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Narcolepsy and Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 30, 2021

When you have narcolepsy, your body’s sleep-wake cycle doesn’t work the way it should. Certain changes in your brain make it harder for it to manage your sleep. One of the main symptoms is daytime sleepiness. You also might have:

Narcolepsy often occurs along with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. Researchers still are untangling the links between narcolepsy and mental health.

Linked Conditions

Depression is the mental health issue most often tied to narcolepsy. Up to 57% of people with narcolepsy report they're depressed, surveys show. By comparison, 4.7% of U.S. adults say they have regular feelings of depression.

Anxiety disorders are also common in those with narcolepsy. One study found about 35% of people with narcolepsy also have anxiety issues such as panic attacks and social phobias. That compares to about 18% in the general population

On the surface, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might seem like the opposite of narcolepsy. You might think of those with ADHD as being “hyper,” not sleepy. But scientists think there’s a link. One study found children with narcolepsy are much more likely to have ADHD symptoms than children with regular sleep patterns.

People with narcolepsy also are at risk for eating disorders, especially binge eating and abnormal food cravings. About a quarter of people with narcolepsy in one study met the standard for having an eating disorder.

Schizophrenia and narcolepsy have some symptoms in common, including hallucinations. Researchers have studied people who have signs of both. Their issues usually start in childhood or the teen years. But being diagnosed with both schizophrenia and narcolepsy appears to be fairly rare.

What’s the Connection?

In some cases, people develop mental health issues because of narcolepsy. It can affect your ability to study, work, drive, and enjoy hobbies.

Disrupted sleep can also change your personality. Narcolepsy can harm your personal relationships. Studies have linked narcolepsy to higher unemployment, missed work time, lower wages, and marital problems.

One symptom of narcolepsy is cataplexy, a temporary loss of muscle control while you’re awake. Some researchers think this unexpected lack of control may contribute to anxiety disorders.

Hyperactivity could be a way that some people compensate for feeling sleepy, according to one theory.

Disrupted sleep can affect the hormones that regulate your appetite. That may play a role in eating disorders.

Researchers also are looking at how the brain is wired to see if the causes of narcolepsy play a role in mental health issues, too.

Are Meds Part of the Problem?

Sometimes, the medicines you’re prescribed for narcolepsy can complicate the picture.

For instance, drugs prescribed to treat ADHD can make narcolepsy symptoms harder to detect and diagnose.

If you have schizophrenia, your medication could make your narcolepsy worse. And medication for narcolepsy can worsen symptoms of schizophrenia.

Tough to Diagnose

Sometimes, a person with narcolepsy has a hard time getting the right diagnosis. Doctors may confuse it with a mental health condition.

Some narcolepsy symptoms are similar to those of depression. If your narcolepsy makes you hallucinate, that could lead doctors to suspect mental illness.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Sleep Foundation: “Narcolepsy,” “Cataplexy.”

Mayo Clinic: “Narcolepsy.”

Medical Sciences: “Narcolepsy and Psychiatric Disorders: Comorbidities or Shared Pathophysiology?”

General Hospital Psychiatry: “Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Narcolepsy: A Case-Control Study,” Psychotic Symptoms in Narcolepsy: Phenomenology and a Comparison with Schizophrenia.

Sleep: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Symptoms in Pediatric Narcolepsy: A Cross-Sectional Study,” “High Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Narcolepsy with Cataplexy: A Case-Control Study.”

Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: “Dual Cases of Type 1 Narcolepsy with Schizophrenia and Other Psychotic Disorders,” “The Humanistic and Economic Burden of Narcolepsy.”

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: “Health-Related Quality of Life in Patients with Narcolepsy.”

Sleep Medicine Reviews: “Ghrelin and Its Interactions with Growth Hormone, Leptin and Orexins: Implications for the Sleep-Wake Cycle and Metabolism.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Narcolepsy.”

Anxiety & Depression Society of America: "Facts & Statistics."

CDC National Center for Health Statistics: "Depression."

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