The role of orexin (hypocretin)
Janette Nesheiwat, M.D., is a double board certified medical doctor. In an email interview with HealthCentral, Dr. Nesheiwat pointed out that since narcolepsy is caused by a deficiency of orexin (also known as hypocretin), those living with the condition should aim to eat foods that encourage the production of this chemical.
Food quality is important
Peter Conley was diagnosed with narcolepsy in 2012. In an email interview with HealthCentral, Conley told us that foods containing fat are much better for narcolepsy than foods high in sugar. “Dietary fat as a source of fuel instead of sugar is like the difference between running your bonfire on coal instead of gas,” said Conley.
Keep carbohydrate intake down
Adhering to a low-carbohydrate/low-sugar diet can help you stay awake because foods high in carbohydrate and sugar (and foods with a high glycemic index) can turn off orexin production, according to Dr. Nesheiwat. Previous studies have also found that healthier diets strengthen our sleep cycle. So, with the introductions out of the way, let’s look at some specific foods that may be good (and bad) for narcolepsy.
Good food for narcolepsy: Oily fish
Dr. Nesheiwat told us that fish, especially those high in omega 3 (such as salmon and sardines), help with brain function and can protect the cell membranes and nerves. She also pointed out that the protein found in fish can help you feel more alert.
Good food for narcolepsy: Chicken
Chicken can be another beneficial food for those with narcolepsy — and not only because of its protein content. In an email interview with HealthCentral, Julie Joffrion, a fitness nutrition specialist at All Inclusive Health suggested that the high levels of tryptophan found in chicken can help increase serotonin levels (and research suggests that serotonin may suppress cataplexy).
Good food for narcolepsy: Nuts
Nuts, particularly almonds, are not only high in protein but they also contain magnesium and calcium. According to Dr. Nesheiwat, these minerals can help with muscle weakness and give us energy.
Good food for narcolepsy: Vegetables
Vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and Brussels sprouts are high in lecithin — and this group of fatty substances is important for brain function. Other beneficial vegetables such as green beans, romaine lettuce (and grains such as barley) contain chromium. “Chromium-rich foods provide energy and help regulate blood sugar so they can help in those with narcolepsy and diabetes,” Dr. Nesheiwat said.
Good food for narcolepsy: High-quality dairy
Butter from grass-fed cows, eggs, and milk should be high on the shopping list for anyone with narcolepsy. According to Dr. Nesheiwat, these foods contain choline — a neurotransmitter that can help with brain function in narcolepsy patients.
Good food for narcolepsy: Healthy oils
Oils rich in healthy saturated fats include coconut oil, sesame oil, and olive oil. These oils “provide the body and brain with quick energy, and have a positive impact on brain function, memory, and nerve cells,” said Dr. Nesheiwat.
Bad food for narcolepsy: Caffeine and alcohol
Although you may be tempted to use it as a way of regulating your levels of fatigue, caffeine can disrupt sleep. Although a few drinks before bed can help you fall asleep, alcohol disrupts sleep, too. According to Dr. Nesheiwat, both alcohol and caffeine should be avoided — and they only provide temporary relief from narcolepsy symptoms.
Bad food for narcolepsy: Bread, pasta, and potatoes
High-carbohydrate foods such as bread increase blood sugar and, according to Dr. Nesheiwat, this can effectively turn off orexin and put you to sleep. Joffrion agrees: “Consuming high-carb foods can also lead to crashes and throw off your energy levels.”
Bad food for narcolepsy: Sugary treats
Sugar from treats such as candy, sweetened yogurt, and ice cream leads to sudden peaks (and drops) in blood sugar and energy levels. “Eliminating these from your diet can contribute to even distributions of energy throughout the day,” Joffrion said. So cutting back on the sweets may prove to be helpful.