CHAMPS Blog: Peak performance – the dos and don’ts from a health perspective with Dr Sunni Patel
April marked Stress Awareness Month — a time to bring attention to the negative impact of stress and how we can all do our part to prevent and manage stress in a modern world.
For this year’s Stress Awareness Month, we invited Dr Sunni Patel onto CHAMPS Talks to chat to us about peak performance and the dos and don’ts from a health perspective.
Ruth and Sunni explored the topic of stress, the role health can play, and the things each of them does to keep stress at bay in their lives.
If there is one thing you take away from this conversation, let it be this:
Peak performance is just you at your best, that’s it. It is you being your authentic best self.
CHAMPS Talks: Peak performance with Dr Sunni Patel
Dr Sunni Patel is an award-winning ultimate wellness coach and lifestyle medicine practitioner. He has worked in research academia, clinical practice, and now has his own clinic covering various aspects of lifestyle medicine where he helps people work through issues they may be facing.
While Dr Sunni predominantly focuses on gut health, he also works across burnout, fatigue, and other aspects of lifestyle health including weight management, menopause, and longevity.
Dr Sunni is a frequent feature on CHAMPS Talks, and as part of our workshops and delivery sessions as a CHAMPS facilitator. We love having him on board and always learn something of value whenever he shares his industry knowledge and experience with us.
How does our body deal with stress and change?
To kick start the conversation, Ruth asked Dr Sunni how our body deals with stress and change. Dr Sunni explained the scientific neurobiological response to stress.
We will always experience stress and change in life, in some form or another. That’s a constant. Speaking on the constant presence of change, Dr Sunni stated that:
“And because of change and because of our prehistoric nature and how we’re wired from our Neanderthalic days and our prehistoric times, we have a response to change. Change as a stress consequence, we are always going to go in fight or flight mode. That’s basically our primal basic instinct on how to navigate a circumstance or situation — it’s fight or flight.”
There are other aspects to this prehistoric response, which Dr Sunni touched on, which are fight, flight, and freeze.
Dr Sunni then went on to explain how, from a brain perspective, experiencing stress and change is a constant. But it is when we have too much stress and too much change that we end up struggling to deal with it. Our brains then try to tackle it by sending more cortisol and adrenaline (our stress hormones).
HPA access impact
If our bodies have a constant rush of cortisol, it impacts the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Access. Expanding on the role of HPA access, Dr Sunni explained that “HPA is extremely important because it is responsible predominantly for memory and learning. So, imagine if you’re constantly in this cortisol-driven environment of adrenal fatigue and burn out, this is where a lot of people commonly will say, I can’t remember things, and my response to learning and how I would respond to things is completely different, Im no longer myself anymore. So that’s what happens from a processing perspective.
Gut response to stress
Our body’s response to stress can also impact our organs. Dr Sunni noted how many people will need to go to the toilet more when stressed. This is as a result of our gut being our second brain. The gut responds directly to cortisol, serotonin, and all the other neurotransmitters that are impacted by stress.
This gut response is known as the “rest and digest” mode, which is the opposite of the fight or flight response and is all about being calm and relaxed. Expanding on this, Dr Sunni explained that “when we go into rest or digest mode… sometimes you may start noticing that you start getting the butterflies, your heart rate increases, you start noticing actually you might get a burst of energy and then you flag because it changes the way that we process sugar, so it changes our sugar metabolism, it changes our blood pressure, all the way to actually also our sexual functioning so it actually impacts libidos.”
Impact on period health
For women, it can impact period health and menstruation as well. So, some women, especially that will come to me, they will say, oh it must be menopausal, perimenopausal, pre-menopause when their symptoms are actually being caused by stress.
Our bodies’ response to stress also causes our muscles to tense up. Over time, that can lead to muscle issues and aches. The commonly impacted areas by stress are the neck, back, and shoulders.
“We find that stress can create a myriad of issues and it’s not just about mood swings and being fatigued, it’s beyond that now and we definitely know stress is one of those chronic undercurrents to so many things.” — Dr Sunni Patel
Exploring the pillars of wellbeing and performance
Understanding how to manage and elevate our pillars of wellbeing and performance can be crucial for supporting how we manage stress and change. These pillars of wellbeing are transferable to anything and everything. They are the elements that we know impact our wellbeing from a mental, psychosocial, physical, and emotional regulation perspective.
The first pillar is diet and nutrition. The impact of what we eat, how we eat, and the quality of what we eat can have a positive or negative impact on many things including stress management.
The second pillar is sleep. In the medical industry, we have seen a big drive to prioritise sleep. The quality, quantity, and just understanding sleep more can impact our wellbeing. Sleep also helps many aspects of our brain health including neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.
“A lot of people assume that when we sleep, we switch off but that’s when our brain does most of its activity. So, sleep is very important as a cornerstone of wellbeing.” — Dr Sunni Patel
The third pillar is movement. It’s important to note that when we talk about movement, we aren’t talking solely about exercise. We are talking about moving your body in any which way. Movement can have a positive impact on so many aspects of your physical and mental wellbeing.
The fourth pillar is centred on addictive behaviours. Addictive behaviours don’t always have to be about substance abuse. Dr Sunni has found a lot of Type A personalities are addicted to adrenaline and stress. He also admits that he personally thrives in stress, saying that “it builds my martyr complex” and that “we find that a lot of corporate leaders almost feel that they stress in that because they’re like, well this is all I know, and this is all I can be”. By understanding our addictive behaviours and what causes those addictive behaviours, we can better take care of ourselves.
The fifth pillar is healthy relationships. We know that having quality relationships with people and our environment provides positive benefits. So, it is important to make sure you are nurturing healthy relationships as part of your personal wellbeing strategy.
The final pillar is mental wellbeing. Mental wellbeing is, in Dr Sunni’s opinion, the foundation of everything. Dr Sunni states that “we underestimate how much our mental processes, our learning behaviours, but also our experiences and how we manage circumstance, frames a lot of our physical and emotional wellbeing”. So, by familiarising yourself with your mental wellbeing you can understand how to look after your overall wellbeing and tap into your peak performance.
How these pillars of performance play into stress management
Putting things into the perspective of peak performance in the workplace, Dr Sunni explained how these pillars can impact our performance and stress levels.
First, Dr Sunni explained that peak performance regards our physiological, physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. He explained how operating at your ultimate peak is just about being your authentic and best self.
Dr Sunni explained how the top employee concerns are minor illnesses, musculoskeletal and joint issues, gut health, poor sleep, mental wellbeing, and factors surrounding movement and poor nutrition — all of which fit into the pillars of wellbeing.
Diet and nutrition
Data has shown that improving nutrition can improve someone’s performance by 66 percent. Speaking on this, Dr Sunni discussed how he advocates for people to eat the rainbow:
“Instead of saying okay what vitamins and what nutrients should I focus on, if you focus on eating different coloured fruits and vegetables throughout the day and throughout the week and aim for 30 different ones in a whole week you are going to get all of the antioxidants, the polyphenols and all the micronutrients, elements and vitamins that you need that will support mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing and gut health.”
Moving onto serotonin, Dr Sunni explained how only 5 percent of serotonin is made in the brain. The rest is made in your gut. That’s why trusting your gut feeling is important!
Dr Sunni explained how serotonin isn’t just about feeling good or feeling happy. It also supports gut motility and digestion. If you are experiencing high levels of stress, it can make your gut hypersensitive. This negative impact on your gut health can then have a knock-on effect on your mood, wellbeing, and functioning overall.
“The only gold standard I could advocate from a diet and nutrition perspective is for eating well in terms of eating you know brightly coloured foods and vegetables, eating a high-quality lean protein and eating a complex carbohydrate. If you hit that then that’s fine and that can be breakfast, lunch and dinner and any snacks in the workplace.” — Dr Sunni Patel
Moving onto movement — movement is about staying less stationary throughout the day. The Central Medical office of the UK advises that the minimum we should be moving around in a week is 150 minutes, which is moderate exercise for movement. Dr Sunni expanded on this by saying that “moderate exercise means that by the time you have done your activity, you find it slightly difficult to sing a song or happy birthday.”
The right and wrong types of movement can impact your cortisol and adrenaline levels. You might be surprised to learn that more gentle exercise is far better for you from a cortisol and adrenaline release perspective. Strenuous activity, such as running or boxing, requires more cortisol and adrenaline. So, you don’t get as many endorphins as you think you do.
As for addictive behaviours, Dr Sunni explained how this is often done as a coping mechanism or as an escape from reality. He explained that:
“Nine times out of ten, people are doing it because they want to escape from reality, and they don’t know how to manage the change or the stress.
Some of those people don’t want to face the reality or the truth of this is a situation that I just don’t know how to handle, and I will say we are human for one reason only because there is a beauty of being human. We do not know everything, and we never will know everything. So, I would say find your coping mechanisms that help you keep your rational self so you can manage that.”
As for relationships, there are two aspects to healthy relationships. The first thing is social interactions. Many studies have shown that social interactions inside and outside the workplace have many positive benefits. Speaking on this, Dr Sunni noted that:
“As humans, we are engineered for some primal kind of basic instincts. One of them being social creatures. The other thing is habit, and the other thing is to procreate.
It’s just what we´ve all been engineered as we’ve learnt from prehistoric days, but we are social creatures by nature. So, that means that actually it will have a positive benefit and we have seen from kind of neurological studies that actually for those that are having social interactions, that they have far better emotional regulations, far better psychological regulation, far better health outcomes and their brain processes are far better in the long term in terms of memory retention, learning processes and, as I’ve said, emotional regulation as well.”
Work out what is the perfect balance for you when it comes to caring for your pillars of wellbeing and regulating your performance in the workplace.
Dr Sunni also shared a great tip for how you can regulate your environment to better support your best self:
“…you can bring your own into any space, be it at home, be it on a hot desk, or be it at your fixed desk. Bring or carry something with you that always makes you feel you. And I know it’s the little things like even if it’s your favourite mug, or like it’s a drink or something that you think provides me psychological safety, the senses are amazing for wellbeing.”
Looking after your sleep hygiene is crucial. Technology, like blue light, can negatively impact your melatonin (sleep hormone) levels. So, it is important to switch off from technology that emits blue lights at least an hour before bed.
Looking after your sleep hygiene isn’t only about what you do when going to sleep. It is also what you do when you wake up.
Our bodies naturally produce cortisol as part of the biological process of preparing to wake up. If the first thing you do upon waking up is check your emails, that is naturally going to increase your cortisol levels further. The same goes for your morning cup of coffee. Drinking coffee increases your cortisol levels. So, engaging in these types of routines in the morning can increase cortisol and negatively impact your stress levels.
Carve safe time out throughout the day to lower your cortisol levels and care for your mental wellbeing. It’s important to remember that improving your mental wellbeing is about taking small steps. You don’t have to completely change what you do. In fact, doing that could increase your cortisol levels further and be counterproductive.
Instead, look at what is or isn’t working for you and make incremental changes. You must do whatever supports you.
Expanding on this point, Dr Sunni said:
“The other thing I would say is remember about the power of accountability. You’re accountable to yourself first and foremost, so you deserve the best, but you are also you’re accountable to others. So let others also hold responsibility for you.
I always tell people to use your support network amongst your healthy relationships as well. You know that way you are going to be held accountable for your own wellbeing.”