People with narcolepsy fall asleep involuntarily, sometimes while eating or talking. These sleep attacks come on suddenly, and triggers vary from person to person.

Narcolepsy is a rare chronic neurological disorder that interferes with a person’s sleep patterns.

There are two distinct types of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy type 1 refers to narcolepsy with cataplexy, a condition that causes temporary loss of muscle control with intense emotions, such as anger or laughter. Doctors diagnose narcolepsy type 2 if a person experiences sleep attacks without cataplexy.

Although rare, narcolepsy can seriously affect an individual’s life. Knowing what triggers an attack can help people cope with their condition.

This article explores what triggers a narcolepsy sleep attack and what happens during one. It also looks at ways of preventing attacks and how a person could prepare for one.

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Experts do not fully understand what causes narcolepsy, but they do know that people with narcolepsy type 1 have lower levels of the hormone orexin, or hypocretin, which helps regulate sleep patterns.

Orexins stabilize and maintain a person’s periods of wakefulness. People with lower levels of orexins may experience daytime sleepiness, sleep attacks, and cataplexy.

When people experience a sleep attack, resisting the urge to sleep is nearly impossible. These attacks can happen at any time, even when a person is driving. They may only last a few seconds or minutes but can severely disrupt a person’s life.


People with narcolepsy may have sleep attacks while performing routine, monotonous activities. Some people experience them while watching TV, while others report having them while walking, talking, or eating.

Sleep attacks involve sudden, overwhelming sleepiness.

People experiencing sleep attacks are unaware of their environment and often cannot fight the urge to sleep.

They may experience drooping eyelids, difficulty lifting their head, or wobbly knees. Unlike traditional sleep attacks, people with catalepsy do not lose consciousness, even though they may be unable to move.

Doctors commonly prescribe stimulants, such as modafinil (Provigil), to help people manage their sleep attacks.

Modafinil has fewer side effects than other, older treatments.

In some cases, antidepressants may help people with narcolepsy and cataplexy.

In addition to medications, the following lifestyle changes may help people manage narcolepsy:

  • keeping to a regular bedtime routine — going to bed and getting up at the same time every day
  • getting enough sleep
  • taking regular, short naps during the day
  • exercising for at least 20 minutes every day
  • quitting smoking or avoiding it in the evenings, if necessary
  • avoiding heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine for several hours before bed
  • avoiding electronic devices for at least 30 minutes before bed

Learn more about sleep hygiene.

Many people with narcolepsy notice that their sleep attacks occur more often at certain times of the day.

They may be able to schedule their naps at these times. Taking a 15–20 minute nap while maintaining a regular nighttime sleep schedule may help people manage daytime sleepiness.

Most sleep attacks are short-lived. People may sleep for a few seconds or several minutes.

Most people with narcolepsy report feeling more awake and alert after a sleep attack.

Many people with narcolepsy also have depression and anxiety.

Doctors may recommend online or in-person mental health counseling or support groups.

Narcolepsy Network hosts a Facebook community, but people can also turn to a healthcare professional for local support group recommendations.

People with narcolepsy have sleep attacks involving a sudden and irresistible urge to sleep. They may fall asleep for a few seconds or several minutes several times daily.

Sleep attacks can happen anytime, including while talking, eating, walking, or driving a car.

Medication can help prevent narcolepsy attacks. People may also find that regular naps and good sleep hygiene help them manage the condition.