The Best and Worst Foods for Narcolepsy

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Narcolepsy is a chronic condition in which your brain struggles to keep your sleep-wake cycle in check—that means you may be mega sleepy during the day when you’re trying to get things done but then struggle to nod off come bedtime. Along with taking your medications and upping your sleep hygiene game, improving your diet may also help manage your symptoms. Keep reading to learn more about how the food you eat—and when you eat it—can lead to more quality sleep.

smaller meals
iStock

Plan Smaller, More Frequent Meals

While it’s not uncommon for anyone to feel a bit sleepy after big meals, they can be especially triggering for people with narcolepsy, says Mark Wu, M.D., professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. That’s why he urges his patients to go for frequent small meals. “What I generally recommend is a healthy diet of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats that are spread into multiple meals throughout the day,” he says. Yep, that’s the framework for any good-for-you eating plan, so let’s dig into why it’s so effective for this sleep disorder.

High fat low-carb breakfast.
iStock

Understand the Science Between Carbs and Narcolepsy

“There is some data that low-carbohydrate diets help individuals with narcolepsy, and that high-carbohydrate diets are more likely to make them sleepy,” says Alon Y. Avidan, M.D., vice chair of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. In fact, a small study in Neurology found that the protein-heavy Atkins diet improved narcolepsy symptoms by 18%. But that doesn’t mean every person with narcolepsy should radically change their diet and throw all carbs out the window, says Dr. Avidan—rather, it’s about getting smarter about your carb intake.

plate of pasta
iStock

Time Your Carbs

Typically, Dr. Avidan says, people with narcolepsy want to avoid carb-rich foods during the parts of their day when they know they need to be alert—like at work. When wakefulness isn’t as much of a priority, it’s probably OK to be a bit more liberal with food choices and treat yourself to that slice of pizza, Dr. Avidan says. But there’s one major caveat here, he adds: People who have narcolepsy often deal with insomnia, too—and carb-rich foods can be disruptive of nighttime sleep. Keeping a food log and tracking your symptoms can help you troubleshoot.

sugar soda
iStock

Beware the Sugar Crash

That afternoon soda may be tempting, but it’s important to be mindful of your sugar intake when you’re dealing with narcolepsy. “My general recommendation is to avoid highly processed sugars and sweets that can lead to ‘sugar crashes,’” says Dr. Wu. Dr. Avidan agrees: “Something with simple carbohydrates like ice cream that gives you a sugar rush or increases your blood glucose level fairly quickly, those are things you want to avoid, especially if you have to go on a long drive or something.”

Sardines oil and lemons
iStock

Choose Healthy Fats and Lean Proteins

Speaking of proteins and fats—it’s important to choose the right ones when you have narcolepsy, says Dr. Wu. High-fat foods may lower your body’s sensitivity to a chemical called orexin, which helps regulate your sleep patterns; less response means you might feel sleepier.

Instead, Dr. Wu recommends filling up on lean proteins and healthy fats, like fish, lean chicken, nuts, and avocado. Bonus: These foods also provide long-lasting energy. So swap that big bowl of pasta for grilled fish and brown rice, and trade your bag of chips for carrot sticks and hummus.

rejecting wine
iStock

Say No to Alcohol Close to Bedtime

While you may think a glass or two of wine may speed your trip to slumberland, that alcohol may harm your overall sleep quality, says Dr. Avidan. “For people with sleep disturbances like narcolepsy or insomnia, having alcohol before bedtime can be disruptive to the sleep architecture and fragment it.”

So if you’re finding that you’re waking up in the night after some drinks, consider avoiding alcohol altogether, reducing the amount, or drinking earlier in the evening—ideally at least four to five hours before bedtime to allow time for your body to metabolize the alcohol, Dr. Avidan says.

iced coffee
iStock

Use Caffeine Wisely

If you’re struggling with daytime sleepiness, caffeine can feel like a godsend to help you stay awake and alert—and this works well for some people with narcolepsy. Just make sure you’re not having more than around 250 mg of coffee a day, or about three 8-ounce cups of coffee, the National Sleep Foundation says. “Using a cup of coffee or tea strategically for symptom relief is fine when you’re driving, giving a lecture, or doing something that requires more attention or vigilance,” Dr. Avidan says. Consider cutting yourself off after around 4 p.m. so caffeine doesn’t affect your nighttime sleep quality.

kale and spinach
iStock

Go for Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Dr. Wu generally recommends his narcolepsy patients take an anti-inflammatory approach with their diets—there’s some research that inflammation may actually play a role in triggering narcolepsy, according to Harvard Health. So what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like? Avoid simple sugars and fried foods, along with red meat and margarine, and load your plate up with foods like these: tomatoes; olive oil; green leafy vegetables, like spinach or kale; nuts; fatty fish like salmon; and fruits, like strawberries, blueberries, and oranges.

spicy pepper on fire
iStock

Watch Your Spice Levels

Making dinner? Step away from the jalapeños! Eating a spicy meal before bed can also disrupt your sleep, according to Hopkins Medicine, often because spicy foods can lead to heartburn or acid reflux. Red pepper may also boost your body temperature—the opposite of what your body naturally does when you’re catching zzz’s. If you’re a spice lover and simply must zip up your meals, at least try to avoid it within three hours of bedtime, Hopkins Medicine says.

healthy sandwich
iStock

Improve Your Symptoms With Helpful Food Changes

Keep these tips and tricks in your back pocket—making simple changes in when and what you eat may be another great tool in your arsenal for fighting narcolepsy symptoms, helping you stay alert during the day and get quality rest when you need it. Not to mention, eating well can help boost your health in countless other ways beyond your sleep, too.

But remember: Your diet isn’t a cure-all for this condition. Talk with your doctor if you have specific concerns about your diet’s role in your narcolepsy.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.