The Eating Disorders Linked to Narcolepsy

Patient Expert

A 2008 study published in the journal Sleep found that those who live with narcolepsy often suffer from eating disorders, too. The study found that even those who did not have all the symptoms of an eating disorder still reported some of the symptoms, including food cravings and binge eating.

Researchers found that the symptoms of these eating disorders had a negative effect on daily activities and that those who lost interest in daily activities were more likely to suffer from eating disorders.

Eating disorders that were found in people with narcolepsy included:

  • Anorexia nervosa — An intense fear of weight gain and a false image of body weight that causes an individual to live in a state of near starvation.
  • Bulimia nervosa — A history of continual binge eating, with each binge followed by the need to purge the body of the food, either by vomiting, the use of laxatives, or any method that leaves the stomach empty.
  • Nocturnal eating disorder — Characterized by getting up in the night to eat but having no recollection of the activity in the morning.

Why is narcolepsy linked to eating disorders?

Sleep has a big influence on how hungry we feel and the type of food we choose to eat. Narcolepsy with cataplexy (the sudden loss of muscle control when laughing or during times of strong emotions) has been linked with higher levels of impulsivity and this can increase the risk of binge eating.

This increased risk of binge eating may be due to the lower levels of hypocretin typically found in those with narcolepsy. This chemical in the brain (also known as orexin) is responsible for keeping us awake and regulating appetite. Studies have found that if narcolepsy is not treated, it can increase the risk of obesity.

A 2014 study suggested that the inability to observe a regular sleep/wake schedule when living with sleep problems such as narcolepsy can make it harder for the body to regulate its metabolism. This difficulty is primarily due to eating at unpredictable times and the consumption of varying amounts of food. Researchers also suggested that the reduced levels of orexin may lead to elevated body mass index — and this could trigger an eating disorder.

A separate study argued that those with narcolepsy expend less energy when at rest. This could make efforts at weight loss more difficult and potentially trigger an eating disorder. The higher levels of fatigue associated with narcolepsy can make exercise less appealing, so those with narcolepsy may find it harder to control their weight — and this may further increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. The same study found that people with narcolepsy reported that eating food affected alertness levels. For some, eating had a stimulant effect, while for others, eating had a sedative effect. Restricting food consumption as a way of influencing levels of fatigue may increase the potential for developing an eating disorder.

Currently there is no cure for narcolepsy, but symptoms can be relieved with medications. The only medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy in those with narcolepsy is sodium oxybate (sometimes called gamma hydroxybutyrate) — however, other medications may be prescribed by your doctor depending upon your symptoms.

If you are having a difficult relationship with food, it’s important to speak to your doctor. Help is available.

See more helpful articles:

The Health Risks Linked to Long Sleep

Does Your Diet Really Affect Your Sleep?

8 Things You Might Not Know About Eating Disorders