Are Sleep Apnea and Narcolepsy Related?

Do you struggle to keep your eyes open during the day? Try to sneak in naps here and there? Find it difficult to concentrate? While these are common symptoms everyone experiences from time to time as a result of working long hours, getting too little sleep and other lifestyle choices, they could be a sign of specific medical conditions especially when accompanied by memory problems, loss of appetite, anxiety and irritability. Could it be sleep apnea or narcolepsy? Are they related? While sleep apnea and narcolepsy both lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, cause you to nod off and are considered sleep disorders, that’s where their similarities end.

What’s Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the control of wakefulness and sleep. The telltale symptom of narcolepsy is uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep throughout the day. Other symptoms include the sudden loss of muscle tone (cataplexy), intense emotions such as laughter and anger, hallucinations and temporary sleep paralysis. Scientists aren’t sure what causes narcolepsy, but are looking into the possibility of identifying multiple factors such as genes associated with the disorder as well abnormalities in various parts of the brain involved in regulating REM sleep.

What’s Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is not a neurological disorder, but rather a breathing-related sleep disorder. Those with sleep apnea stop breathing several times an hour during each night due to an obstruction of their airway. This obstruction is typically caused when the muscles in the back of the throat relax, causing the airway to narrow or close making it difficult to breathe. Your brain senses your inability to breathe and stirs you awake to breathe again. This interrupted breathing prevents you from getting a good night of sleep and is what leads to feeling so sleepy throughout the day.

Can Someone Have Both Narcolepsy and Sleep Apnea?

Yes. According to a study published by Sleep Medicine, an individual can have both narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnea. Interestingly, the study reveals, “sleep apnea occurs frequently in narcolepsy and may delay the diagnosis of narcolepsy by several years and interfere with its proper management.” Furthermore, “Treatment with CPAP does not usually improve excessive daytime sleepiness in narcoleptics with sleep apnea.”