Research Snapshot: Better Sleep Eases Opioid Withdrawal and Cuts Drug Craving

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woman sleeping in bed
  • Sleep problems during opioid withdrawal contribute to drug-seeking behavior and relapse.
  • The insomnia drug suvorexant helped people with opioid use disorder sleep longer and better.
  • Suvorexant reduced painful withdrawal symptoms, lessened drug cravings, and increased the desire to not use opioids.

Withdrawal from opioids is a harrowing experience. One of the symptoms is difficulty sleeping, which can last long after withdrawal symptoms disappear. The inability to sleep is one reason people return to drug use. Many common psychoactive sleeping pills (such as benzodiazepines or zolpidem) can be misused and are thus risky for people with substance use disorders. New research funded by the  Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, reports that the FDA-approved sleep medication suvorexant can help people sleep better during opioid withdrawal, easing withdrawal symptoms and reducing drug cravings.

Suvorexant works differently than other sleep medications (Read the HEAL Research Spotlight “What’s Sleep Got to Do With It?”). Unlike many sleeping pills, suvorexant targets the sleep-wake cycle instead of causing overall drowsiness, and it doesn’t cause a drug “high” people experience with high doses of some sleeping pills.

This research study was relatively small, involving only 38 people with opioid use disorder. Similar results in further studies with more people will strengthen the evidence, which could provide relief for millions of people who struggle with opioid addiction and withdrawal.

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