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To Your Health: Sleep Heals Body and Mind

Your eyes are closing. It’s late in the day, you hauled half your traps today, and now you’re heading in. But you didn’t get much sleep last night and, as a matter of fact, you didn’t get much sleep the night before. Now you’re at the wheel and your head is nodding. You need to sleep.

Everyone needs to sleep. Adults need seven hours or more of shuteye each night; children need even more. Sleep is a basic human need, akin to eating, drinking, and breathing. If you don’t sleep, you will die. And if you don’t get enough good sleep, you can make yourself sick, crazy, or both.


Fishing is not a career known for steady sleep. The weather and the tides dictate work hours and the work itself is physically hard. Inconsistent sleep or just lack of deep sleep pose health risks, both in the long-term and immediately, due to dangerous mistakes made on board.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in three adults in the United States reported not getting enough rest or sleep every day. Sleep deficiency can lead to physical and mental health problems; it can interfere with work, school, driving, and social functioning. Lack of sleep leads to trouble learning, focusing, reacting, and even difficulty judging other people’s emotions and reactions.

What happens when you fall asleep? A person moves through two types of sleep each night: non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The brain and the body act differently during these different phases. Non-REM sleep happens first and includes three stages. The last two stages of non-REM sleep are when you sleep deeply and it’s hard to wake up. REM sleep occurs about an hour to an hour and a half after falling asleep and lasts for perhaps 10 minutes. During REM sleep a person tends to have vivid dreams. A full sleep cycle takes about 90 to 110 minutes and is repeated many times each night.

You can’t skip either type of sleep. Certain things may harm the sleep cycle. According to the Cleveland Clinic, alcohol may help people fall asleep, but it reduces the deeper stages of sleep and REM sleep. Caffeine and pseudoephedrine (found in over-the-counter drugs) can stimulate the brain. Caffeinated drinks, such as coffee or Red Bull, and drugs, such as decongestants, can lead to insomnia. Other medications, such as antidepressants, can cause less REM sleep. People who smoke heavily often sleep lightly and have less REM sleep, waking up after a few hours because of nicotine withdrawal.

Add to these factors the uncertain work schedule of a fisherman and you have a recipe for acute sleep deprivation. The Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety is currently conducting a study, titled Sleep Deprivation in the Commercial Fishing Industry: Researching the Impacts to Fishermen’s Health, to assess how the lack of sleep affects fishermen’s long-term health.

Although lack of sleep from day to day may be accepted in fisheries circles, sleep plays a very important role in overall health, cognitive functioning and mental health, according to Julie Sorensen, director of the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health at the Northeast Center.

For example, the deepest non-REM sleep cycle is associated with cellular repair and strengthening of the immune system. REM sleep is associated with increased brain metabolism and deeper sleep is associated with memory consolidation. Lack of or irregular sleep pattens can initiate the production of ghrelin (often referred to as the ‘hunger hormone’), which can lead to weight gain and issues with cardiac health. Despite the importance of sleep to overall health, however, little research has been conducted on commercial fishermen.

The Northeast Center is addressing this gap in knowledge by conducting a sleep study with Alaska Salmon gillnet fishermen, Oregon Dungeness crab fishermen and Massachusetts scallop and lobster fishermen. The project has multiple objectives which include understanding whether it is even possible to conduct sleep studies in fisheries and looking for initial associations between lack of sleep and health outcomes that should be further studied.

The NEC has partnered with fishing industry colleagues to capture survey data and to conduct health assessments with fishermen. They are also working with researchers at George Mason University to assess whether existing sleep tracking devices could track sleep data on fishermen at sea. With this information, researchers hope to identify areas for further research and to share feedback on various ways fishermen can reduce the impact of sleep deprivation if losing sleep is unavoidable.

It’s simply not true that you can adapt to getting less sleep than you need. You may feel like you’re accustomed to less sleep, but it still affects how you function. And in the long term, it will affect your health.


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