Connect with others who understand.

sign up log in
Resources
About MyNarcolepsyTeam

Connect with others who understand.

sign up log in
Resources
About MyNarcolepsyTeam

Healthy Living With Narcolepsy: Nutrition, Exercise, and More

Updated on June 04, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Allen J. Blaivas, D.O.
Article written by
Nyaka Mwanza

  • Having narcolepsy raises the risk for developing several other physical and mood disorders.
  • Proper diet and exercise can improve narcolepsy symptoms and decrease the risk of conditions commonly associated with narcolepsy.
  • Living a healthy life with narcolepsy requires a complementary approach to treatment and care, including dietary and other lifestyle changes.

The jury is out on exactly why we sleep, though several theories exist to explain sleep’s biological function. One thing is certain: adequate sleep is as vital for our health as nutritious food and clean water. The chronically insufficient sleep that defines life with narcolepsy is a threat to one’s overall health.

What Is Narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder and sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) and cataplexy — sudden attacks of muscle weakness. Other narcolepsy symptoms include vivid, dream-like hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Between 135,000 and 200,000 people in the United States are living with narcolepsy. Due to the common misdiagnosis and underdiagnosis of the condition, that number is thought to be much higher.

Narcolepsy alone can take its toll on one’s health. Narcolepsy also increases a person’s risk for several other co-occurring health conditions. If a person with narcolepsy has one or more other health conditions, the toll is exponentially greater.

Lowering Your Risk for Narcolepsy-Related Conditions

The positive effects of sleep are not just for your physical health. Regular sleep ensures proper function of hormones, your immune system, and your mental health. Insufficient high-quality sleep on a regular schedule increases the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension), cardiovascular (heart) disease, type 2 diabetes, mood disorders, and eating disorders.

A wholesome diet and exercise decrease the risk of commonly co-occurring conditions (comorbidities) and improve the symptoms of narcolepsy. Nutrition and exercise are important to ensure healthy functioning in all aspects of your life, as well as living better with narcolepsy.

When people know narcolepsy’s frequent comorbidities and recognize their symptoms, it’s easier for them to talk to their doctors about holistically addressing their health. Lowering the risk for — and promptly treating — comorbidities can extend and improve quality of life.

Diet, Nutrition, and Narcolepsy

Living with narcolepsy requires being careful about what you eat and when you eat it — eating more of some foods while totally avoiding others. People with narcolepsy should avoid caffeine or alcohol for several hours before going to sleep. They should also avoid large, heavy meals right before bedtime; eating very close to bedtime can make it harder to sleep.

People with narcolepsy are at higher risk for being overweight or obese. Studies show an association between short sleep duration and excess body weight — especially in children. Inadequate sleep can make us feel hungrier, increase cravings for sweet foods, and increase the amount of food we buy while grocery shopping. People with narcolepsy also tend to have slower metabolisms. Poor sleep can affect your hormone levels, which can influence your appetite. Your sleep may also affect how much exercise you get throughout the day.

Sugar and carbohydrates tend to supply quick jolts of energy that wear off fast. Limiting sugar and other simple carbohydrates (processed and grain-based foods) may help manage both narcolepsy symptoms and weight. A ketogenic diet is a strict food regimen that minimizes carbohydrates and sugars, and it is sometimes prescribed to people living with hard-to-treat epilepsy. It has also proven beneficial to some people with narcolepsy. Fermented foods such as kombucha, kimchi, natural yogurt, and sauerkraut contain lactate, a biochemical used by the hypocretin system.

Narcolepsy is associated with low (or undetectable) levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin, also called orexin, controls wakefulness and helps regulate appetite. A diet that might increase orexin could benefit some people with narcolepsy.

There is increasing evidence that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disorder. Foods that fight inflammation may help counteract the autoimmune effects of the condition. Foods high in B vitamins, such as bananas, fish, avocados, chicken, and dark-green leafy vegetables, may also be beneficial. Studies show that B vitamins can help relieve stress by regulating nerves and brain cells.

Exercise and Narcolepsy

Exercising, eating well, and maintaining a healthy weight go a long way toward managing narcolepsy’s symptoms and maintaining good health overall. Exercising for at least 20 minutes per day improves sleep quality and can help maintain a healthy weight. Exercise helps regulate the metabolism and reduces the risk and impact of obesity and weight management issues that frequently accompany narcolepsy.

It’s important to know your narcolepsy symptoms and their severity. Sometimes exercise, if too stimulating, can trigger cataplectic episodes. It’s a good idea to start off light, with some yoga or a walk, until you’re sure how the physical activity impacts your symptoms.

Studies suggest that a severe reduction of hypocretin may discourage exercise in people living with narcolepsy, but exercise may promote wakefulness. The decrease in exercise is likely because narcolepsy causes EDS and could decrease motivation.

The benefits of exercise on sleep quantity and quality can be twofold. Exercise can stimulate a person and help them stay awake. Exercise can also tire a person and help them get a good night’s rest. When living with narcolepsy, the timing of physical activity is something to keep in mind. Avoid exercising within four to five hours before bedtime.

Self-Care, Stress Management, and Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy takes a heavy toll on a person’s quality of life. Being diagnosed with and managing narcolepsy is stressful, as is managing the conditions commonly linked to narcolepsy. Exercise relaxes your muscles, reduces stress, and improves mood. Physical activity raises the levels of endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals, in your body — which is a mood booster.

Taking care of your mental health is especially important when living with narcolepsy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a commonly used, effective, talk-therapy method. For people with narcolepsy, CBT may help with many aspects of the condition, including improving sleep hygiene, managing stress, learning coping skills, and building emotional resilience. CBT is used to treat a wide range of issues, including disorders similar to narcolepsy like hypersomnia and depression.

Meditation is a period of stillness (of both body and thought). Mindfulness is an intentional focus on the present moment. Mindfulness and meditation are accessible and free practices which have been shown to relieve stress. Both can improve mental health overall, and depression and anxiety symptoms more specifically. Studies show that meditation can help lower stress. In addition to traditional medical treatments, meditation also may help improve anxiety and may lower blood pressure.

The following tips can help you manage stress, control anxiety, and encourage positive mental health improvements:

  • Find strength in others. Support groups, whether online or in person, can be a rich source of support.
  • Take time to yourself. Listening to music, reading a good book, or going to a movie are great things to do by yourself.
  • Declutter your space. Being disorganized can be a sign of stress. It can also cause or worsen anxiety and stress.
  • Be of service to others. Volunteering is a way to give back and meet new people, and a great way to bring fulfillment into your life.

Safety and Narcolepsy

Proper sleep keeps you alert and helps you to react quickly. Sleep helps you excel at school and at work. Without sleep, you can’t learn things or create new memories. Sleep sharpens your mind so you can think clearly. Without healthy sleep, you are more likely to be forgetful and make mistakes. Without enough rest, you are also more likely to have an accident while driving or at work.

Some medications and supplements can dangerously interact with narcolepsy treatments. Always make sure your health care provider is aware of every medication you are taking for every condition, whether it is available over the counter or by prescription, including any vitamins or herbal supplements. Treatments for narcolepsy can come with negative side effects. Most drugs for narcolepsy, both those approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and those used off-label, carry a risk of abuse, addiction, and dependency. In fact, only one FDA-approved drug for narcolepsy is not a controlled substance: Wakix (pitolisant).

Sleep Matters: Quantity, Quality, and Regularity

Sleeping is so important that the average human spends about one-third of their time doing it. Not only is the quantity (number of hours) of sleep you get important, so is the quality of sleep and the regularity of your sleep cycle. Maintaining healthy mood, diet, and exercise can improve sleep quality — a critical treatment goal for people with narcolepsy. Good sleep improves overall health, increases productivity, and betters quality of life.

Consistent, ample, high-quality sleep and integrated treatment are key to managing life with narcolepsy. Despite the fact that people with narcolepsy have excessive daytime sleepiness, they often sleep poorly at night. Therefore, sleep is a primary focus in decreasing symptom severity and minimizing the risk of comorbidities. Exercise can reduce sleepiness and improve sleep quality. Here are some helpful tips for improving your sleep:

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on the weekends, can help people sleep better.
  • Create an environment that promotes sleep. With dim lighting, optimal temperature, and even aromatherapy, the environment you sleep in can make the difference between a good and a bad night’s sleep.
  • Relax before bed. Relaxing activities, such as a warm bath or meditation, before bedtime can help promote sleepiness. Try to limit screen time in bed and before you go to sleep.

There are many adverse effects of insufficient sleep and serious health conditions linked to narcolepsy. It should come as no surprise that poor sleep can be associated with lower life expectancy.

If you suspect you have a sleep disorder like narcolepsy, seeking prompt diagnosis and treatment is important. When living with narcolepsy, it’s even more important to get any and all health problems under control and get ongoing care for these conditions.

Living a healthy life with narcolepsy requires an integrated approach to treatment and care. Ideally, a treatment team will comprise a sleep specialist, a general practitioner, and — depending on any comorbidity diagnoses — other specialized health care providers working together towards your whole-health goals. Communicate early, often, and openly with all providers on your health care team.

References
  1. Why Do We Sleep Anyway? — Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School
  2. Sleep Disorders: In Depth — National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  3. Narcolepsy Fact Sheet — National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
  4. Sleep and Disease Risk — Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School
  5. Irregular Sleep Could Negatively Impact Heart Health — American Heart Association
  6. Brain Basics Understanding Sleep — National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
  7. Your Guide to Healthy Sleep — National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
  8. Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency — National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
  9. Weight and Obesity — Office on Women’s Health
  10. Narcolepsy and Food: How Diet Can Help — Health Central
  11. Food as Therapy for Narcolepsy Patients — Sleep Review
  12. Aberrant Food Choices After Satiation in Human Orexin-Deficient Narcolepsy Type 1 — Sleep
  13. The Best and Worst Foods for Narcolepsy — Health Central
  14. Stress and Your Health — Office on Women’s Health
  15. Does Your Diet Really Affect Your Sleep? — Health Central
  16. 10 Things to Know About Narcolepsy and Exercise
  17. Self-Care: Narcolepsy — Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School
  18. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — Mayo Clinic
  19. Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Narcolepsy: Can It Complement Pharmacotherapy? — Sleep Science
  20. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis — JAMA Internal Medicine
  21. Working Group Report on Problem Sleepiness — National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
  22. FDA Approves First-in-Class Narcolepsy Medication — MedPage Today
  23. Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep — Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School
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.
Nyaka Mwanza has worked with large global health nonprofits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Learn more about her here.

Related articles

If you’re living with narcolepsy, you’re already aware of the impact the condition can have on...

Narcolepsy Awareness: How To Get Involved

If you’re living with narcolepsy, you’re already aware of the impact the condition can have on...
About one out of every 2,000 people in the United States are living with narcolepsy. Narcolepsy...

Narcolepsy Management at Home

About one out of every 2,000 people in the United States are living with narcolepsy. Narcolepsy...
Living with narcolepsy can be mentally and emotionally challenging. You may feel overwhelmed or...

Narcolepsy Support Online

Living with narcolepsy can be mentally and emotionally challenging. You may feel overwhelmed or...
Despite the challenges that narcolepsy can present, research has shown that people with...

Scholarships for People With Narcolepsy

Despite the challenges that narcolepsy can present, research has shown that people with...
Narcolepsy and its accompanying symptom of excessive daytime sleepiness pose a driving safety...

Narcolepsy and Driving

Narcolepsy and its accompanying symptom of excessive daytime sleepiness pose a driving safety...
Living with a chronic medical condition like narcolepsy can be isolating, especially if you don’t...

Books About Narcolepsy for Grown-Ups and Children

Living with a chronic medical condition like narcolepsy can be isolating, especially if you don’t...

Recent articles

Narcolepsy is a rare sleep disorder that can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, sudden loss of...

Is Narcolepsy Linked to Vitamin Deficiency?

Narcolepsy is a rare sleep disorder that can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, sudden loss of...
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approved a second COVID-19 booster shot of...

What People With Narcolepsy Should Know About Getting a Second COVID-19 Booster Shot

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approved a second COVID-19 booster shot of...
Apart from experiencing the major symptoms of narcolepsy — excessive daytime sleepiness,...

Feelings of Detachment: Dissociative Symptoms in Narcolepsy

Apart from experiencing the major symptoms of narcolepsy — excessive daytime sleepiness,...
Narcolepsy is rare, affecting fewer than 1 in every 100,000 children. Childhood narcolepsy is a...

How To Identify and Manage Narcolepsy Symptoms in Children

Narcolepsy is rare, affecting fewer than 1 in every 100,000 children. Childhood narcolepsy is a...
Narcolepsy affects about 1 in 2,000 people in the United States. The condition causes symptoms...

Hypothyroidism and Narcolepsy: Is There a Connection?

Narcolepsy affects about 1 in 2,000 people in the United States. The condition causes symptoms...
People with narcolepsy of any type experience eating disorders at a higher rate than the general...

What You May Not Know About Eating Disorders and Narcolepsy

People with narcolepsy of any type experience eating disorders at a higher rate than the general...
MyNarcolepsyTeam My narcolepsy Team

Thank you for subscribing!

Become a member to get even more:

sign up for free

close