There is more and more research that indicates a healthy brain plays an essential role in mental health, including one’s ability to sleep. Research has led to advancements in treating depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other psychological illnesses. For instance, researchers are beginning to see that the shapes of certain parts of the brain are different among those who have Bipolar Disorder, for instance, versus those who don’t. Another example is the way that the amygdala functions differently in those that have mental illness. There are four parts of the brain that significant in research and have their influence on mental health.
Two of these four parts of the brain play a significant role in alertness and one’s ability to fall asleep. The thalamus and hypothalamus are small but significant. They regulate important levels of functioning, such as sleep and body temperature. The thalamus is responsible for the messages received by the senses and then delivers it to the cerebral hemispheres for processing. It is also responsible for our experience of consciousness, sleep, and alertness. The hypothalamus regulates temperature, hunger, thirst, and energy cycles.
Experts on sleep now recognize that there are chemicals produced by the hypothalamus called orexins. They play a major role in one’s experiences of wakefulness and arousal. for instance, researchers have found that in those with narcolepsy (a sleep disorder that causes chronic sleepiness and involuntary sleep) there is a lack of orexin producing neurons in the hypothalamus. Scientists discovered the presence of orexins in 1998 and have been doing considerable research on its role in regulating sleep and alertness. However, more importantly, it’s been investigated as a means for treating insomnia.
More recently, scientists have created medication that utilizes the power of orexins to help people sleep. The sleep medication called Suvorexant uses orexins and was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It will be made available for purchase in the near future.
Sleep medication that uses orexins are known as “orexin receptor antagonists”. It’s a long name to indicate how the medication works – it blocks the signaling of the chemical orexin in the brain. Since the chemical plays a role in keeping people awake and alert, the medication is effective by blocking the action of orexins in the brain in order to promote sleep.
What’s new about this type of medication is that it focuses on a localized area of the brain – the hypothalamus. Currently, many of the commonly prescribed sleep aids cause sleepiness by enhancing the neurotransmitter called GABA. However, this neurotransmitter is wide-reaching and affects various areas throughout the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter that balances Serotonin, which regulates levels of energy. However, this neurotransmitter is present in many areas of the brain. Since medication that blocks the action of orexins does so in a more localized area of the brain, the hope is that they will cause fewer side effects and be more effective than current sleep aids available to the public.
However, it’s also important to keep in mind that insomnia may be related to other medical and/or psychological conditions, and so medication alone may not always be helpful. For this reason, research indicates that psychotherapy is becoming an effective tool for healing insomnia, especially for those who experience depression and anxiety alongside their inability to sleep.
The National Institute of Mental Health is exploring the treatment of psychotherapy for insomnia that is inexpensive, brief, and solution-oriented. This form of treatment is not currently a standard treatment method for the sleep disorder, but more and more experts are seeing its potential benefits. However, studies show that using both medication as well as psychotherapy can lead to full recovery in about 40% of patients, which is a significant treatment outcome.
Although this new FDA approved drug offers hope for those who can’t sleep, individuals should also consider non-medication types of solutions for their insomnia.