So what can we hope for from this new sleeping pill and how does it differ from hypnotics available now?
A Different Path to Sleep
Older sleeping pills—from barbiturates and benzodiazepines to Ambien and Lunesta—induce sleep via the GABA system. GABA is the main neurotransmitter responsible for calming the brain and putting us to sleep. GABA-producing neurons are found throughout the brain, and when they start firing, other brain activity grinds to a halt. Most sleeping pills speed this process up, thus helping put us to sleep and keep us asleep.
Belsomra does not achieve its soporific effect through the GABA system. Instead, it works on the orexin system—on a much smaller group of neurons in the hypothalamus. These orexin-producing neurons are normally quiet during periods of sleep. But in the daytime they fire continuously, keeping us awake and alert. People who lack orexin neurons are narcoleptic, succumbing to irresistible sleep attacks during the day.
Insomnia sufferers may have the opposite problem, researchers have suggested. The orexin neurons in our brains may be overactive, keeping us awake at night. Orexin receptor antagonists such as Belsomra are being developed based on experiments that show that suppressing activity of the orexin neurons induces sleep.
How Effective Will Belsomra Be?
The FDA does not require new drugs to be more effective than older drugs before gaining approval. How Belsomra stacks up against Ambien, America’s most popular sleeping pill, is anybody’s guess.
But new drugs do have to work better than placebo. Here, Belsomra apparently passes muster. Compared with placebo, it has helped insomnia sufferers fall asleep faster and experience fewer middle-of-the-night awakenings. A year-long trial published in the May 2014 Lancet Neurology showed that after one month, insomniacs who took Belsomra got to sleep about 10 minutes faster than insomniacs taking a placebo and slept about 23 minutes longer. No great shakes! But we’re talking averages here.
Is the New Drug Safe?
A year ago there was quite a bit of concern that suvorexant in doses higher than 10 mg left a significant number of test subjects feeling groggy in the morning, impaired their driving, and led to other “narcolepsy-like” symptoms. But, based on documentation subsequently submitted by Merck, the FDA has decided to approve Belsomra for use in doses of 5, 10, 15, and 20 mg. Higher doses of the drug are said to be more effective—but they also tend to come with more side effects.
The US Drug Enforcement Agency will probably make Belsomra a scheduled drug. A Schedule IV classification would place it in the same category as Ambien and most other hypnotics on the market today. So if and when Belsomra comes on the market and you go on to try it, use it with care.
February 3, 2015: There seems to be a lot of interest in this new sleeping pill. Belsomra is now available here in the United States, and people are writing to me with questions about effectiveness, side effects, and cost.
I have no plans to try it myself, so I can’t comment on it one way or another. But if you try Belsomra, I know others would appreciate hearing what you think about it.
You may also be interested in learning more about the safety and efficacy of Belsomra. You’ll find that information here.