New Sleep Drugs Could Come with Fewer Side Effects

New Sleep Drugs Could Come with Fewer Side EffectsA new brand of sleep drugs holds great promise for those with sleep disorders and insomnia, reports the Wall Street Journal.

These drugs could offer an alternative to the sleeping medications currently on the market, such as Lunesta and Ambien, that have many troubling side effects, like a potential for addiction and problems functioning the following day. These sleep-aid medications, called benzodiazepine receptor agonists, slow the brain resulting in sleep but also other brain side effects. Balance problems, daytime drowsiness and memory lapses are common complaints of these drugs. There can also be dangerous reactions when combined with alcohol and other sedatives.

According to the Mayo Clinic, many existing sleep medications are particularly unsafe if people have certain conditions. Lunesta may not be safe for people with a history of depression, drug or alcohol abuse or lung disease. Ambien can be dangerous for people with a history of liver or kidney disease, respiratory conditions or depression.

In response to these drugs' monopoly on the sleep-aid market and the potential problems they cause, several pharmaceutical companies are looking for ways to treat insomnia with less side effects.

Merck, for example, hopes file for approval with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by next year for a drug that will inhibit orexin receptors, which are responsible for a brain's alertness. Somaxon Pharmaceuticals recently launched a drug called Silenor that works to block histamine receptors integral to controlling wakefulness, and Neurim Pharmaceuticals hopes the FDA will approve its drug Circadin, a form of melatonin, a sleep-enducing hormone. The medication is currently available in Europe and Asia.

The hypothesis of major drug companies is that by targeting fewer systems in the brain, less side effects are likely to occur.

The number of Americans reporting sleep problems increased 13 percent since 2001, according to a study by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). The number of people who sleep less than six hours per night is at 20 percent, up from 13 percent in 2001, and only 28 percent of people report sleeping eight hours per night or more, down from 38 percent in 2001.

Many reasons exist for sleep disorders like insomnia, but one-third of respondents to the NSF's survey said they were losing sleep over the state of the American economy or personal financial problems.

Whatever the reason, the organization warns that inadequate sleep can negatively impact a person's health and safety. Those who get enough sleep are twice as likely to work efficiently, exercise and eat healthy.

People who don't get proper amounts of sleep are also more likely to drive while drowsy, creating a number of hazards on the road. The NSF found that 28 percent of drivers have fallen asleep, even if only briefly, while driving.

Some drugs designed to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders have not been too successful on the market. Transcept Pharmaceuticals recently failed to win clearance from the FDA for a drug created to help people fall sleep after waking in the middle of the night, according to Bloomberg News.

The medicine, called Intermezzo or the chemical name zolpidem tartrate sublingual lozenge, was rejected after two successful clinical trials. The company originally submitted their new drug application to the FDA in 2008.

Bloomberg reports that Intermezzo was rejected by the FDA because of lingering concerns about dosing and safety issues, such as a patient's ability to drive following a night on the drug.

Other companies who abandoned sleep drug innovations include GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Aventis, which had been working on an orexin-receptor antagonist and a serotonin antagonist, respectively. Safety concerns and benefit-risk assessments proved to be the downfall of these medications, according to the Wall Street Journal