When I worked in a corporate job, I would regularly have a lunch of either a Sandwich or last nights leftovers that typically involved Pasta.
Post lunch, I would experience an interesting sensation of feeling like my eye lids had grown 10Kg’s heavier over the lunch period. I would feel bloated and I would pray there would be no team meeting because my mind had clocked out through tiredness.
I thought it was just me, however when I looked around it appeared that post lunch time was the twilight zone with people looking drowsy & consumption of coffee going up tenfold. I just put it down to afternoons being a time where people’s energy levels flagged.
It wasn’t until I became a personal trainer & coach that I realised, it was less about the time of day and more about what I was feeding myself.
In this essay on career performance, I am going to discuss how, what you consume daily, affects how you perform. I will also show you why, a particular emphasis on eat for gut health, will affect your work performance.
Success Or Your Health?
Before I do though, let me get the inevitable question out the way: Can you have poor health & still be successful?
My answer is OF COURSE YOU CAN!
There are many people who experience career success and are incredibly unhealthy. Long hours, terrible nutrition, equally terrible coffee and yet, they are able to do what is necessary in order to get the job done.
But to what expense?
Through personal training, I’ve seen successful people who have also developed ‘lifestyle related’ conditions such as obesity, heart disease and auto immune conditions.
Many of you reading this will be in the early phase of your career and will recognise that career success is less about just being competent & more about aligning multiple systems so you can perform at your best more frequently. What you consume on a daily basis is one of those systems.
The 3 Factors of Eating For Health:
When I talk about performance I emphasis a point that, in order to achieve peak performance, you want to eliminate as many barriers as possible for that performance to occur (more on flow states in a later article). Health is a big factor that can deter performance because poor health can take the focus away from what you’d like to perform on & towards something that is a hindrance to achieving a great outcome.
I’d like you to think about potential health barriers from 3 perspectives:
More and more, a connection is forming between what we eat and our subsequent mood. Not from the perspective of “I eat cake to feel happy” but feelings and states that arise after eating certain foods. This area is in its early stages in research, yet already studies are showing beneficial effects to people who consume certain ‘good bacteria’ after a period of time and certain foods can positively enhance people’s moods .
Over the years when doing personal training I noticed an interesting phenomena; a high proportion of time the clients who frequently worked the longest hours and had a less than desirable way of eating frequently complained of getting colds, or would cancel sessions because of ‘the flu that was going around’. Then I found something out; 70% of your immune system is located in your gut.
When your body signals pain, it tends to be for a reason. Recent statistics show the 2 most common cause of sickness from work is back/neck pain (13m UK & 291m US). You might say what this has to do with how you eat, until you recognise that when your gut becomes impaired, this can increase the amount of inflammation in your body resulting in a breeding ground for increased pain.
Your Body Under The Microscope
As with most aspects relating to the biology of the body, it can get very technical and for the purposes of this essay it is not required to go too in-depth. Instead I will give you an overview in order to show the relationship between gut health and what you experience in your brain and body.
So two pointers you first have to keep in mind;
- Your brain is the main command centre. It is where we take in most of our sensory information from the world, it is where signals are initiated relating to hormonal changes & it is where conscious thought & other aspects of what you know as ‘YOU’ stem from.
- Your Gut, first & foremost is where you process food. It is also where up to 70% of your immune system lives and also houses 95% of our serotonin receptors.
These two features are powerhouses in humans….and they are both connected!
Yes, there is a part of the gut called the enteric nervous system and is frequently called our ‘second brain’ because it sends an abundance of signals to our actual brain via what is known as the vagus nerve.
Signals are consistently going from the gut to the brain and vice versa in a constant feedback loop of “whats happening” and “What needs to happen now”. This is relayed in various processes such as blood flow to the gut and secretion of digestive enzymes.
Gut Gone Bad
Think of an area that was once thriving, but slowly and surely graffiti starts to appear, vandalism can start to occur and house prices plummet (think New York in the early 90’s). Suddenly things aren’t so thriving anymore.
This can happen in the gut when it is not fed in a sufficient way. Soon enough blood flow begins reducing, digestive enzymes are disrupted and harmful bacteria & yeast overgrowth that would normally be dealt with easily starts to build up, causing a vulnerability in the gut lining.
Over time (as can happen in neighbouring cities of crime ridden neighbourhoods), foreign bodies in the form of proteins can penetrate the gut lining and enter into the blood. This is known as having a ‘leaky gut’.
When this occurs, the body goes into a state of war and attacks these foreign bodies in the blood. Yet, remember up to 70% of the immune system is in the gut, so if you have a leak gut, how healthy do you think the immune system is right now?!
As a result, inflammation can occur and begins to show in the form of bad skin, digestive discomfort and joint pain to name a few.
However, remember that link up to the brain? Well, when a leaky gut occurs, inflammatory proteins called cytokines can make their way up to the brain and has potential to penetrate the ‘blood-brain barrier’ which protects the brain fluid from pathogens.
In a case of ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’ if there is a consistent stream of cytokines, it is only a matter of time before they penetrate.
If this does penetrate, it can create inflammation in the brain. This is where it can affect mood such as fatigue and in extreme cases there is an emerging theory of inflammation of the brain influencing the onset of depression.
You may be starting to see how the performances of your insides can affect your performance on the outside!
What influences a poor gut?
You can drill down what forms a functional gut to 3 aspects:
- An abundance of ‘good’ bacteria which keeps pathogens and yeast overgrowth at bay
- A strong gut lining which keeps pathogens out of the blood supply
- A strong immune system
Influencers of a poor gut are factors that compromise any of these 3 and in the case of food the main culprits are:
In the form of wheat. Since the increase in quick convenient food, the production of wheat has taken a somewhat modified turn. Gluten comes from wheat, so found in bread, pasta & a host of other foods you wouldn’t normally associate with wheat such as cooking sauces. Gluten (gliadin) is a protein found in wheat and known to create inflammation in the small intestine and cause irritation of the lining of the small intestine.
If this persists through continued eating, it increases the vulnerability of the wall and causes ‘leaky gut’. The extreme form of this is ceiliacs disease, which is known as an intense reaction to gluten.
Aside from creating a more acidic environment in the digestive tract, excessive sugar from processed foods can create regular spikes in your blood sugar levels. Sugar is dealt with efficiently in the body by insulin (transport hormone) shifting it to various cells for storages & use in energy. However excessive sugar can cause this to malfunction, causing insulin resistance, and more sugar to stay in the blood.
Then there is FOMAD (Fermentable, Oligo- Di- Mono-accharides And Polyols) which is essentially sugars you can’t digest and end up feeding the bacterial & yeast overgrowth in the digestive tract (lovely!). The main culprits to this are Fruit, lactose in dairy, crucifours vegetables like sprouts, broccoli, cabbage (not an excuse to not have these mind!), beans, lentils & alcohol.
Signs of this tend to be cramp, bloating and at worse diarrhoea.
Keys For a Kick Ass Gut & Brain
Spend an hour in the world of nutrition and you will discover it is a minefield of contradiction to the point where it can confuse the situation. For that reason I am going to provide some simple pointers to tweak what you are already doing.
- If experiencing problems, such as frequent bloating, get tired regularly during the day or have bad skin it might be worth going on an elimination diet or FOMAD diet for 4 weeks. Note, although you will likely lose weight it is less a diet & more a feedback mechanism. It involves eliminating common food allergens for a period of 4 weeks and then reintroducing them individually, noticing what effect it has on the body. It is a great way of seeing what your body reacts to.
- No food group should be eliminated in your overall eating plan, however with Carbohydrates there are certain kinds that will raise blood sugar levels more than others & also happen to be the ones that are the most harsh on the gut. It would be a good idea (even if you don’t go on the elimination diet) to spend some time eliminating bread and wheat based products like pasta from your eat and notice the difference it has on your energy levels. Opt instead for white rice & potato, particularly sweet potato.
- Fats have had a bad rap now but has recently fallen back into the good books. Ultimately it has always been vital for the body and a plan rich in saturated (real butter, coconut oil) and monounsaturated (olives, avocado) has great benefits for satiety, energy levels and also goes towards keeping the myelin sheath which insulates the neurons in your brain.
- You need a variety of nutrients for the body and brain to function optimally. The majority of the vitamins & minerals come from eating an abundance of vegetables. In her book ‘The Wahl’s protocol’, medical doctor Terri Wahl’s overcame debilitating Multiple Sclerosis through an adapted version of the Paleo Diet. In the book she describes how she splits her vegetables into 3 categories; Greens/Coloured/Sulphur rich (onions,garlic,mushroom) and seeks to have at least 2 cups of each category a day to get the fulfilled amount of vitamins & minerals daily.
- As I described before, one of the signs of gut health is the amount of good bacteria within the gut. This helps protect against pathogens & yeast overgrowth that can occur. 2 great ways of getting this good bacteria is through fermented food (sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi) & probiotic yogurt. Having these two daily is an easy win that yields great benefit.
- Reduce or Eliminate excess sugar & processed food. I think the elimination of processed & heavy use of sugar has been advised so much now that most people have an intellectual understanding that they need to do this. I hope this essay goes closer to it being a reality if you haven’t done already.
Do I have processed food & sugar? Yes, on occasions, however, it is less than 10% of my overall eating pattern.
If you eat these in large amount, seek to reduce them over the next 6 months and notice the changes that occur as a result of doing it, I think you’ll welcome the benefits!
Nutrition is a vast & sometimes complex domain. This has served as a primer to include in a larger scope of career performance. To not include it, would be like expecting to travel across America in a car but not check the health of the engine. If you want to find out more about eating for health I would recommend The Paleo Cure by Chris Kresser & The Wahl’s Protocol by Terri Wahl’s.