photo of man falling asleep at work
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Stay Awake Naturally

The world narcolepsy was coined in 1880s to mean “seized by somnolence,” or sleepiness. Just staying awake through the daylight hours can be difficult or impossible. Prescription drugs are often the go-to therapy for this brain disorder. But changes to your diet, habits, and environment also can help keep you alert without the side effects from medications.

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Schedule Naps

It’s called “strategic napping.” Try to take several cat naps of about 15-20 minutes every day. But cap your dozes to no more than 30 minutes. Sleeping longer can make you more tired. If you have a job, the Americans With Disabilities Act requires your employer to make arrangements for you. For example, you might use your office, nursing lounge, or a wellness room to sneak quick rests.

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Rest Best at Night

Many people with narcolepsy sleep restlessly at night. Your body then needs to make the shortfall during the day. Try these tips to pack more quality ZZZs during your normal bedtime hours:

  • Relax before turning in. Avoid alcohol close to bedtime.
  • Try to go to bed at the same time each night.
  • If you wake up during the night, avoid reaching for your phone or other electronics. Screens stimulate, not relax, you.
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Eat Your Way Awake

If you have a more severe type of condition called narcolepsy with cataplexy, you may be low on a hormone called hypocretin that helps you stay alert. The good news is that many foods contain hypocretin. They include sourdough bread, dark leafy greens, kimchi and other fermented vegetables, and salmon and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

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Watch Your Carbs

Lots of people feel drowsy after a big meal. That can be especially true if you have narcolepsy. Limit sugar and other carbs to stay more alert. Eat smaller meals and snack on nuts, berries, and other nutritious foods in between.

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Move

Walk around every 20 minutes or so to stay alert. If you work at a desk, get up and visit the break room. Climb a flight of stairs and back. Other ideas to sneak in blood-flowing moments include:

  • Pace while talking on the phone.
  • Stand up when you read emails and texts.
  • Walk to the bathroom even if you don’t need to go.
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Seek Sunshine

Those golden rays not only help you stay awake, they spark your brain to make feel-good chemicals. Sunshine helps your skin make vitamin D, a key nutrient in treating narcolepsy. Low vitamin D levels have been linked with poor sleep quality. Pair morning strolls with whole grains, scrambled eggs, and other foods that help put pep in your step.

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Keep Cool

Cold feet may help keep you awake. One study found that people with narcolepsy tend to have warmer skin temperatures in their fingers and toes. Cooler hands and feet made the people in the study more alert. You can dial down your body warmth with special cooling clothing, by avoiding warm drinks or meals, or using fans to keep your hands and feet chilled.

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Take Care With Caffeine

Coffee, tea, or other caffeine-fueled eye-openers may help prevent drowsiness. But take care if you take stimulant medications such as armodafinil (Nuvigil) or modafinil (Provigil) for your narcolepsy. Mixing them with caffeine can make your heart race or trigger jitters and anxiety. Avoid caffeine after 4 p.m.

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Exercise

Regular physical activity ramps up your metabolism but also may help you rest better at night. Find something you can enjoy and stick with at least 20 minutes per day. Think tai chi, dancing, weight training, gardening, swimming, or tennis. Finish your workouts at least 3 hours before bedtime so you can wind down for restful slumber.  

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Don’t Smoke

In a small survey, smokers who had narcolepsy all reported nicotine helped fight daytime sleepiness. There was a dangerous downside, though. One-third of the respondents said they’d fallen asleep while smoking, and many others had come close. Lit smoking materials led to burn injuries and property damage, and even larger fires. And it can be tough to quit because nicotine withdrawal causes drowsiness.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 09/08/2020 Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 08, 2020

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SOURCES:

Progress in Neurobiology: “Challenges in the development of therapeutics for narcolepsy.”

Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School: “Medications for Treating Daytime Sleepiness in Narcolepsy,” “Understanding Narcolepsy,” “Narcolepsy: Medications,” “Narcolepsy,” “Narcolepsy: At Work.”

Sleep Science: “Current and Future Treatment Options for Narcolepsy: A Review.”

Narcolepsy Network: “For Employees,” “Narcolepsy and Wakefulness: What’s the Connection?” “Lifestyle Adjustments.”

Sleep Foundation: “What Causes Narcolepsy?” “Cataplexy,” “Diet, Alcohol, Exercise, and Narcolepsy.”

Nutrients: “The Association Between Vitamin D Deficiency and Sleep Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Narcolepsy: Management and Treatment.”

Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: “Narcoleptic Patients' Perceptions of Nicotine.”

Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 08, 2020

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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