Losing Sleep: Are Your Habits Healthy?

27 March 2019 By Lauren Beck

If you’re like most people, catching the right amount of zzz’s for optimal health is not always up to you. If you work on a busy charter yacht, your sleep schedule might be dictated by your charter schedule, despite the mandates of STCW and the Maritime Labour Convention’s (MLC) Hours of Work and Rest. The MLC and STCW Code defines minimum hours of rest as no less than 10 hours in any 24-hour period, and 77 hours in any seven-day period. The 2010 Manila Amendments to STCW allow for some exceptions — temporarily reducing hours of rest to 70 hours per week or modifying the 10-hour requirement into three periods instead of two.  

But hours of rest on board does not necessarily equate to hours of sleep. And there’s a price to be paid for those lost hours of critical sleep.

While we spend about one-third of our lives asleep, on average, for young adults (18-25) and adults (26-65), the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Of course, some people may be able to do well on less, and some may require even more, but the Foundation does not recommend less than six hours for those age ranges. It should also be noted that your sleep requirement does not decline with age. In a 2017 NPR article, sleep scientist Matthew Walker maintains that our sleep requirements don’t change from our 40s, “It’s simply that the brain is not capable of generating that sleep, which it still needs, and the body still needs….” Sleep also becomes more fragmented as you age. REM sleep, the deepest stage of sleep, erodes with age, too, Walker says in the article — “By the time you’re in your fifties, you’ve perhaps lost almost forty to fifty percent of that deep sleep you were having, for example, when you were a teenager. By age seventy, you may have lost almost ninety percent of that deep sleep.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health, sleep deprivation — which can stem from lack of time or a physical or mental issue that inhibits sleep — has real effects, including feeling drowsy during the day, “routinely” falling asleep within five minutes of lying down, and experiencing “microsleeps,” which are very brief episodes of sleep while awake. Of course, sleep deprivation can affect your job performance, including the ability to “think clearly, react quickly, and form memories,” according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). No surprise, but lack of sleep can also affect your mood, causing irritability, relationship problems — which can only be exacerbated by the close quarters aboard a superyacht — and even depression and anxiety.

While mental health is vital, your physical wellbeing also suffers. Research shows that not getting enough sleep or getting poor-quality sleep increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Sleep deprivation can also be dangerous, with hand-eye coordination suffering — worse even than someone intoxicated. It also magnifies alcohol’s effect on the body. According to the NICHD, “A fatigued person who drinks will be more impaired than a well-rested person.” The Cleveland Clinic maintains that being awake for 16 hours straight decreases your performance as much as if your blood alcohol level was .05 percent. (The legal limit is .08 percent.)

There have been numerous incidents where lack of sleep has been a contributing factor in accidents at sea. In the recent collisions involving U.S. Navy destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain in 2017, fatigue was a factor. In fact, the collisions prompted the U.S. Office of Naval Research into studying sleep deprivation in more depth in an attempt to evaluate how it affects decision-making capabilities. According to a September 2017 Navy Times article, the Navy has now also issued “formal rest guidelines” and “will be required to implement watch schedules and shipboard routines that better sync with circadian rhythms and natural sleep cycles.”

So what can you do to create better sleep habits? For one, the Sleep Foundation recommends sticking to a sleep schedule every night. Try to relax before bed, exercise daily, and try to create an ideal sleeping environment (temperature, sound, and light). Watch your caffeine and alcohol consumption and, they advise, make sure your mattress and pillows are comfy. To further relax, put your electronics down well before sleep. There has also been strong correlation between meditation and sleep, so consider this option if you’re struggling.

A few things to keep in mind about your sleep patterns. Snoring could mean you have sleep apnea, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep, you might have sleep apnea.” Other symptoms could include waking with a headache or an extremely dry mouth. You might not realize you snore, but in case your crewmates have not filled you in, it can’t hurt to check in with them to confirm.

You cannot bank sleep. “With inadequate sleep, you accumulate a sleep debt that is impossible to repay as it becomes larger,” the NICHD site explains. So the idea that you can catch up on sleep on your downtime is a myth.

Extreme sleepiness during the day could be an indication of an underlying medical condition, like sleep apnea or even narcolepsy. “If you have excessive daytime sleepiness after sleeping the recommended seven to nine hours, you should speak with your health care provider,” the NICHD recommends.

Bottom line — do what you can to create a comfortable sleep environment, and then take every opportunity you can to ensure you’re sleeping enough.