Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects your sleep-wake cycle. The condition is relatively rare, with estimates showing that between 135,000 and 200,000 people are affected in the United States. Many of the neurological medications used to treat narcolepsy have powerful side effects. For some people, these side effects are more severe than the narcolepsy symptoms themselves. As a result, alternative therapies related to lifestyle and dietary choices have become popular in the narcolepsy community. One alternative therapy considered by people with narcolepsy is the keto diet, often referred to as keto.
The keto diet is not a substitute for a treatment plan developed with a physician. However, there may be reason to believe that a keto diet can help some people manage the symptoms of narcolepsy. Let’s take a look at what we know about keto and narcolepsy.
What exactly is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a chronic condition that is due to a defect in the brain cells that produce hypocretin, a neurotransmitter that controls sleep. The condition may be caused by an autoimmune disease in which the immune system treats the hypocretin-producing brain cells as foreign invaders. Other causes include psychological disorders, such as trauma or stress. The most common symptoms of narcolepsy are daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks. Other symptoms include irregular nighttime sleep patterns, a lack of muscle control, muscle paralysis and hallucinations associated with falling asleep and waking up.
What Research Says about Keto and Narcolepsy
First, let’s be clear: there’re no studies that prove a keto diet can control the symptoms of narcolepsy on its own.
While there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence online about the effectiveness of keto diets for some people with narcolepsy, there also seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence about keto diets not helping at all or having no significant effect.
There was an earlier study in 2004 that looked at the effects of different diets on narcolepsy. The researchers did find that those with narcolepsy had a small improvement in their daytime fatigue when they were on a low-carb keto diet.
This evidence is extremely limited, but it does suggest that by inducing relative hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, a keto diet can increase the activation of orexin-containing neurons, making you less sleepy during the day.
There’s also some, though limited, research on how the keto diet can help people with other neurological disorders.
A 2021 systematic review of the medical literature analyzed 63 studies on the effects of ketones on cognitive function in patients with neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, etc.
The review concluded that keto does appear to be effective, although the topic deserves more rigorous study.
The researchers behind the systematic review note that perhaps getting your body into ketosis can reduce oxidative stress and neuroinflammation.
They also point out that the microbes in your gut can actually affect your cognitive abilities and neurological function (the so-called gut-brain axis), underscoring the importance of nutrition for people with neurological disorders.
Data dating back to 2003 show that people with narcolepsy are more likely to develop obesity than people without narcolepsy. Some believe that keto diet can combat narcolepsy by reducing glucose blood sugar spikes and lowering your overall weight.
Other Narcolepsy Treatment Options
Official guidelines for the treatment of narcolepsy do not currently include a keto diet. Other treatments may include traditional and more alternative approaches.
Narcolepsy can be extremely debilitating; it can also lead to serious accidents if you fall asleep or lose muscle control while driving or going down stairs. With proper treatment, the risk of an accident will disappear. Traditional treatment for narcolepsy includes a combination of stimulants, such as modafinil, which keeps you awake during the day, and antidepressants, which prevent episodes of muscle weakness or paralysis. Stimulants used to treat narcolepsy usually do not work in the long term because you tend to develop tolerance over time.
Lifestyle remedies for the treatment of narcolepsy may include changes in diet outside of the keto. Alternative strategies for treating narcolepsy include:
- avoiding alcohol consumption
- avoiding large, calorie dense meals, especially before bedtime
- getting regular exercise
- nutritional supplements, such as vitamin B12
- calcium, potassium, sodium oxybates, and magnesium