New Sleeping Pill: A Different Way to Treat Insomnia

The drug, called suvorexant, blocks the chemical messengers in the brain that regulate wakefulness.

A new drug called suvorexant could bring help for some with insomnia, according to a study published in the online issue of Neurology.

Suvorexant is different from other drugs on the market to treat insomnia because it blocks chemical messengers in the brain that regulate wakefulness rather than directly affecting brain receptors, according to a release from the American Academy of Neurology.

The study involved 254 people ages 18 to 64 who were in good physical and mental health but had insomnia that wasn’t due to another medical condition.

Study participants took either suvorexant or a placebo for four weeks, then switched to the other treatment for another four weeks. While taking suvorexant, the participants’ average sleeping time was 5 to 13 percent better in the drug group than in the placebo group. The suvorexant group also experienced fewer minutes awake during the night after they had fallen asleep than those who took the placebo — on average 21 to 37 fewer waking minutes during the night.

“This study provides evidence that suvorexant may offer a successful alternative strategy for treating insomnia,” said study author W. Joseph Herring, MD, PhD, of North Wales, Penn., Executive Director of Clinical Research with Merck, the maker of suvorexant. “Suvorexant was generally well-tolerated, and there were no serious side effects.” The research was funded by Merck.

Suvorexant has not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is not available to patients, but Merck has submitted a new drug application for the treatment to the FDA.

How Other Sleeping Pills Work

Among the most commonly-prescribed sleeping pills are the benzodiazepine hypnotics like Dalmane, Klonopin, Restoril, and Ativan. These medications are not designed for long-term use because you can quickly start to develop a tolerance, creating the need for more and more of a drug to be able to sleep. Side effects can include daytime sleepiness, fuzzy thinking, dizziness, and headaches.

Commonly prescribed non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, thought to have a lower risk of dependency, include Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata. Stopping non-benzodiazepines quickly can cause withdrawal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, sweating, shaking, and extreme anxiety, so discontinuing long-term use should be done under a doctor’s supervision.

If you can’t sleep but are looking for an over-the-counter sleeping aid, you could try an antihistamine, but beware that their sedating effect may not end when you wake up. A pain reliever, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, could help for insomnia caused by minor pain. If you have serious or persistent sleep problems, see your doctor.

By Erin Hicks