Medically reviewed by
Dacelin St Martin, MD
Triple board-certified in Sleep Medicine,
Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics.
Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological condition that causes uncontrollable sleepiness that can cause you to fall asleep right in the middle of a task – eating, walking, cooking, driving, and even running heavy machinery. For this reason, this disease can be exceedingly dangerous to your well-being.
The disorder makes it hard for the brain to control the body’s sleep-wake cycle and is characterized by extreme fatigue along with frequent fragmented sleep at night.
In the US alone, one out of every 2,000 people is affected by this condition. Likewise, as many as 30 to 50 percent of narcoleptics have had close calls or outright accidents as a result of dozing off during activities at home or in the workplace.
Most people living with narcolepsy also suffer from cataplexy (a sudden feeling of paralysis or weakness in parts of the body after intense emotions like laughing or excitement).
Cataplexy can cause patients to experience sudden falls, and some people sometimes confuse this condition with epilepsy. Oftentimes, narcolepsy is also mistaken for insomnia because of its characteristic night-time sleep disruption.
Undiagnosed and untreated narcolepsy can interfere with a person’s cognitive, psychological, and social function and capabilities. It can also hinder academic, social, and work activities.
Narcolepsy and Lifestyle
For now, narcolepsy has no known cure, but a patient’s quality of life can be improved using both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic strategies. 
Traditional stimulants and recent wake-promoting medications have helped to combat excessive daytime sleepiness; however, constant usage can lead to tolerance and dependence. In some cases, users may even develop cardiovascular side effects.
Non-pharmacologic treatment includes strategic napping, maintaining a consistent sleep-wake schedule, eating the right food and at the right time, regular exercising as well as social support.
Diet and Narcolepsy
By eating more of certain foods while completely avoiding others, it’s possible to manage narcolepsy symptoms. There’s also a need to do portion control and watch the time you eat carbs to avoid difficulty with falling asleep during bedtime.
Another risk of living with narcolepsy is the tendency of becoming obese or overweight. Studies reveal there’s a link between excess body weight and short sleep duration – particularly in children.
Sleep deprivation makes people hungrier and increases their cravings for comfort food.
Poor sleep affects two hormones (leptin and ghrelin), which regulate hunger. The hormone ghrelin tells your brain when to feel hungry, while leptin is the fullness hormone.
Nutrition Tips for Narcolepsy
1. Reduce & Time Your Carb Intake
It is a proven fact that a very low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet (LCKD) can help reduce daytime drowsiness and other narcolepsy symptoms by 18% within 8 weeks of following the regimen.
A ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat, and adequate protein diet. You shouldn’t stop taking your carbs because this nutrient is the sole provider of the glucose your brain needs to function. As for timing, it’s important to avoid carb-rich meals in times when you need to stay alert – like during the day when you’re at work.
2. Watch When You Consume Caffeine & Alcohol
Consuming cup after cup of coffee may be a lifesaver in your fight to remain alert and awake but don’t go overboard with it. Keep in mind that it’s healthier not to exceed 250 mg of caffeine in a day. To enjoy a quality night’s rest, you may want to pause your caffeine intake no later than 3 p.m.
The same principle should be applied to alcohol. Don’t drink it at least 4 hours before you hit the bed to give your body time to metabolize the alcohol. The metabolism of alcohol can disrupt your sleep by interfering with your body’s ability to reach the deeper, more restorative phases of the sleep cycle.
3. Change Your Diet
Even if you crave sugar, you should pass on sweets and highly processed junk foods that give you a sugar rush during your active period. High blood glucose intensifies daytime drowsiness.
Exercise and Narcolepsy
Sitting for prolonged periods of time is enough to tire anyone out, and the effect is particularly sedating on someone struggling with narcolepsy. To improve your energy level, and alertness, and to keep obesity at bay, one useful trick is to participate in regular exercise.
Narcoleptics experience chronic daytime sleepiness, and, as a result, abhor physical activity – especially monotonous activities.
The tactic some individuals use to combat tiredness is to engage in exercises they enjoy. While some individuals find running more mentally engaging, other people with narcolepsy prefer complicated activities like rock climbing, dancing, or playing pick-up basketball games.
Exercise Tips for Narcolepsy
1. Establish a Daily 20-Minute Exercise Regimen
Besides excessive sleepiness, working out every day for at least 20 minutes and 4 to 5 hours before bedtime can improve your sleep and help with keeping excess weight gain in check.
You can start a new exercise regime with something simple like a 20-minute walk. With time, you can gradually increase the duration or try a more intense activity.
2. Work Out Wisely to Stay Alert or Sleep Better
Mild to moderate exercise in the evening causes your core body temperature to drop, which raises the amount of melatonin in your blood. A higher melatonin level makes you feel more tired and fall asleep faster than normal. Vigorous activities will stimulate the nervous system and increase the heart rate, thus, making it hard to fall asleep if you exercise close to bedtime.
Examples of mild to moderate workouts include:
- Leisure biking
- Leisure swimming
- Moderate weightlifting
Examples of vigorous workouts include:
- Heavy weightlifting
- Jumping rope
- Competitive cycling
- Swimming laps
- High-intensity interval training
3. Join a Fitness Group
Joining a group fitness class or teaming up with a workout buddy makes it more likely that you stick to a regular exercise plan, unlike when you work out in isolation.
Not only will regular exercise improve your sleep, but group exercise also has the added advantage of warding off feelings of loneliness and depression.
4. Don’t Neglect The All-Important Cardio Workouts
When it comes to improving sleep quality and burning calories with exercise, some workout routines are more effective than others. Aerobic exercise, commonly known as cardio exercise, is one of the routines you must include in your daily plan.
Research in sleep medicine discovered that patients with higher degrees of cardiopulmonary fitness (connected to the heart and lungs) experienced lower attacks of cataplexy and reduced level of sleepiness.
Examples of cardio workouts you can try are:
- Playing tennis
- Brisk walking
- Climbing stairs or hilly slopes
- Doing house or yard work
There is no known cure for narcolepsy. However, making some lifestyle changes – eating healthy meals and having regular workouts – can go a long way in improving your sleep-wake cycle, keeping you safe, and helping you function better despite the disorder. If you suspect that you have narcolepsy, talk to your doctor.
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