Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Opioid use disorders (OUD) now threaten the health and lives of far too many young and adult Americans. While getting treatment is a key first step to recovery, overcoming an opioid addiction often comes with brutal withdrawal symptoms, including bad bouts of insomnia that are often untreatable with traditional prescription sleep medications. These medications act as sedatives, making them unsafe for people in OUD recovery.
But now, researchers have found that an approved drug for insomnia that works differently than other sleep medications could offer some needed help for the sleeplessness that affects those overcoming an opioid addiction . The drug, known as suvorexant (Belsomra ®), was provided in a study to people during and immediately after tapering off opioids, and it allowed them to sleep significantly more during this week-long period. Suvorexant also helped to reduce their opioid withdrawal and craving.
This study, which received support from NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative certainly offers promising news. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved suvorexant to treat insomnia in 2014, and it is available for off-label use to help people overcoming an OUD.
The good news, however, comes with a major caveat. This early clinical trial had relatively small enrollment numbers, and larger studies are definitely needed to follow up and confirm the initial results.
The latest findings, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, come from a team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, led by Andrew Huhn. He and colleagues recognized sleep disturbances as a severe problem during recovery. They wondered whether suvorexant might help.
Suvorexant doesn’t actively sedate people like other sleeping medications. Suvorexant works by targeting orexin, a biochemical made in the brain that helps keep you awake . Interestingly, orexin signals also have been implicated in opioid withdrawal symptoms, sleep disturbances, and drug-seeking behaviors.
Thirty-eight people entered the Hopkins study, and 26 completed it. Their average age was about 40, with close to equal numbers of white and Black participants. Most were male, and all were undergoing supervised withdrawal treatment with buprenorphine/naloxone, which is used in combination as a medication-assisted treatment for OUD.
To find out if suvorexant helped, the researchers measured total sleep time nightly using wireless devices that recorded brain activity and movement in people taking either 20 milligrams or 40 milligrams of suvorexant versus a placebo. The researchers also used standard methods to assess symptoms of opioid withdrawal, along with suvorexant’s potential for abuse.
The data showed that people taking suvorexant over four days while tapering off opioids slept about 90 minutes longer per night on average. They also continued to sleep for an extra hour a night on average in the four days following the tapering period. The researchers note that these increases in sleep duration far exceed the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s threshold for clinically meaningful improvement.
The researchers also didn’t see any differences in adverse events between those taking suvorexant versus a placebo. They also note that the main side effect of suvorexant in general is feeling sleepy the next day as the drug wears off slowly. There also wasn’t any evidence that suvorexant might come with a risk for drug abuse.
However, because the study was small, it lacked the needed statistical power to determine meaningful differences between the two doses of suvorexant. The study also didn’t include many women. But overall, the evidence that suvorexant or even other medications that target orexin could improve OUD treatment appears quite promising.
The NIH’s HEAL Initiative has launched over 600 research projects across the country. These studies cover a range of science and health care needs. But a common thread running through these projects is a desire to enhance the evidence base for lifesaving OUD interventions. Another is a commitment to discover better ways to help people recover from an OUD, and these latest data on suvorexant show this commitment in action.
 Suvorexant ameliorated sleep disturbance, opioid withdrawal, and craving during a buprenorphine taper. Huhn AS, Finan PH, Gamaldo CE, Hammond AS, Umbricht A, Bergeria CL, Strain EC, Dunn KE. Sci Transl Med. 2022 Jun 22;14(650):eabn8238.
 The hypocretin/orexin system. Ebrahim IO, et al. J R Soc Med. 2002 May;95(5):227-30.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)
Andrew Huhn (Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore)
NIH Support: National Institute on Drug Abuse