Dr. Anna Persaud of This Works: 5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Can Dramatically Improve Your Wellbeing
Treat your wake-up as a marathon not a sprint. Allow your body to wake up slowly without additional stressors such as newsfeeds, emails and social media. This stops us from over-reacting to information we find stressful when cortisol levels are at their highest.
As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Anna Persaud, CEO, This Works.
Dr. Anna Persaud joined This Works in 2009, following an 11-year tenure with the LVMH group as Marketing Director, Parfums Christian Dior. Based in London, Anna is responsible for all areas of the This Works’ business. She has driven the company’s growth both at home and internationally, leading to its acquisition in 2019 by Canopy Growth, the world’s largest Cannabis company. With a PHD in Biochemistry, Anna brings a unique insight into product development. In July 2020, Dr. Persaud was appointed VP Skincare & Topicals for Canopy Growth, assuming global responsibility for the corporation’s skincare and topical direction and innovation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?
Fitness has been a part of my life since a very young age. I was encouraged to participate in sports by both my mother and grandmother who were themselves active sports women — in fact my grandmother played hockey until well into her 60s!
Having an opportunity to be a sports captain at both my high school and university also allowed me to hone my leadership skills. Then in my 20s, fitness became a counter to my academic life. On one hand I was teaching undergraduates and pursuing my PhD in biochemistry, and on the other I was teaching aerobics at the local gym.
Wellness was also my first step to becoming an entrepreneur. When I was unable to decide between science or fitness, I started up a fitness business.
Even today, fitness, wellness and exercise are as important as ever as a balance to my professional life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have regular coffee room catch ups with our Scientific Advisor, Professor Gaby Badre. During one meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, I expressed to Professor Badre that whilst I knew our Sleep fragrance worked, I wanted to know how it worked and he suggested the idea of looking at the impact of fragrance on the brain. That morning, our concept of functional fragrance was born. This concept has gone on to change the way we create the essential oil blends, which are the cornerstone of our business.
Our first research together was published in peer reviewed Journal Chemosensory Perception in 2019 and since then our Love Sleep, Morning Expert and Stress Check fragrances have all been developed using fMRI technology.
Most interesting is the impact of this work on our Morning Expert fragrance; at This Works we always take our permission to launch a product when 70% of our panel users agree ‘this works’ but what we have found is that when it comes to looking at the brain, sometimes our perception of what is good for us and what is actually good for us is not the same.
In the case of Morning Expert, during the rational process of screening essential oils to improve morning concentration and focus, the aroma chosen as most appealing by our panel was different to the blend that we could see to be most effective (under fMRI conditions) at improving our wake-up. On this occasion we let the science win and selected the fragrance we knew to be most effective. Today that fragrance is one of our most sought out, and in 2020 it won the CEW US best new wellbeing product.
All of this to say, sometimes the most innocuous of meetings can lead to the most important business decision.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Very early in my career I had a lesson in humility that I’ll never forget. As a young member of the Dior Beauty marketing team, I was asked to take some products to a photoshoot and was most offended at what I perceived was the request to be a glorified courier — getting in a taxi and schlepping somewhere in the middle of the city. After having (stroppily) gotten into a taxi and making my way across town, I reached a shabby looking studio and as I was standing outside impatiently tapping my foot, a town car pulled up. John Galliano got out of the car.
It turned out that what I’d actually been given was a huge opportunity. To attend a John Galliano-led shoot was a major deal for a very junior marketing person — it was a huge moment for me. The experience taught me to be a little more tolerant of seemingly menial requests, because you never know what they will teach you.
You have had a unique career that has spanned luxury brands, beauty, C-suite leadership, and biochemistry. Tell us about your career journey and what it has taught you about wellness.
My PhD was in the field of parasite biochemistry, during which time I studied detoxification mechanisms and oxidative stress in parasites. I already had an obsession with skincare and couldn’t understand why beauty companies weren’t trying to protect skin from UV and free radicals. This understanding and inspiration led me to the pharmaceutical industry where I worked in medical writing, specialising in acne and dermatitis. A chance meeting with a fellow chemist, who at that time was the Marketing Director at Dior, brought me the opportunity to work in the beauty industry. I never looked back.
I spent eleven years at LVMH within the Dior group, which spanned the Galliano period of influence, and I was there to witness the unification of the brand and its rise as a global powerhouse. The atmosphere was exciting, dynamic, creative. I was keenly aware that I was experiencing an extraordinary period of change with great internal displays of creativity, which ultimately led to the birth of an international behemoth.
But it was also during this period that I transitioned from my ‘carefree’ twenties to my early thirties, which brought me into motherhood. The dynamic shift in responsibilities did not sit well with the working culture of the day — flex time did not exist, and international travel was both expected and non-negotiable. So, in 2008 I made the decision to leave and joined This Works soon after.
Founded by Vogue UK Beauty Director, Kathy Phillips, This Works was one of the first challenger brands to bring efficacious natural skincare to market with an aesthetic that didn’t look out of place on the pages of Vogue or shelves of Harvey Nichols. At the time, natural beauty was considered ‘niche’ with limited expectations around its efficacy.
One of my first priorities when I joined was to look at how we could develop high-tech skincare that strives to be 98% natural. My scientific background meant I was focused on backing our product claims with user and clinical trials so that any product launched would meet consumer expectations. That focus on robust efficacy is crucial for the brand today as increasingly (and appropriately) consumers are demanding transparency from brands on their ingredients, sustainability, and delivering on promises made.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s hard to narrow this down and so I’m sneaking in three. Most recently I’ve had two chairmen — Rich Gersten and Bengt Dahl — who have been really important and hugely influential mentors in terms of helping me grow and build the business over the last 14 years — taking us from small beginnings to our 2019 sale to Canopy Growth.
Probably the person who had the biggest impact on my career was Emmanuel de Mareuil, who was the Marketing Director at Dior during my formative years in marketing. He mentored me and coached me into the Marketing Director role myself, a step I would not have made otherwise, and so I owe him for his patience and willingness to share his knowledge with me. He is also the one responsible for my Galliano shoot life lesson!
Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the three main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
There are so many factors prohibiting us from integrating this knowledge into our daily wellness routines. There are a few that standout to me — the “cult of busy”, our micro-environments, and not prioritizing sleep.
Although the general public is far more informed on the importance of sleep than in 2011 when we launched our first pillow spray, I do think there is still a ‘cult of busy’ — the idea that the less sleep we get, the higher functioning we are, and surviving on little sleep is worn as a badge of honour. Throughout my corporate career, I can see shifts in the mindsets of some of our younger employees who take a far more holistic view of their well being than I ever did. But I do think if we scratch beneath the surface, some of these beliefs are still there.
Our macro-environment may also disrupt our natural sleep pattern and prevent us from getting enough sleep at night — those with small children or those with a job outside regular hours such as pilots, nurses, postal workers. In these situations, it’s important to adapt your sleep pattern appropriately, for example, scheduling an afternoon nap, but we often don’t give ourselves permission to do so.
Finally, choosing sleep isn’t always the sexy, exciting option, and we have a sense of being invincible with an ability to override nature. We can get away with this for a while because we’re not feeling the impact immediately. If we don’t see the consequences of something, we don’t feel it is relevant to us. However, in this case, we lead ourselves into poor sleep habits and when life throws us a curveball, we’re not best placed to deal with it and it’s so easy to turn to stimulants to compensate for lack of sleep.
Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional, and physical health.)
- Treat your wakeup as a marathon not a sprint. Allow your body to wake up slowly without additional stressors such as newsfeeds, emails and social media. This stops us from over-reacting to information we find stressful when cortisol levels are at their highest.
- Start your day with day light not blue light. Stepping outside and getting natural light in your eyes in the early morning helps to establish the role of light in your daily Circadian Rhythm and helps boost your mood.
- Stand up / Sit down — find your balance. I am naturally restless and sitting at my desk from Zoom call to email and back again left me stiff, uncomfortable and lethargic. I create balance by using a stand up and sit-down desk and have noticed an increase in my energy level, productivity and focus.
- Dance. Dance badly, dance energetically and dance with abandonment (skill optional) to music that gives you pleasure– I did a whole load of dancing last night in my kitchen and shimmied the week away.
- Help your neighbours. Helping others takes the emphasis off you and is a great way to reduce anxiety because you’re no longer the central point of your own focus. It’s positively uplifting to know that you’re making a difference to someone else’s life. For example, act as a mentor, support your local community etc…
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from feeling rested what are three benefits of better sleep. Can you explain?
Good sleep means good fitness, good mental and physical health, a higher level of cognitive capacity and performance as well as a better social and emotional life. Benefits that we regularly pull out are skin health, physical performance and mood regulation.
Overnight, skin goes into repair and restore mode, meaning it removes toxins, repairs cell and DNA damage caused by the environment, replaces ageing cells and creates new ones. That’s why after good quality sleep, skin looks fresher, younger and more radiant.
If we regularly do not get enough sleep, then our overnight repair is compromised and we quickly see the impact of this in features such as dark circles under our eyes, loss of elasticity and the onset of fine lines and wrinkles.
Getting enough quality sleep is critical for our physical recovery and repair. I say good quality sleep as it is just that, though this really happens in our deepest and most restorative sleep phase.
There are two key stages to sleep, NREM and REM; these are repeated throughout the night in a cycle that will, on average, take around 90 minutes. NREM is the state we enter as we begin to fall asleep, it stands for Non-Rapid-Eye movement and covers our transition from wakefulness, to light sleep, to deep sleep. During this phase we disengage from our surroundings, our breathing and heart rate are regular, and our body temperature drops.
As we transition into our deepest and most restorative sleep our blood pressure drops, breathing becomes slower and muscles relax; at this stage of sleep tissue growth and repair occurs, energy is restored, and hormones (such growth) are released.
Sleep loss is thought to cause not only daytime sleepiness and impaired conscious mental activity (such as our hand-eye coordination) but is also associated with emotional instability, anxiety, confusion and an increase in negative moods such as anger, frustration, irritability, sadness, and a decrease in positive mood.
For someone who is looking to improve their daily sleep routine, what changes do you recommend?
What many people don’t appreciate is that a good night’s sleep is a day in the making, not just what we do in the hour before bed. I always recommend managing your stress levels and establishing both a wake-up and winddown routine.
Our Cortisol levels are at their highest around 6am to 8am as we wake. They should naturally start to decline, but if you are in a cycle of bad sleep, it’s possible that your Cortisol (stress) levels are consistently elevated, which can act as a suppressor of the sleep hormone Melatonin. To manage your stress levels, try adjusting your wake-up time. Delay turning on technology, get outside and get some light in your eyes, and establish an exercise routine to help to burn off Cortisol.
Establish a winddown routine that works for you and stick to it — think of it like sleep training a baby. You don’t get it right the first time and you don’t stop on the first night they sleep through.
On a practical level, establishing and maintaining a nightly winddown or sleep routine helps to reset our minds. Rebalance your natural wake-sleep cycles with a routine such as dimming lights and limiting brain stimulation (turning off Netflix an hour earlier and disconnecting from our devices). By developing these associated (conditioning) stimuli, we can potentially signal to our brain that it is time to sleep. Within this routine the use of a pillow spray such as our deep sleep pillow spray can play an important role — both as a conditioning stimuli and because the very act of inhaling a fragrance may have an impact on many physiological parameters — such as blood pressure and pulse rate.
What impact does sleep not only have on wellness but also beauty and stress management?
I think I have covered the benefits of sleep for our wellness, beauty and stress management, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced waking up irritable, cranky and craving sugar or caffeine after a bad night’s sleep.
What is worth noting is that stress and sleep are cyclically linked. When we are stressed, hormones (among them, Cortisol, our stress hormone) are released, leading to fragmented and less deep sleep — the most restorative of all. In reverse, a lack of sleep can also lead to an increase in Cortisol. Put simply, reducing our stress levels and maintaining healthy sleep patterns as much as possible is essential for our wellbeing. When we stress less, we sleep better, and when we sleep better, we stress less.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
The book I’ve read that really sticks with me is Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, it shaped my understanding around what emotional intelligence is and how it contributes to functioning, relationships, performance and leadership. It definitely shaped the way I looked at myself in the workplace from the early 90s onwards.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think sometimes we can affect change by paying attention to the world right under our nose –not grandiose acts that are a public statement or worthy of PR announcements — but small acts of kindness for the people who walk alongside us day by day.
My mantra is that if I meet someone with a need that they can’t fulfil in that moment and that I am able to give, then I’ll do my best to help — it can be as simple as helping someone across the road, providing advice, carrying them when they can’t carry themselves and yes sometimes financial support. In that moment, my only request is that when the time comes, they do what they can to help others.
That is how I live my life — lots of small and personal ways of helping people that you then hope will help others. It sounds simple, but in a world where much is done for how it looks to others, perhaps small acts are rarer than they should be.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
In years gone by I would have cited ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ After the last twelve months this has evolved with the addition of ‘and when you know this trust your gut, be bold and do it’.
When it became apparent that COVID-19 was going to change the world as we knew it, we entered a space where there was nobody to follow, where trends were unfolding day-by-day and where it seemed no one had the answers. In that space, we had to create our own path to follow.
I went back to the basics, asking “what do I and my neighbours need right now?” and came back with a two-part answer. First, sleep and rest were in order, to deal with whatever was coming next and to give ourselves the best chance of resiliency.
Second, whilst we didn’t know how to cure or prevent COVID-19, we did understand transmission. Previously unassuming products such as hand sanitisers were going to become highly sought after and a source of great reassurance and comfort — at a time when there were very few available.
Based on these two inputs, we developed our stress check hand sanitiser from concept to market in under two months. This product development played a crucial role for our business’ continued growth and also demonstrated our business’ ethics as we priced low and distributed wide to ensure it was as accessible as possible for all consumers.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
This took almost more thought than everything else, but I think Jane Fonda would be up there! Incredibly successful, living life on her own terms, effortlessly stylish and an absolute icon.