My Journey from Insomniac to a Researcher in Insomnia
World Environment Day celebration, 2013, I was a postgraduate student then. For the first time in my academic life, I attended such a big conference organized by our Zoology department, Serampore College. An invited speaker showed a deep sense of gratitude at the beginning of her presentation. She can answer the curiosities of her mind through research. The expression of her satisfied feeling of what she earned through her achievements somewhere touched the 21 years old me sitting on the corner seat of the last row.
After that, life made (still makes) its way through many ups and downs to keep that same sense of curiosity alive. 2019 I joined the Ph.D. in the Plant Metabolomics lab of the Department of Environmental Biotechnology, Bharathidasan University. When I first met the supervisor, she explained to me the lab activities, encouraged me to think broadly to select a non-communicable disease (NCD) to treat it with a potential plant-derived phytochemical(s). The moment I began to think about which NCD to work on, insomnia and ulcer popped into my mind. Needless to say how sleepless nights and untimely manner of eating habits are almost part of daily routine in researchers life (something I observed from very close). But I went on selecting insomnia as this disorder is something I am suffering from since childhood. Hence, I seem to connect with the consequences most.
Like any other human physiology, sleep is also a vital part of our physiological system. But as far as my memory runs, I do not remember any chapter on sleep physiology in my biology syllabus throughout. Now I know that it is due to a complete lack of awareness about sleep as a vital behavior and a lack of research on sleep and sleep-related disorders. Although, it was a random decision. But, I am glad that I took up the topic of insomnia for my Ph.D. project.
Insomnia is a medical condition of poor sleep associated with the difficulty of sleep onset, maintaining sleep, early or late-waking despite a favorable sleeping environment. It causes eventual daytime impairments (daytime-sleepiness, stress, gastrointestinal issues, headache, lack of concentration, irritable mood, etc.). Insomnia could be of both genetically inherited nature and comorbidity of other diseases. The condition of sleeplessness could last from less than a week to more than a month. Globally 10-30% of adults suffer from sleep deprivation at any given time. ~50% of the population experiences sleep loss in a given year. Genetically women (59%) inherit insomnia more than men (38%). The British neuroscientist Matthew Walker in his book 'Why We Sleep' claimed that sleep deprivation is likely to increase the chance of developing Alzheimer's disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, anxiety, depression, etc., even decline the lifespan. In India, a Philips Healthcare survey released on 15 December 2009 showed 93% of the Indians suffering sleep deprivation due to the intrusion of gadgets, modern lifestyle, odd work shifts, food habits, lack of exercise, irregular sleep, etc. People suffering from any disease, senior citizens, women are more prone to experience sleep loss. The government, however, is trying to secure public health by massive free door-to-door screening programs for the early detection of NCDs. But, no awareness regarding sleep-related disorders is majorly lacking.
Marketed chemical drugs like benzodiazepines, ramelteon, zolpidem treat mild to chronic insomnia globally but for a short-term period, as these drugs come with varying degrees of side effects like dizziness, depression, loss of orientation, headache, aggression, memory impairment, etc. Under such circumstances, modern medical science is seeking a remedy from natural drugs. Even the Ayurvedic literature like Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita mentioned such uses of herbs to treat various diseases. Currently, the plants like Humulus lupulus (Hops), Valeriana officinalis (Valerian), Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm) are getting global attention as possible sources of sedative phytomedicines to treat insomnia.
Sleep is complex physiology of humankind, simultaneously regulated by homeostatic mechanisms as well as the circadian clock. The significant connection between sleep and changes in other physiological aspects such as cardiovascular system, digestive system, endocrine system, immune system, nervous system (learning and memory, emotional state, etc.), the reproductive system makes it one of the critical states of human physiology. William Shakespeare referred to sleep as a “Chief nourisher in life's feast” and scientific researches nowadays continuing to prove how sleep deprivation plays a vital role in immunological, cardiovascular, neurological, hormonal disruptions, etc. Thus, identifying sleep deprivation as one serious medical condition and prompt treatment of this disorder is an important one because there are very few clinical reports on insomnia from patients because of a lack of awareness about this health condition as an urgent issue. According to a 2018 article published on the website named 'The Good Body,' ≈60 million Americans are insomniac, caused a $63 billion economic loss in the US each year. North America held a significant share of the sleeping aids market in 2017. It is expecting to maintain its dominance by 2024. To avoid metabolic side effects of synthetic hypnotics, alternative therapies like acupuncture, acupressure, yoga, meditation got worldwide promoted nowadays to boost the natural physiological healing procedure. But despite all need for medications for treating medical conditions can never be ignored.
So keeping all the scenarios in mind, I began my search for the potential plant to treat insomnia. Selecting one particular plant with enough supportive background was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Howbeit, I found my magic plant, and the magic potion to treat insomnia is under processing. It would be a dream come to find answers to all my curiosities (Fingers crossed).