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‘For me, the biggest challenge is speaking up’ – Dr Clara Doran [Interview]

Article-‘For me, the biggest challenge is speaking up’ – Dr Clara Doran [Interview]

Women in Nutrition interview with Dr Clara Doran
Dr Clara Doran has more than 20 years’ experience as a GP. In 2014, after the birth of her son, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This inspired her to explore the world of cognitive health and she took up studies at the University of Edinburgh and the US-based Institute of Functional Medicine.

In 2018, she set up her own supplements company, Noggin The Brain People. She told us about her mission to improve the cognitive health of the UK and to help people understand the difference that even small lifestyle changes can make to brain health.

You left your job as a GP to set up your own company. Can you tell us a bit about your background, and what prompted you to take that leap?

“Being diagnosed with MS [multiple sclerosis] when my son was a baby changed everything for me. Having gone to medical school at 17, I had followed a pretty standard medical career path until then and was fortunate to work in a variety of settings in my role as a GP.

“When I returned to work after maternity leave, I was coming to terms with my own health and being a new mum. This motivated me to want to learn about lifestyle, wellbeing, and ways to care for ourselves as opposed to being more focused on a disease-centred model of health. The more I read, the more I realised that nutrition and sleep were absolutely critical to health, and specifically the health of our brain.

“Wanting to understand the science and evidence behind this, I studied functional medicine and read as many books and papers as I could find to really understand what these preventative approaches to health were all about. Everything I read led me back to nutrition and the challenges we face, in modern life, to get what we need from our diet. Despite the best of intentions and making personal changes to our diet as a family, I realised there was a role for supplementation to support brain health that I just couldn't get from my fridge.

“When I looked at supplements on the shelves, it was confusing and there were lots of ingredients that did not match nutritional benefit. I wanted to take a supplement that had what my brain needed and would benefit my health with nothing else added, so I decided I would make my own.”

You were 42 when you made that career change. What have been the main barriers to setting up a business? Do you think age has an impact on people’s perceptions?

“The biggest challenge has been starting at the beginning of something again, and it takes time to create, test, and learn. However, even when I’m finding something tricky to understand, I tell myself, thanks to the wonder of neuroplasticity, that my brain is benefiting from the challenges.

“There is so much about business, specifically e-commerce and social media, that [is] hard to navigate. Having ideas is the easy part, but finding ways to make things happen is much harder. There is always someone trying to sell you the perfect way to get your business off the ground.

“Talk is cheap, but I’ve learned to really question people’s experience and get into the specifics of what they can offer. Being in my forties and having seen thousands of patients over the years, I’ve brought my experience of working with people and well-practised communication skills into Noggin. Fortunately for me, people’s perceptions are positive because of my qualifications and having 20 years working in medicine. However, I find the social media world a minefield and it makes me feel old to even say that!”

Noggin is a female-led business. What are the benefits – or challenges – that come with this?

“At the core of our business is a purpose to help people feel empowered to manage their cognitive health and feel better. Our female advisory panel share this and have brought this to Noggin from their own professional experiences. For me, the biggest challenge is speaking up – I regularly doubt myself and am naturally quiet, which I know is something shared by many women. And as a mum, family time and being with my son is key, so managing my time is vital.”

You have been vocal about the challenges of founding a business when you have a chronic illness. Having been both patient and doctor, how do you think the world of work could evolve to better accommodate these kinds of needs?

“The conversation around chronic illness has changed due to the Covid pandemic. This helped people realise that not all disabilities are visible and … that what people present to you may be them at their best. As the world has returned to a degree of normality and people [have] become busier with their lives and everything they missed out on during the pandemic, this has changed again. Offering employees flexibility is key.”

Cognitive health is of increasing importance to consumers, with a lot of crossover into other health categories. What trends have you seen at Noggin?

“Brain-related menopause symptoms are a huge area of interest for our customers. With two-thirds of new dementia diagnoses being made in women, it is key that we as women recognise that brain health is women's health. The interest in our products and communications [from] women in their mid-forties has been fascinating, and [it has been] extremely rewarding to get their reviews and positive feedback.”

What would you say to other female entrepreneurs in your position?

“As someone just at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey, I’d say ask yourself what you really want. Be clear on your purpose, why you want to create something, and take the first step. Step away from the social media versions of overnight success stories and listen to yourself. Sleep, move, and care for your noggin along the way: when your brain is working well, so will you.”