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
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,
"That's why we all go to Starbucks around 3 to 4 p.m.," he said.
People eventually shrug off the effects of the circadian dip,
but while it has them in its grip, he said, they'll be slightly
Sleep experts believe it's better if people don't fight the
circadian rhythm, particularly those whose jobs demand constant
vigilance. Instead, they believe that employers should set aside
space, such as a break room or duty area, where workers can go to
grab a quick nap.
"All you need is about 15 or 20 minutes to have a significant impact on performance," Avidan said.
The nap needs to be short. Anything longer than 30 minutes
starts to encroach upon actual sleep and can have a detrimental
effect on a person's alertness, said Dr. Helene A. Emsellem,
director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy
"Long naps can be difficult to wake up from and are not as productive as short naps," Emsellem said. Avidan agreed, adding that people who take longer naps are more likely to wake up groggy.
Nonetheless, power naps are not for everyone. Some people find
it hard to wind down while they're at work, Emsellem said. And some
people simply will not nap, even if they need it, because of
societal perceptions of people who sleep on the job, she said.
"Unfortunately, I think there's a stigma attached to taking a nap, so many people don't take advantage of the opportunity," she said. "We tend to think of sleepy people as lazy people."
On the other hand, workers should not burn the candle at both
ends and expect to successfully substitute on-the-job naps for
"A nap is a Band-Aid, in a sense," Emsellem said. "You don't want to Band-Aid grossly misallocated sleep with a power nap. Employees need to understand their sleep requirements."
But for those who could use a workday nap, research has found
that employers are beginning to catch on, with a growing number
offering workers a place to power nap, she said.
"I don't think it's an unreasonable option to have available," Emsellem said. "As we move toward a 24/7 society, we have to be careful to give people the opportunity to get the sleep they need."
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more on
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