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Alcohol and Narcolepsy

Posted on June 09, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Allen J. Blaivas, D.O.
Article written by
Elizabeth Wartella, M.P.H.

Alcohol and narcolepsy have an impact on sleep. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that affects the sleep-wake cycle, and the consumption of alcohol can produce sleep disturbances and symptoms similar to those of narcolepsy.

Consuming alcohol initially creates feelings of relaxation, so it is sometimes used as a sleep aid by people with sleeping problems. Although alcohol and narcolepsy can create similar sleep-related symptoms, there are key differences in the ways they work.

About Alcohol Use

Moderate alcohol use is usually defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. The abuse of alcohol is underlined by an unhealthy consumption of alcohol that is driven by both genetic and environmental factors, which sometimes results in alcohol addiction.

Alcohol is a substance that, when used moderately or heavily, can cause different sleep disturbances and problems. Even light alcohol use may affect a person’s sleep quality and contribute to sleep-related difficulties, including symptoms of conditions like narcolepsy or insomnia. People react differently to alcohol consumption and experience varying levels of mental and emotional effects.

About Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder in which the brain cannot properly regulate sleep-wake cycles.

Underlying causes of narcolepsy are not very well understood, but researchers believe there are several different factors at play. One hypothesis is that narcolepsy is caused by an autoimmune disorder, a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. Through this process, narcolepsy may occur when a person’s immune system attacks their brain cells, leading to a shortage of a brain hormone called hypocretin that plays a role in sleep-wake cycles. Other factors that may play a role in developing narcolepsy include brain trauma or injuries, infections, and environmental toxins.

Narcolepsy is a rare condition, affecting about 1 in 2,000 people in the United States. However, this estimate may be low, as people with narcolepsy are often misdiagnosed with other sleep or mental health disorders.

What’s the Connection Between Alcohol Use and Narcolepsy?

Someone who experiences narcolepsy and trouble sleeping at night may use alcohol as a sleep aid. However, alcohol use and narcolepsy both negatively affect sleep. Alcohol consumption may contribute to extreme fatigue and a condition called alcohol-induced narcolepsy, although it is unlikely to cause narcolepsy itself. Rather, alcohol use and narcolepsy both can inhibit deep sleep and produce similar daytime symptoms resulting from poor-quality sleep at night.

How Alcohol Use and Narcolepsy Affect Sleep

Alcohol use produces feelings of relaxation and sleepiness and acts as a sedative on the central nervous system. However, drinking alcohol in excess or right before bed may cause sleep disturbances.

Alcohol use affects sleep by making it more difficult to enter the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. Alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitters (chemical signals) in the brain that are responsible for regulating sleep and wake cycles.

Because alcohol at first causes sleepiness, it may cause a person to enter the stage of deep sleep earlier than normal, but it will create an imbalance in the sleep stages throughout the night. Alcohol-related disruptions to the normal sleep cycle may make it difficult to feel well-rested. A person may also experience other symptoms, including some similar to narcolepsy:

  • Daytime sleepiness or drowsiness
  • Vivid dreams
  • Possible hallucinations from lack of sleep

Narcolepsy affects sleep in a way similar to alcohol use, as it also interferes with the normal cycles of sleep. A shortage of hypocretin may cause symptoms such as excessive daytime sleepiness. Other symptoms of narcolepsy include:

  • Cataplexy — A sudden loss of muscle tone and function
  • Sleep paralysis — The inability to move or speak between episodes of sleep and wakefulness
  • Hallucinations — Visual or auditory perceptions of things that are not truly there, right before falling asleep or right after waking up (sometimes called hypnagogic hallucinations)
  • Automatic behaviors — Including falling asleep for several seconds during the day while performing tasks like eating or driving, and having no memory of it happening

Alcohol as a Sleep Aid

Alcohol use may also lead to insomnia, a sleep disorder characterized by the inability to fall asleep at night. Many studies have shown an association between alcoholism and insomnia. A person may self-medicate their insomnia by drinking more alcohol, and end up in a complicated cycle between alcohol use and insomnia.

Similarly, people with narcolepsy may experience a problematic cycle by using alcohol to counteract the inability to fall asleep at night. People on MyNarcolepsyTeam have written about the interaction between their narcolepsy and alcohol use. “It’s hard using alcohol to cope. You get a little bit of a pickup at first ... and then you crash hard going into the next day,” wrote one member.

Tips for Managing Alcohol Use and Narcolepsy

There are times when alcohol consumption is not recommended by health agencies and providers:

  • If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • If you’ve been diagnosed with alcoholism or cannot control your alcohol intake
  • If you have liver or pancreatic disease
  • If you’ve had a hemorrhagic stroke
  • If you have heart failure
  • If you take medications that negatively interact with alcohol
  • If your doctor has advised you to not drink alcohol

If you choose to drink alcohol, the United States Department of Agriculture suggests drinking in moderation — up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Drinking less is better for your overall health and may help you avoid alcohol-induced sleeping problems and exacerbation of narcolepsy symptoms.

If alcohol use or narcolepsy affects your daily life and you are not currently receiving medical treatment, speak with a psychiatry or sleep-medicine professional about your symptoms. There are many resources and health care treatment options that include treatment of narcolepsy, as well as alcohol use and addiction treatment.

Talk with Others Who Understand

A helpful way of coping with narcolepsy is by talking to other people who understand. MyNarcolepsyTeam is the social network for people with narcolepsy and their loved ones. On MyNarcolepsyTeam, members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with narcolepsy.

Does alcohol affect your life with narcolepsy? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyNarcolepsyTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Allen J. Blaivas, D.O. is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in Critical Care Medicine, Pulmonary Disease, and Sleep Medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Elizabeth Wartella, M.P.H. is an Associate Editor at MyHealthTeam. She holds a Master's in Public Health from Columbia University and is passionate about spreading accurate, evidence-based health information. Learn more about her here.

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