Can Alcohol Cause Narcolepsy?

People who suffer from narcolepsy and cataplexy tend to engage more frequently in risky behaviors, such as substance use disorder. Substance use disorder can worsen the symptoms of narcolepsy.


Narcolepsy is a sleep condition that presents itself as overwhelming daytime drowsiness and causes a person to fall asleep all of a sudden. A person suffering from narcolepsy will find it hard to stay awake for prolonged periods of time. This disorder causes a person to experience serious disruptions in their everyday life because they are unable to function normally.

According to UCLA Health, narcolepsy affects about 1 in 2,000 to 3,000 people but can go undiagnosed for years. The exact cause of narcolepsy is unknown. It is believed that low levels of a neurotransmitter known as orexin or hypocretin are involved in wakefulness and contribute to narcolepsy. It is also believed that genetics and other risk factors play a role. Risk factors include a person’s age, autoimmune disorders, brain injuries, and family history. Narcolepsy typically begins in people between 10 and 30 years old. If you have a family history of narcolepsy your risk for also getting it is 20 to 40 times more.

Additional Effects of Narcolepsy

Additional long term effects of narcolepsy are fragmented sleep and insomnia as well as automatic behaviors. Individuals who suffer from narcolepsy are not only very sleepy during the day, but also experience difficulties staying asleep at night. These sleep disturbances at night can include vivid dreaming, insomnia, sleep apnea, acting out while dreaming, and leg movements.

Automatic behaviors occur when a person falls asleep during an activity for a few seconds and continues on with the activity without being consciously aware of what they are going. For example, a person might fall asleep writing and continue to write even though they are not aware they are doing it. Their handwriting will have deteriorated and they will not be able to recall their actions.

Narcolepsy and Addiction

Numerous studies point to associations between narcolepsy and addition. For example, an article published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that people who were diagnosed with narcolepsy and had cataplexy were a lot more likely to be impulsive than those who did not have cataplexy. This is because hypocretin, which is used to help keep people awake and mediate addiction and reward-seeking behaviors in the brain is often lower in people who suffer from narcolepsy. Therefore, these individuals are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as substance use disorder.

Another article published in Sleep mentioned that decision making is a key function in real-life situations, and changes in the brain’s reward processing system create a risk for the development of impulsivity and substance use disorder. The study also mentioned that people who experience narcolepsy with cataplexy tend to prefer risky choices, which can result in increased use of alcohol and other drugs.

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Narcolepsy and Marijuana

According to an article published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 43 percent of children with urine drug screens positive for marijuana actually had test results consistent with narcolepsy or abnormal REM sleep patterns. No child younger than 13 years old has a positive urine drug screen. The study also found that males were more likely to have a positive urine drug screen and findings consistent with narcolepsy. The study suggested that narcolepsy without cataplexy in older adolescents could be related to unreported marijuana use, abuse of sedatives, or other illegal drugs.

Narcolepsy and Alcohol

An interesting finding from a study published in Sleep, found that an increased proportion of alcohol and tobacco users experienced narcolepsy. The study mentioned that tobacco is a cognitive enhancer so it is likely that people smoke tobacco to help alleviate signs of sleepiness and used it as a self-treatment for the stimulant effects of nicotine. Therefore, it appears that people who experience narcolepsy may use tobacco to self-treat their symptoms. This research study indicates there is an association between narcolepsy and alcohol as well as tobacco use.

Heavy use of alcohol can result in alcohol-induced narcolepsy. According to a case report published in the Shanghai Archives of Psychiatry, chronic heavy alcohol use can cause a lot of damage to the central nervous system and can also cause narcolepsy. The case study indicated that chronic alcohol use can inhibit a person’s central nervous system which can result in narcolepsy.

Additionally, the effects of alcohol on narcolepsy are vast. Alcohol can worsen the symptoms of narcolepsy. It can disrupt your sleep, increase a person’s fatigue, frequent sleep interruptions, and sleep paralysis. Therefore, it is recommended that a person avoids drinking alcohol before or close to the bed. Even though alcohol may make you feel drowsy, it makes you more likely to wake up during the night and worsens your quality of sleep. If you did not sleep well you will be more likely to experience narcolepsy symptoms the next day.

Addiction and Narcolepsy Treatment

While there is currently no cure for narcolepsy, medications, and lifestyle changes can help a person manage their symptoms. Also, gaining support from family, friends, employers, and teachers can help you cope with narcolepsy.

The treatment of narcolepsy is mainly geared towards suppressing the symptoms and improving a person’s quality of life to help them stay as alert as possible during the day. The most common treatment methods include stimulants and behavioral therapy to reduce acute daytime drowsiness, antidepressants to decrease episodes of cataplexy and other REM-related symptoms, and sedatives to improve the quality of sleep. One drug used to treat narcolepsy is modafinil. This is a stimulant that is used to promote wakefulness and rescue excessive daytime sleepiness. Additional treatment includes nap therapy, maintaining a proper diet, and regular exercise.

A person who experienced narcolepsy might be more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as substance use and abuse. As mentioned above, alcohol abuse can actually worsen symptoms of narcolepsy. Therefore, if you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, finding a high-quality rehab clinic can provide the support needed to overcome your addiction. This can actually help you better manage your narcolepsy by reducing substance use disorder-related symptoms.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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