By Phebe Wahl | Gotham Magazine | February 17, 2021
In her first book, Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson shares the keys to living life to the fullest.
In the post-pandemic world, we are all taking our health more seriously than ever. Those wanting to make profound lifestyle changes to look and feel their best often turn to Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson, DC, CNS, and the founder and CEO of VibrantDoc. We polled the top doc for her prescription for a more vibrant life.
What first sparked your interest in wellness? It all began when I was a young figure skater with Olympic aspirations. I trained intensely and loved being an athlete. I was always careful about eating well and staying fit, but I didn’t know to pay attention to my stress level. I pushed through pain, nerves, fatigue and the minor injuries every athlete contends with, but what I didn’t see was that the chronic stress from this kind of lifestyle was chipping away at my quality of life and physical resilience. When I suffered a major injury and ended up in the hospital, I was devastated. Why did this happen? It took months of therapy and hard work to regain my mobility and master my chronic pain, but through it all, I kept believing I would get back on the ice. That wasn’t going to happen. Instead of getting better, I got worse, coming down with a series of chronic conditions: mononucleosis, rheumatic fever, recurring strep throat. If I had been my doctor back then, it would have been obvious to me that my immune system was shot from the chronic physical and mental stress, but my doctors only offered pharmaceutical help and never addressed the bigger questions: Why did I have that accident in the first place, and why wasn’t I getting better? They treated me as an injury, not as a whole person. As I say in my book, I had an intuition that it was going to have to be up to me to take better care of myself, and that is when I turned my ambitious and curious nature away from athletics and toward wellness.
Did you feel there was a void in healthcare? Absolutely, yes. Because I hadn’t been satisfied with the focus of my care after my figure skating accident, I thought I could do better, so I went to medical school. However, it didn’t take long for me to get disillusioned with the curriculum. I kept waiting for them to teach the foundations of wellness, rather than only teaching us how to diagnose and treat sickness with drugs and surgeries. Nobody ever mentioned what people were eating, how active they were or how they managed stress—the things that, to my mind, were the primary foundations of health. Wouldn’t we prevent so many problems down the line if we taught people how to build better health and avoid chronic diseases? I toyed with various specialties, but it wasn’t until some of my student friends convinced me to go see a lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Bland about this new field called functional medicine that I found my calling. This lecture changed the entire course of my career. Here was a field focused on exactly what I believed to be most important: wellness, rather than illness. I was hooked, and I voraciously consumed any information I could get about wellness, alternative care and lifestyle medicine, including nutrition, acupuncture, anti-aging medicine and much more. I’ve never looked back. Yet, despite my newfound focus, that emphasis on disease rather than wellness still exists in conventional medicine. More doctors are beginning to at least tolerate those of us practicing in a more holistic fashion, and more and more people are discovering that there is another way. It’s slow, but I believe the ship is turning. Consumers, not doctors, are steering.
What inspired you to write Vibrant? I was in private practice for many years, but after I took a position as the chair of functional medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America and began to focus more on philanthropy and funding health research, I missed helping individual people address their own wellness issues. I thought I could touch more people at this personal level with a book. But even more than that, I was frustrated that those of us treating patients with alternative methods and lifestyle medicine usually can’t offer care that is covered by insurance, making this kind of treatment more expensive and out of reach for many. I don’t believe holistic healthcare and knowledge about wellness should be only for those who can afford it. I thought back to that time when I realized I was going to have to be responsible for my own wellness rather than my injury. Could I bottle up parts of my practice and convey them to the public in a way that doesn’t require one-on-one, individual analysis? Could I give people the basic principles of health without requiring access to expensive lab tests and visits to specialists? I believe that there are basic, foundational principles to health that everyone should learn, just like they learn to tie their own shoes. And I could put those things on paper! I could translate the foundations of wellness and prevention into an accessible, affordable, achievable program anyone could put into practice on their own. Get the basics right, and then you can worry about taking it to the next level. My translation of that foundational approach is my book, Vibrant.
In your book, you focus on baby steps to reach a greater goal. Why is this approach important? Big change is hard—so hard that most people can’t sustain it. This is why most New Year’s resolutions fail. They are too big and too broad. It’s incredibly difficult to go from a completely sedentary life to daily exercise, or to completely overhaul a junk-food, standard American diet in one fell swoop. Baby steps, however, are much less intimidating, less difficult, less painful and, therefore, more sustainable. If you don’t exercise at all, an hour of exercise may not be possible, but a 10-minute walk around the block probably is. If you are addicted to sugar, quitting cold turkey may seem too punishing, but cutting your sugar intake in half may seem doable. In my book, I ease people into better habits because no good habit will help you if you don’t do it, or if you only do it sporadically. The real power and the big changes come from what you do most of the time, so an hour of exercise once a month will do very little, but 20 minutes of exercise every day will build strength, endurance, motivation and fitness over time, until that 20 minutes turns to 30 or 45 or 60 minutes, when you are ready for it.
What are the main takeaways you hope people get from this book? The bottom line is that lifestyle is the cause of pretty much every chronic health condition: low energy, excess body fat, low endurance, weakness and, eventually, chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes, obesity, hormonal imbalance, autoimmune conditions, and even heart disease and cancer. While genetics do play a small part, how you feel every day is mostly related to what you do every day, and what you do every day is almost 100% up to you. That means you have the power to build health, or not. You decide what goes in your mouth. You decide to get up off the couch or stay there. You decide whether to stay stressed or manage your stress. This book’s purpose is to inspire you to take action on your own behalf and transform poor health into vibrant health.
Can you share a few of your own personal wellness practices that keep you feeling vibrant? I’ll be honest and tell you that I am not always able to be consistent. I probably get two or three full-body, head-to-toe exercise sessions every week, but I wish it was daily. It feels like I’ve been busting it out all year, but with all the stress of COVID, I’m wondering where my abs went! The truth is that you can have wonderful energy, look beautiful and be at a good body weight, and you probably won’t get abs that look like the ones you’re seeing on social media. How you feel is what really matters. Vibrant health, not a chiseled six-pack, is what will keep you from living with a chronic disease for three decades!
Also regarding exercise, I prioritize variety because it’s like cross-training—it keeps your body fit in different ways, and it also keeps you from getting bored because you have to keep adapting. For me, a great workout day is doing 20 minutes of yoga to get nice and stretched and get my breath moving, then go hard with some weights for about 30 minutes, get my crunches in, get my heart rate up and then do some laps in the pool. I do force myself to sweat it out, though. You won’t ever get really fit if you don’t push yourself at least a little at every workout.
One more thing I’ll mention is a recent triumph: quitting coffee! It feels so good. I don’t think 6 or 7 ounces of coffee in the morning is really going to hurt anyone, but too often, one cup turns into two or three or more, and that is an adrenal gland stressor. If you can quit, your adrenals will thank you.
What other future projects can we buzz? One of my other passions is the work I do on behalf of Gateway for Cancer Research, a nonprofit organization that raises funds to support groundbreaking clinical trials of cancer drugs and other treatments. Right now, I’m putting all my energy into our campaign, Extraordinary Measures, a special funding initiative to support remote clinical trials that allow patients to participate from the safety of their own homes. Please check out gatewaycr.org to learn more. Additionally, I recently became an American Heart Association ambassador and I have some projects in the works with the AHA. I am also working on a new podcast and other books; stay tuned! You can follow along with all of my future projects at vibrantdoc.com, and/or follow me on social media at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.