When nothing—not even the perfect essential oil combination or silk pillowcase—helps you get the quality sleep (and dreams) you deserve, medication might seem like your only option. After all, getting those eight hours of shut-eye is important for maintaining a healthy relationship and not feeling drunk at work—plus, you know, just feeling like a normal, functioning member of society.
But neuroscience and psychology professor Matt Walker, PhD, says the meds route isn’t a consequence-free way to go.
“The quality of sleep that you have when you’re on these drugs is not the same as normal, naturalistic sleep.” —Dr. Walker
The first problem is that medication-induced sleep doesn’t have the same restorative properties of natural sleep, Walker, author of the new book Why We Sleep, tells The Cut. He explains that insomnia medications are technically “classified as ‘sedative hypnotics,’ so the drugs actually just sedate you—and sedation is not sleep.”
He adds, “The way that they work is by targeting a set of receptors, or ‘welcome sites,’ in the brain that are lured to basically stop your brain cells from firing. They principally attack those sites in the cortex, this wrinkle of tissue on the top of your brain, and they just switch off the top of your cortex, the top of your brain.”
It’s essentially just a level of unconsciousness, he says: “The quality of sleep that you have when you’re on these drugs is not the same as normal, naturalistic sleep.”
So if you’re only getting three or four hours of shut-eye a night, this doesn’t mean there’s no hope. Dr. Walker says the most effective remedy for insomnia and similar sleep disorders is a psychological approach, which is a type of cognitive behavior therapy that essentially involves training your body and brain to think about snoozing differently through sleep deprivation (and studies show that might make you happier, anyway).