The Narcolepsy Diet: What You Eat Can Change Your Life

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

  • chicken
  • eggs
  • milk
  • cheese

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.

About Mariele Ventrice

I am a writer, reader, and expert napper. Sometimes, I sleep with the lights on.

Comments

  1. Hello Mariele
    Thanks for this article, I started a ketogenic diet December 2014 and after 20 years of living with hypersomnia I feel much better just after a few weeks, much better than I’ve ever been during the past 20 years even compared to being on amphetamin. I was not sure this was thanks to the diet
    Cheers

  2. Keily Levy says:

    I’ve been narcoleptic at least since my early teens and treated since my mid forties. Before then I thought it was a lack of determination. I quit drinking in my early thirties. Hypnagogic sensations cataplexy and sleep paralysis lessened afterwards as well as the most severe narcolepsy attacks. However narcolepsy and hypersomnia never left. They were at a peak pre menopause. I have also been over weight since childhood to varying degrees and never diagnosed with diabetes though frequently tested. During pregnancy I was borderline diabetic. My exercise habits have never been as regular as they should be but I have fallen asleep, digging a ditch for a garden path, out for a walk and swimming the backstroke. The time in my life my exercise routine was most regular was also a time of a similar diet. It t ruled out all sugar and most starch occasionally allowing rice or bread or pasta. It was a severe time for narcolepsy. I have been doing better recently and am on a low carb no sugar diet and doing stretching exercises for bad knees since August. Since Decembrer my symptoms have abated enough to lower my dose of Nuvigil. I have always had months of improvement and months where symptoms worsened. While never able to stick to a strict ketagenuc diet. (I am careful about high fats because I had gall bladder surgery years ago.) I avoid most processed foods and have a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables. I have thin relatives with narcolepsy, not to let anyone think being overweight was most significant factor.

    • liane m. spaulding says:

      I tried ketogenic diet for months it made no difference in my energy level. if
      any results are seen from a change in diet I think it is coincidental. perhaps they are not severely narcoleptic. honestly I would love to see what they have of results long term. you can just beat narcolepsy ans
      cataplexy by not eating carbs it is not quite that easy.

  3. Kathleen Skowronski says:

    Narcolepsy will be effectively treated by changing you diet? What exactly is effectively treated? I would appreciate a daily schedule of exactly how a nacoleptic should fit in exercise into a typical day of work and family commitments as well as shopping and meal planning. Add to that nacolepsy with cataplexy. Please don’t bother throwing out the typical article about what will effectively treat a disorder that has no cure.

  4. The ketogenic diet was like pouring gasoline on my narcolepsy. It went from manageable to out of control and I kept thinking it was going to get better when I acclimated but it would just get worse. I wasn’t able to keep up with life at all in a very short time and just went into a free fall decline. I went from running all the time and working out to not having the energy to do anything.

    Investigating going Vegan now and have added back in the carbs and am feeling a little better but am still having too many attacks.

  5. I was happy to see your article. When I was first diagnosed I went to the doctor out of concern than I might have a brain tumor. I had no idea what was going on with the hypnagogic hallucinations and the slurred speech. I ask my doc right away what could I do naturally for narcolepsy (never been a fan of taking medicine). I was told there was absolutely nothing! I am thankful for my doctor because I do feel like my life has been saved by getting treatment (I drive awake now). However, this is the type of treatment I am more fond of, diet change and exercise changes. I am going to give it a try. I have never had a weight issue so I have never had to be strict about my diet but I am willing to start. Thank you for this informatiin