Drugs for Insomnia beyond Benzodiazepines: Pharmacology, Clinical Applications, and Discovery

Pharmacol Rev. 2018 Apr;70(2):197-245. doi: 10.1124/pr.117.014381.


Although the GABAergic benzodiazepines (BZDs) and Z-drugs (zolpidem, zopiclone, and zaleplon) are FDA-approved for insomnia disorders with a strong evidence base, they have many side effects, including cognitive impairment, tolerance, rebound insomnia upon discontinuation, car accidents/falls, abuse, and dependence liability. Consequently, the clinical use of off-label drugs and novel drugs that do not target the GABAergic system is increasing. The purpose of this review is to analyze the neurobiological and clinical evidence of pharmacological treatments of insomnia, excluding the BZDs and Z-drugs. We analyzed the melatonergic agonist drugs, agomelatine, prolonged-release melatonin, ramelteon, and tasimelteon; the dual orexin receptor antagonist suvorexant; the modulators of the α2δ subunit of voltage-sensitive calcium channels, gabapentin and pregabalin; the H1 antagonist, low-dose doxepin; and the histamine and serotonin receptor antagonists, amitriptyline, mirtazapine, trazodone, olanzapine, and quetiapine. The pharmacology and mechanism of action of these treatments and the evidence-base for the use of these drugs in clinical practice is outlined along with novel pipelines. There is evidence to recommend suvorexant and low-dose doxepin for sleep maintenance insomnia; there is also sufficient evidence to recommend ramelteon for sleep onset insomnia. Although there is limited evidence for the use of the quetiapine, trazodone, mirtazapine, amitriptyline, pregabalin, gabapentin, agomelatine, and olanzapine as treatments for insomnia disorder, these drugs may improve sleep while successfully treating comorbid disorders, with a different side effect profile than the BZDs and Z-drugs. The unique mechanism of action of each drug allows for a more personalized and targeted medical management of insomnia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Benzodiazepines / adverse effects
  • Benzodiazepines / pharmacology
  • Benzodiazepines / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Discovery / methods*
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / adverse effects
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / pharmacology
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / therapeutic use*
  • Pharmacology, Clinical / methods*
  • Precision Medicine
  • Sleep Aids, Pharmaceutical / adverse effects
  • Sleep Aids, Pharmaceutical / pharmacology
  • Sleep Aids, Pharmaceutical / therapeutic use*
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / drug therapy*


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Sleep Aids, Pharmaceutical
  • Benzodiazepines