Did you know that excessive daytime sleepiness can actually be a disease? If it doesn’t sound serious to you, consider what it would be like to have a “sleep attack” while driving to work or giving a presentation—even after a good nights sleep. Narcolepsy is not only inconvenient and disruptive, it’s also quite dangerous. A person with narcolepsy may become excessively sleepy at any time, enough so that they may actually fall asleep without warning while performing an important task.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for narcolepsy. Although various medications are prescribed to treat the symptoms, narcoleptics may or may not be able to effectively use them to treat the disorder. But what if I told you that many doctors and researchers believe that narcolepsy can be effectively treated without even taking any medications? It seems too good to be true, but studies show that a simple change in diet can play a big role in the long-term treatment of narcolepsy.
What is Narcolepsy?
By definition, narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder—recently categorized as an autoimmune disease—characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden uncontrollable episodes of sleep (“sleep attacks”). Excessive daytime sleepiness is the most common symptom, resulting in narcoleptics falling asleep at any time without any warning. These sleep attacks can last a few minutes or up to a half hour!
The vast majority of narcolepsy cases are also accompanied by cataplexy, or the sudden loss of muscle tone. This results in slurred speech and a weakness in almost all muscles. Cataplexy is often triggered by strong emotions, often positive emotions like laughter, but other times negative feelings like fear or sadness.
People with narcolepsy also may have sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations. The hallucinations occur when you quickly fall into REM sleep and start dreaming. As you may actually be partially awake when you start dreaming, the dreams may be very vivid and frightening and cause intense confusion.
Narcolepsy and Diet
According to research done by A.M. Hussain, M.D., published in both his personal book and in a 2004 issue of Neurology, following a specific diet and avoiding certain foods can treat mild cases of narcolepsy and compliment standard treatment (prescription medications) for more severe cases of narcolepsy. Hussain and his followers strongly believe that diet should play a very important role in treating any and every case of narcolepsy.
The diet proposed is a low-carb ketogenic diet. A ketogenic diet is high in fat, includes adequate protein, and perhaps most importantly involves low carbohydrate consumption. The ketogenic diet was originally invented by R.M. Wilders, M.D. in the 1920s as a remedy for epileptic seizures. More recent modifications of the original diet allow for slightly more carbs and do not restrict protein. The basic idea behind the diet is that this composition of nutrients forces the body to switch from glucose metabolism to fat metabolism, which has a stabilizing effect on the brain. In the study performed by Hussain in 2004, eight patients followed the ketogenic diet for eight weeks, and all eight of the patients reported significantly less daytime sleepiness, fewer sleep attacks, and fewer instances of sleep paralysis.
The Ketogenic Diet for Narcolepsy
Following a narcolepsy diet is simple, but it will take some practice and dedication. It is, after all, a lifestyle change. If you see improvement after following the diet for a couple months, you’ll probably believe the lifestyle changes are quite worth it—plus the diet modifications are good for your over-all health and well-being.
The first step to following the narcolepsy diet is to cut out carbohydrates and sugars. This means you should avoid the following foods:
- starchy fruits and vegetables (corn, bananas, potatoes, etc.)
- grains (wheat, bread, pasta, cereal, etc.)
- sugar (table sugar, candy, sweetened yogurt and ice cream, honey, etc.)
The next step is to increase your consumption of foods with a high-fat intake like butter and cream.
It is suggested that you eat foods rich in calcium and magnesium, like dark green vegetables, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, salmon, and dairy products.
You should also include foods high in tryptophan, which are generators of serotonin and therefore great for people with narcolepsy. These foods include
It is also recommended that you include omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils in your diet, either by way of supplements or consuming a fish regularly.
Finally, all doctors agree that people with narcolepsy should try to avoid nicotine and alcohol, as they can worsen symptoms. You should also be warned that caffeine products (coffee, soda) are temporary stimulants and can be detrimental to narcolepsy treatment as the body will come to depend on them.
Narcolepsy and Diabetes
People with autoimmune disorders, such as diabetes, are at a higher risk for developing narcolepsy. In fact, narcolepsy is often sited as a “complication” of diabetes. Thus, if you are diabetic, making sure you are controlling your diabetes to the best of your ability will also likely help with narcolepsy symptoms. Luckily (and not coincidentally) a diabetes diet is similar to a ketogenic diet in its restriction of sugars and glucose (found in many carbohydrates).
The recent discovery that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disorder (like diabetes) could further the understanding and eventually effect the treatment of both diseases.
Other Lifestyle Changes to Treat Narcolepsy
You shouldn’t stop with just your diet in your attempts to control narcolepsy. These other lifestyle changes are suggested by doctors and researches as methods of alternative home treatment or as an addition to medical treatment.
- Exercise regularly:
This means consistent moderate exercise no less than 4 hours before bedtime.
- Take naps:
Schedule 15-20 minute naps for regular intervals throughout the day which should keep you rested for 1-3 hours.
- Stick to a sleep schedule:
Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
- Eat regularly but not heavily:
Eat light meals at regular intervals throughout the day.
Implement Change Now
We do not recommend changing any treatment plans designed by your doctor, but you can supplement your treatment by implementing these diet modifications today! As with all diet changes, it may take a while, from a few weeks up to a few months, to really feel the effects of it on your everyday life. However, the best part about the narcolepsy diet is that it’s a long-term, cost-effective solution, and you can get started right now.