WEDNESDAY, July 13 (HealthDay News) -- Top U.S. officials who have taken a hard line against air traffic controllers napping on the job are missing an opportunity to improve air safety, sleep experts say.
Studies have shown that short "power naps" have a rejuvenating effect, improving reaction time and critical thinking for people impaired by drowsiness, said Dr. Alon Avidan, associate professor of neurology and associate director of the sleep disorders program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"The data show if people take a short power nap, it actually makes them perform much better," Avidan said. "It doesn't disrupt their sleep. It doesn't make them wake groggy."
The U.S. transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, has expressed opposition to napping by air traffic controllers. Under his guidance, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has added an extra hour to the amount of time controllers must be off between shifts, after incidents this spring when controllers were found sleeping while on overnight duty. But, the agency has kept its zero-tolerance policy for sleeping on the job.
However, Avidan said that an extra hour does not address the core problem. Air traffic controllers, like others working late shifts, are fighting against a number of biological factors that encourage their bodies to sleep -- factors that only grow stronger as they remain awake.
"The longer we are awake, the more drive we have for sleep," Avidan said. "It gets stronger and stronger as the day goes by."
Chief among these factors is the body's circadian rhythm, which helps set each person's cycle of waking and sleeping.
The circadian rhythm tends to dip during late mid-day, at around 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. for someone working daytime hours. The dip makes the person drowsy, reducing their alertness and capabilities, Avidan said.
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