Today, March 17, is World Sleep Day, an event organized by the World Sleep Society (WSS) held annually on the Friday before the spring equinox. It was first celebrated in 2008 to raise awareness about the importance of sleep to an individual’s physical and mental health.

It is no mystery that sleep is extremely important for the overall well-being of the human body. During sleep, the brain rests and regenerates, the immune system is strengthened, and the physique regains energy. On the flip side, chronic sleep deprivation has been associated with numerous health problems, including increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, and obesity.

Sleep is also important for cognitive functioning of the brain, which during the night processes and consolidates information learned during the day, improving memory, learning, and creativity. Lack of sleep can lead to reduced attention, concentration and problem solving skills.

Although sleep has been studied for many years, science has not yet fully understood all aspects of this phenomenon. One of the things we have understood is how to induce it through the use of specific medications in order to treat insomnia.

Sleep medicines: combating side effects

Attempts to find substances that can induce sleep have led to the discovery and use of several drugs, generically called sedative-hypnotics. These are a broad class of drugs used to treat sleep and anxiety disorders.

Since the widespread use of the first barbiturates for the treatment of insomnia, the use of which has now drastically declined, it became clear that the difficulty in creating sleeping pills lay not so much in finding an effective formulation, but one that:

  • Had few or no side effects
  • Would not cause dependence
  • Did not require increasing dosing over time

For this reason, in recent years, drug research is focusing on new classes of drugs that aim to act more selectively on specific sleep receptors, instead of summarily inhibiting brain function, thus reducing unwanted side effects. 

Some experimental drugs seek to act on GABA receptors, mimicking the functioning of other sleep aids already in use (benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines), but with greater specificity than them.

Another avenue being pursued involves orexin, a chemical produced by the brain that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and plays an important role in keeping us awake. The idea is to use drugs that act as orexin antagonists to alter its action and induce sleep in the patient.

Pharmacological treatment is increasingly being combined with other types of therapy so that the problem can be approached from multiple angles, increasing the effectiveness of treatment and reducing the risks of prolonged drug use. Practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) focus on identifying and changing behaviors and thoughts that may interfere with the patient’s sleep.

The sleep drug market

Forecasts for the future look promising: the market for sedative-hypnotics is expected to grow from a total value of $2.9 billion in 2021 to $4.15 billion in 2029, with CAGR of 4.59%. 

Factors for market development include the increasing prevalence of insomnia: in the U.S., nearly 30% of adults suffer from insomnia symptoms. Medications can help patients fall asleep and sleep through the night, allowing them to get adequate rest

Despite these opportunities, the market is facing a tipping point: patents on major sleep medications are gradually expiring, making way for cheaper generic alternatives. To allow for turnover, it will be necessary to continue to invest in research and development that leads to the approval of new drugs that are effective, increasingly safe, and have fewer side effects.