Researchers have identified two medicines, not currently licensed for treatment in the UK, that are better at treating insomnia in adults than other medicines.
The drugs, called eszopiclone and lemborexant, are better for short-term and long-term treatment of the condition, according to a new study by Oxford University scientists.
However, experts say the first line of treatment should continue to be cognitive behavioral therapy and improving sleep hygiene.
This may involve measures such as making sure the bedroom is a comfortable temperature and winding down for at least an hour before bed.
However, according to the researchers, the findings suggest that medications can also be effective and should be used when appropriate.
Andrea Cipriani, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We hope that our review will be of great help to clinicians seeking the most appropriate treatment for their patients.
“We look at all published and unpublished information, in journals and online registries, to get the most transparent and complete picture of all available data.
“Clearly, the need to treat insomnia as effectively as possible is very important, as it can have repercussions on the patient’s health, their home life and the health system in general.
“This study of drug treatments is not a recommendation that drugs should always be used as the first line of support for treating insomnia, especially since some of them can have serious side effects.
“However, our research shows that some of these drugs can also be effective and should be used in clinical practice, where appropriate.
“For example, when treatments like improved sleep hygiene and cognitive behavioral therapy have not worked, or when a patient wants to consider taking medication as part of their treatment.”
According to the NHS, it is believed that a third of Britons will have bouts of insomnia at some point.
The researchers analyzed data from 154 studies that included 44,000 people who were given a placebo, a licensed drug, or an unlicensed drug.
They looked at the effectiveness of medications for treating adults with insomnia, when the condition is not accompanied by a mental health comorbidity, such as depression or physical illness.
People were assessed for sleep quality, the effects of stopping treatment, and the presence of any adverse events, including dizziness, nausea, fatigue, headache, sedation, and drowsiness.
Insomnia is defined as dissatisfaction with the quantity or quality of sleep and is associated with at least three months of difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
It affects up to 20% of the population and can last for several years.
While the research found that eszopiclone might be effective as a treatment for insomnia, it can also have serious side effects, including dizziness and nausea.
Safety data for lemborexant was inconclusive, but did show an increased risk of causing headaches.
Other findings suggest that there was insufficient evidence to support the prescription of benzodiazepines and zolpidem in the long-term treatment of insomnia.
Published in The Lancet, the study was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research.