Drop and give me 8... Mike Lorelli needed a wake-up call.

sleepdeprived

Between his high-powered job (he was CEO of Pizza Hut’s International division) and brutal travel schedule (his all-time high was a whopping 300,000 miles and 58 countries in just one year) he scraped by on five hours of shut-eye per night and became a self-described “zombie,” not feeling on top of his game and noticing that his creativity suffered when he wasn’t sleeping as much.

“Sleep was a prayer, not a reality,” he recalls. “Lack of sleep was the executives’ No. 1 physical and mental problem.”

But he never made pillow time a priority until he listened to a talk by sleep researcher James B. Maas, Ph.D., at a conference. “It was an educational kick in the butt we all needed,” says Lorelli, a 64-year-old Darien, Conn., resident, now the executive chairman of Rita’s Italian Ice.

The tidbit that really drove it home for Lorelli was when Maas said that if you miss your third REM sleep cycle (people should have four per night), that’s when your organs self-repair, so people who miss the third REM session have a seven-year shorter life expectancy. Now, he aims for 6 ½ hours of shut-eye per night and usually hits that goal five out of seven nights per week.

Lorelli still refers to his notes from Maas’ presentation, and grabs power naps while being driven to the airport for weekly work trips. When he was CEO of Latex International, a manufacturer of latex cores for use in high-end beds, he even created a “Counting Sleep” nap room, where workers could sign up and sleep for an hour.

The Centers for Disease Control calls “insufficient sleep” a public health problem, with an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffering from a sleep or wakefulness disorder. And while there aren’t statistics on how many executives suffer from sleep issues, Dr. Steven Feinsilver, professor of sleep medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, says it’s not unusual for highly functional, Type A personalities to toss and turn. “They have trouble shutting their brains off,” he says. “They might have trouble falling asleep in the first place.”

“All corporations that are forward- looking have wellness programs that talk about nutrition and exercise,” adds Maas, who has presented to companies like Google, the Gap, JPMorgan Chase and IBM, and individuals, including athletes and Olympians. “Until fairly recently, they ignored sleep.”

His talks break down the latest research on why most people are sleep deprived, how getting the ideal amount of zzz’s can boost thinking, performance and athleticism, and how to create an ideal restful bedroom environment.

Sleep deprivation causes a slew of problems, including a spike in heart-disease risk, depression and weight gain, says Maas. Plus, it will make you less popular at the office, since it makes it harder to concentrate, make decisions and get along with others. But when you get your magic number of shut-eye hours (anywhere between 7 ½ and nine hours), you are almost three times more likely to gain insight into a problem compared those who remained awake, says Maas.

Follow these expert-approved strategies to snooze smarter — and maybe even land your next promotion.

1. Go to bed an hour earlier. Most people need just one extra hour per night to stay completely alert all day, says Maas.

2. Exercise at night. Maas says to work out between 5 and 7 p.m., rather than in the morning. “An extra hour of sleep does more for your health than running around in a half-awake state,” he says. “Your body temperature is also relatively low in the a.m., making it more likely you’ll trip or strain a muscle because you’re not fully alert or warmed up.”

3. Take a hot bath or shower. Just before bed, a hot shower, bath or a dip in a Jacuzzi will redirect blood from your brain to your skin, raising your body temperature and making you feel relaxed, says Maas. When you enter the bedroom, your body temperature will plummet. This helps initiate deep sleep.

4. Set the thermostat to 65 degrees and 60- to 70-percent humidity. These are the ideal sleeping conditions, according to Maas. Proper humidity makes it easier to breathe, and a cool room promotes deep sleep. (If your bedroom is too hot, it may trigger nightmares.)

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