29 minutes of extra sleep key to mindfulness, USF research finds

Nearly everyone has experienced a time when a poor night's sleep affected how we felt the next day -- but just how impactful are those nightly Zzz's (or lack thereof) on our ability to concentrate and make objective decisions at work and home?

Dr. Soomi Lee, Assistant Professor of Aging Studies and Director of the Sleep, Stress, and Health (STEALTH) Lab at USF, partnered with Moffitt Cancer Center to evaluate the effects of sleep health on next-day mindfulness in healthcare professionals.

"Mindfulness can be defined in a variety of ways, but it's commonly defined as 'attention and awareness of what is taking place in the present moment.' Importantly, mindfulness is not an evaluation of whether what's happening in the present moment is 'good' or 'bad.' It's about focusing on and accepting the present moment without judgment. Because [mindfulness] is more likely to vary from moment to moment and day-to-day, we were interested in how daily mindful attention is associated with nightly sleep characteristics," Lee says.

Over the course of two weeks, Lee and her colleagues followed 61 Tampa area nurses and evaluated characteristics of their sleep health and its effect on next-day mindfulness by using the RealLife Exp smartphone application.

The app prompted participants three times daily to self-report on their state of mindfulness and sleepiness. It utilizes the Mindful Attention Awareness scale, asking the healthcare workers to rate criteria including: “I was doing something automatically, without being aware of what I was doing” and “I was finding it difficult to stay focused on what was happening" using a five-point scale.

Dr. Lee's study, which was published in the National Sleep Foundation journal, Sleep Health, indicates that sleeping an additional 29 minutes per night could be a key factor in improving mindfulness. Nurses with greater mindful attention were also 66% less likely to experience insomnia during the two-week study. 

"Nurses are going to need optimal sleep and mindful attention the most. They are the largest group of healthcare professionals working full-time through the COVID pandemic," Lee says, noting that nurses often work shifts upwards of 12 to 16 hours per day. 

"Even beyond healthcare workers, we believe our findings could have a much broader impact for the general population," Lee adds. "Many of us experience sleep issues these days -- and more so during this pandemic. … Many now work remotely and we find that our remote worker situation does not support work in the present moment -- particularly with the distractions associated with working from home."

A sleep researcher's tips for better bedtime habits

Dr. Lee says her prior sleep research shows correlations between insufficient sleep and conditions such as weight gain in adolescence, risk of cardiovascular disease among IT workers, heightened inflammation for arthritis patients, and bi-directional associations between poor sleep and daily stress.

But for those who struggle to get a good night's sleep, Dr. Lee says: Don't despair. Incorporating healthy practices in one's daily routine can have a big impact on sleep hygiene.

"Sleep and mindfulness are modifiable practices -- they are not fixed. We can change them with our efforts and health-level intervention studies. Sleep and mindfulness share some common characteristics in our self-regulatory and health-promoting behaviors, which is why I suggest we prioritize sleep in our daily life," Lee says.

Dr. Lee stresses what is perhaps the toughest challenge for adults as well as kids and teens: no electronic devices in the bedroom, and especially no screen time in bed.

"I always try to prioritize sleep over daily activities. Even though I might have unfinished work, after 8 p.m., I close my laptop to prepare for sleep," she says. 

A healthy diet and a moderate exercise routine are the cornerstones of a good night's sleep -- but Dr. Lee says to avoid exercising too close to bedtime because it can alert the body. Caffeine intake should be monitored in the afternoon, and crucially: sunlight during waking hours is a must. 

"It's important to get exposure to sunlight during the day and to keep darkness at night in the bedroom. It helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle because we have a circadian pacemaker in our brain that's adapted to the light. It can feel difficult during a pandemic -- but we must try to get outside and get some exposure to sunlight throughout the day," Dr. Lee says.

1. Dr. Soomi Lee, USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, School of Aging Studies
3. Moffitt Cancer Center
4. National Sleep Foundation
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Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.