to be a fun idea to cope with sizable gift pools when buying for everyone is impractical. So why is everyone getting so stressed about it?

According to CBS Philly, the Secret Santa movement has prompted some Millennial-aged employees to feel anxiety over how their gift will be interpreted by others. The data comes from British employment resource Jobsite, which polled 4000 workers including 1054 aged 23 to 38 and found 78 percent of the younger workers believed they spent more than they were comfortable with in an effort to not appear stingy. This was true for Secret Santa and other office celebrations, like birthdays. Roughly a quarter of respondents also reported having to tap into other financial resources, like savings, in order to afford a gift.

Why the desire to overspend? Roughly 17 percent of Millennials polled said that someone in their office had commented on the dollar value of their gift. One-fifth of participants said they’d be happy to see Secret Santa banned from the workplace.

Often, Secret Santa events have financial caps where gifts are expected not to exceed a certain dollar amount. Owing to the frequency of other work occasions, workers responding to the Jobsite survey still feel overburdened.

Even with rules in place about spending, employees have reported feeling stressed about their gift choices, as Secret Santa exchanges are usually discussed or performed with the office as an audience. Sometimes workers use the event as an excuse to hand over joke gifts that may not stick the landing owing to poor taste.

The best Secret Santa protocol? Abide by a dollar amount, be boring—gift cards are virtually critic-proof—and try to use the practice as the relationship-building exercise employers intend for it to be, as it’s probably not going anywhere. Despite their issues, 61 percent of the Jobsite respondents think it’s good for morale.

[h/t CBS Philly]

Can Weighted Blankets Really Reduce Stress and Anxiety, or Are Those Claims a Bunch of Fluff?

GeorgeRudy/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgeRudy/iStock via Getty Images

When Atlanta-based editor Lauren Finney got her weighted blanket, it was initially on the recommendation of a physical therapist to help with her joint compression. Now, she tells Mental Floss, she can’t sleep without it. Chicago-based software developer Brandon Behr echoes that sentiment, telling Mental Floss that his weighted blanket “helps tremendously when the anxiety brain won't shut down long enough to fall asleep.”

Weighted blankets (also called gravity blankets), filled with pellets or another material to make them weigh about 10 pounds or more, are all over social media and ads, drawing buyers in with promises of complete comfort and a better night’s sleep. Most brands recommend getting one that’s 10 percent of your body weight for optimal relaxation and comfort.

“The concept is that the sensation may send messages to the brain that increases a sense of well-being,” Dr. Susan Lipkins, CEO of Real Psychology, tells Mental Floss. “Some research suggests that it is similar to pressure massages, which have been shown to help the brain calm down.”

Alternately, says Dr. Kristin Addison-Brown, owner of NEA Neuropsychology, it could have to do with a feeling of being swaddled—an evolutionary throwback to childhood when we felt more safe and secure from the feeling of being tightly wrapped. Ultimately, the purpose of weighted blankets is to bring down a person’s base-level anxiety so they can get some rest, Addison-Brown tells Mental Floss.

Light Evidence on Weighted Blankets

Weighted blankets have been touted by their manufacturers as a calming agent for people with anxiety and autism—but Lipkins and Addison-Brown both point out that no substantive peer-reviewed research has been done on them.

“Right now, the empirical evidence is pretty weak,” Addison-Brown says. “I did see one randomized controlled trial where [children with autism] used a weighted blanket versus a regular blanket, but that trial didn’t [show] any objective differences” [PDF].

Interestingly enough, Addison-Brown points out, even though the two groups saw the same results scientifically, the parents and children involved in the study all preferred to use the weighted blanket over a regular blanket. The findings appeared in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2013.

“There’s something inherently pleasing to us about [gravity blankets], but we don’t exactly know why and any real objective measures are not reflecting back,” she says.

Are weighted blankets worth it?

It’s not a one-blanket-fits-all solution. Some people may actively dislike them, and the blankets can cause problems for others. It takes some trial and error to see if they’re the right option.

“Gravity blankets seem to help some people some of the time,” Lipkins says. “The weight, for some, creates a secure and safe environment, allowing the person to relax and fall asleep more easily. Others may feel suffocated and like they can’t move.”

The most common complaints that weighted blanket users told Mental Floss match that idea. Canadian journalist Johanna Read didn’t like the way her blanket pushed her feet into a point. Illinois-based former car technician Noah Dionesotes says he couldn’t get comfortable because he likes to sleep with one leg out of the blanket. Wichita, Kansas, resident Jocelyn Russell says the blanket she bought is too heavy and, ironically, it gives her panic attacks.

In fact, weighted blankets have the potential to be dangerous: The deaths of two children, a 7-month-old and a 9-year-old, have been linked to them.

Neither Lipkins nor Addison-Brown are anxious to prescribe the blankets as a solution, especially since their safety hasn’t been fully established. Instead, they suggest first trying other, more natural ways to fall asleep: don’t watch television late at night, turn off your screens, set a regular bedtime and waking time, and avoid caffeine.

“[You could] also consult a psychologist to help find out what is keeping you awake and how to reduce stress and anxiety in healthful ways,” Lipkins adds.

All that being said, go ahead and try gravity blankets—as long as you do so safely.

“If you can afford it, I don’t see any real harm in it,” Addison-Brown says. “Though I would be very careful using it with people who may have any kind of muscle weakness. You also wouldn’t want to have a child or baby in the bed with you. Just use caution and common sense.”

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