I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Stacie Stephenson of VibrantDoc.
She is a recognized leader in functional medicine focused on integrative, regenerative, anti-aging, and natural medicine modalities. In addition to her functional medicine and anti-aging board certifications, she is a Certified Nutrition Specialist® and Doctor of Chiropractic. Dr. Stephenson is the founder and CEO of a new health and wellness media venture, VibrantDoc, and serves as the Chair of Functional Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America®. She is also a board member for the American Nutritional Association, has partnered in a joint “Healthy Communities” venture with the American Heart Association, and is the Vice Chair of Gateway for Cancer Research, a non-profit organization dedicated to funding breakthrough cancer research and early stage clinical trials.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
My pleasure! I’m always happy to talk to Thrive Global.
When I was younger, the career I thought I would have was as an Olympic figure skater. I started skating as a child and trained seriously for over a decade throughout my teens and into my early college years. I thought I was invincible. I never imagined I would get injured, even though many athletes do. I didn’t think a serious injury could happen to me…until it did.
I had always eaten a healthful diet and was exceptionally fit from all the training and conditioning but I drove myself really hard and juggled a lot. I wanted to know everything and do everything, so while I was training full-time to make it to the Olympics and have a career as a professional athlete, I was also fascinated in the health aspects of athletics and wanted to become a doctor. On top of all that, since I had to fund my education and skating I worked my way through all of it by learning how to flip homes with very little money.. I couldn’t afford contractors so I was literally painting and laying carpet and even doing some roofing myself.
I was so sure that I could be a full-time, high-performing pro athlete while earning money on real estate, go to the Olympics, get a gold medal, then go into private practice, maybe with my real estate ventures on the side. What I didn’t realize was that between training full time, and working full time, and going to school full time, demanding perfection from myself out of everything I did, my body was breaking down. There were signs, but I ignored them. I thought my stringent diet and the fact that I was exercising (i.e., training for hours a day) were enough to keep me healthy through a heavy course load, all-night study sessions, and the hard manual labor that comes with renovating homes, but I wasn’t paying any attention to the effects of the chronic stress all these activities put on my body and mind. I subscribed to the “I can sleep when I’m dead” philosophy, so when my body literally forced me to stop, I was floored (literally). What seemed sudden to me was likely a long time in coming, but it seemed to me like it all happened in one fell swoop — one minute I was on the ice, the next I was in the hospital.
That’s when I had to have a real heart-to-heart with myself. I realized that if something like this could happen, I would be crazy to pour all my hopes and dreams into a career as a professional athlete. I was risking my future, and there were so many things I still wanted to do! I felt like I had barely dodged a bullet. What was I thinking? Professional athletics is a fine track for many people, but I was trying to do it as just one of many ambitious ventures, and I realized I was going to have to make a choice because I was physically and mentally exhausted. I finally had to admit that I couldn’t do it all. There weren’t enough hours in the day and I’d run my energy tank down to empty. My resilience was shot. “Just” going to med school seemed like it would be a relief.
But this was a hard decision, and my recovery was also long, painful, and difficult. I became depressed, and began to suffer from recurring strep throat infections. I got rheumatic fever and mononucleosis. It was like my immune system had given up. And then there were the doctors.
At that time, I thought being a doctor sounded great. I imagined going into sports medicine or something along those lines, but as I interacted with doctors throughout my recovery, I became disillusioned. At first I thought they would be able to fix me up and get me back into my skates, but they just kept adding to my long list of diagnoses and prescribing more medications, and none of it seemed to help. I had an intuition that there was more to my problem than prescription drugs could fix. What about my depression? Why was I getting all these infections? But I didn’t get answers to those questions. This galvanized my resolve to become a doctor — the best doctor! Being naturally competitive and ambitious, I decided I could do better than those doctors who weren’t helping me. If I could only do one thing, I would do it all the way. After I graduated from college, I enrolled in medical school.
But medical school was another disappointment. I learned that the doctors who had treated me after my accident were doing exactly what they’d been trained to do. They diagnosed me based on my symptoms and prescribed the appropriate medications, but that wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. All my medical school classes were about sickness and what I really wanted to know was how to be healthy. How could I help others avoid the kind of injury and subsequent breakdown I had suffered?
I began searching. I tried many different tracks in the medical school model, seeking some sign that this or that specialty would finally answer my questions and feel right and true. Then one day, a group of my fellow medical students convinced me to go to a seminar with them. There, Dr. Jeffrey Bland was speaking about a new field he was developing called functional medicine.
I listened to his lecture with great interest. Here was something different. Dr. Bland was talking about how to follow symptoms back to their root causes and focus treatment there, rather than patching up the end-stage symptoms of a primary system dysfunction. For the first time, what I was hearing about health and disease made perfect intuitive sense. I left that seminar with EPA/DHA supplements, glucosamine supplements, and a whole new attitude. I changed course and began to study to become a functional medicine practitioner.
That day opened up a whole new world to me, and I wanted to know everything. In addition to functional medicine, I studied and got certified in many other integrative, holistic, and lifestyle medicine therapies, including nutrition, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, anti-aging medicine, regenerative medicine, and more. If it was about how lifestyle and other natural health enhancements could support the body’s innate healing power, I wanted in.
When I was fully qualified, I went into private practice, opening my own small clinic in the Midwest, in a community you would not think would be interested in holistic health. Nobody else in town was practicing anything like what I offered, and after I hung up my shingle, I waited nervously to see if anyone would come to me for help. That first phone call was so exciting, and after that, the phone never stopped ringing. The idea that people could be empowered to affect their own health through lifestyle and natural remedies was just as attractive to my patients as it was to me (even if other more traditional local doctors didn’t approve of my “fringe” methods), and I did everything I could to help them. I worked very hard for 14 years.
Eventually, I closed up my shop and joined the Cancer Treatment Centers of America as their Chair of Functional Medicine, and more recently I have joined the board for the American Nutrition Association, and I am an ambassador for the American Heart Association and the Vice Chair of Gateway for Cancer Research. Playing a role in these national-level organizations has given me an opportunity to create change from the top down. But after a few years, I began to miss having the individual impact on patients I had when I was in private practice. To meet those personal needs, I started a new enterprise called VibrantDoc, dedicated to educating, informing, and empowering anyone who wants to live a more vibrant life. It’s also why I decided to write a book, which will be coming out next year.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
Going into private practice was eye-opening. I thought my life and work in practice would be pretty simple. I would be a doctor and help people. But I quickly realized two things. One, that opening a practice is a business. That part I loved because I have an entrepreneurial spirit. But the second was much harder to manage: I had no idea how challenging it would be to practice natural medicine in an environment inhospitable to natural medicine. My thriving practice filled with patients who sought out natural medicine because their other doctors weren’t helping them was a threat to the health care industrial complex, even in the tiny Midwest town where I started.
I have always had a vision of what clinical practice should be, and how we should care for patients as unique individuals, and in a truly service-centric way, but to do that in reality involves a lot of bucking the system. I realized that doctors don’t just treat patients. Insurance companies have power over the practice of medicine and patient treatment decisions. The state has the power to take away your license and your livelihood if you don’t follow their sometimes arbitrary rules, which are heavily influenced by profit-driven industries. A small or even a medium-sized healthcare business can be attacked on grounds that really have nothing to do with patient health and safety, or what the right thing for the patient — which is a patient’s choice to make — truly is.
I think most patients think doctors are working in their best interest, and that is what we would like to be doing, but doctors are forced to act out of fear for their licenses and fear of insurance companies. Doctors have to think out of one side of their brain about how to give a patient the best care, while out of the other side of their brain, they have to think about how not to get in trouble with lawyers for the state, how not to lose their licenses, how not to lose their incomes (which are necessary to pay back debts from years of education) — all that is swirling around in a doctor’s head all the time.
In my practice, I always chose the patient but that is a rebel mentality. It shouldn’t be, but it is. That is something I continued to learn even after I left private practice and became the Chair of Functional Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. CTCA has a patient-first model, which is why that transition was an easy one for me. This is why they found me in the first place — we had a similar natural propensity for how health care should be practiced. CTCA believes the patient is always first and always right. They uphold those standards but it’s difficult in the current medical and legal environment. No matter how you practice patient-centric care, you have to fight that battle.
And again, this is one of the main reasons why I started VibrantDoc. I want to educate people directly about how to become as healthy as possible, so they never end up at the mercy of this medical model, having to rely on doctors who have their hands tied.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Just to put a point on my last answer, my mistake was exiting my training thinking I was entering the health profession to help people, and not understanding (at first) that the system doesn’t always allow us the freedom to do that in the ways we would like. The system doesn’t want to let go of a purely conventional, industrial model. It’s not a health care system at all. It’s really a sick-care system. I had this mistaken, glowing, optimistic idea of what it meant to be of service and it was a hard lesson to learn, that I was not free to enact that in the way I thought was best for my patients.
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?
Wow, there are so many people that would quality for this answer. I have been unusually fortunate, or just plain lucky, to have been able to interface in a direct and personal way with many of the brightest and most influential luminaries in the world of integrative medicine in this country. Every few years throughout my career, I made a collegial acquaintance that deeply mentored me in an area of medicine, and it was always by chance. Often they could have taken notice of any one of thousands of students, but they took notice of me, for some reason. I took this beautiful winding path through Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), functional medicine, naturopathic medicine, nutrition, and I have been able to interact in a meaningful way with the movers and shakers in this realm.
To name just a few, while learning acupuncture, I met and formed a friendship with one of the most honored acupuncturists in China, Dr. Jing Liu, who now has a practice in the U.S. Dr. Liu was named “The Master of Masters” by Dr. Shi Xue Min, the “Father of Acupuncture,” and she is my personal advisor both for my own health practices and for Traditional Chinese Medicine information in my book.
In medical school, I met Dr. Jeffrey Bland, the “father of functional medicine,” and as one among hundreds of other medical students, he was willing to mentor me, ushering me into the world of functional medicine in a way that helped me really connect with that method of patient care and the people who practice it.
Later, I became friends with Dr. Joe Pizzorno, who founded Bastyr University, which was the first accredited naturopathic medical school in the United States, and we remain personal friends to this day. He took an interest in my career and showed me that integrative medicine has the potential to become a major player in the healthcare world. He helps keep alive in me the hope that what was once fringe will someday become the default for care.
I’ve interacted with leading thinkers in the world of chelation therapy, and I have funded cancer functional medicine trials through Gateway for Cancer Research, which has given me the opportunity to meet renowned researchers who are blazing trails in the field of integrative cancer care. When you get involved with these projects in cutting-edge fields, you get to work closely with the brilliant minds who are actually operating on that edge and changing the course of integrative medicine.
Finally, I have to mention my husband, Richard J. Stephenson. He is, simply put, a giant in the world of holistic cancer care. He founded the Cancer Treatment Centers of America after his mother lost her battle with cancer because he wanted to provide care for other cancer patients that his mother was not able to receive. He fought the battle that allowed medical facilities to advertise, so people could be aware that they had options. He helped make acupuncture legal in the state of Illinois, where CTCA began, and has been involved in other legislative movements to improve the state of health care. When CTCA recruited me, we met for the first time, and the rest is history!
Meeting mentors and guides continues to happen to me, perhaps because I am never settled in what I know. I am always growing and developing and asking questions, and this has resulted in a steady trickle of mentors appearing just when I needed them.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
My hope is that VibrantDoc and my forthcoming book will be how I am able to make the biggest impact I’ve had so far. Through VibrantDoc, I continually offer guidance and direction related to all I know about prevention and health optimization, or as I like to put it, living a vibrant life. VibrantDoc has a presence on most major social media platforms, and I also post weekly blogs on my website and publish articles in health-centric publications whenever I get the chance. Knowing what it means to get sick and not get the help you need, I want to empower people to take their health into their own hands. There is a lot people can do on their own to insure that they stay as healthy as possible, and that is by far the best scenario.
This is also why I am writing the book, in which I take people through a program of health renovation, bringing vitality and vibrancy into the body in a way that radiates and glows from within, and teaches people how to listen to the wisdom of their own bodies, I also talk about what the stakes are and why it’s so important to nurture and strengthen health rather than leaving health up to chance. This is how we build a healthy and vibrant future world. If people aren’t healthy, society cannot be healthy. My hope is that I can reach far more people through VibrantDoc and the book than I ever could in private practice, and I can speak the truth without fear of retribution, in a mode that does not involve government interference or insurance company dictates, but instead puts the power of health back into the hands of the individual.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
To get the whole program for remaking lifestyle for health and well-being, I hope you will look for my book next spring, and I’m always bringing you the latest tweaks based on what’s happening in the world on my blog, but one of my favorite things to recommend to people who are looking for a way to dip their toe into health empowerment is my Desert Island Supplement protocol. If I was stuck on a desert island and I could have only five supplements, these are the ones I would choose. They cover your nutritional bases in ways your diet probably doesn’t, so you can provide your body, including your brain, your immune system, and your detoxification system, with everything it needs to heal itself and thrive. They are:
- Vitamin C. This is far and away my favorite vitamin. I recommend it to everyone. It is instrumental in many different functions, including immunity, which of course everyone is thinking about right now. High-dose vitamin C has been a medical treatment in integrative settings for serious viral infections, and it could prevent you from succumbing to a viral infection. I recommend taking 1,000 mg per day to start, divided between two or three doses throughout the day, since your body processes and eliminates this water-soluble vitamin quickly. Some people (myself included) take much higher doses. You can work up gradually to 3,000 to 5,000 mg per day for maximum support, depending on your tolerance for it, but even 1,000 mg per day will give your immune system support and help to reduce inflammation. Don’t go up too quickly or you could experience some gastrointestinal issues. When you increase gradually, you can gauge your personal vitamin C tolerance.
- Vitamin D3. This is the second most critical supplement after vitamin C, in my opinion, and many people are deficient. The official party line is that approximately 40% of Americans don’t get enough, but I believe this number is actually much higher. A vitamin D deficiency according to conventional medicine is to have less than 20 ng/mL of vitamin D (a simple test can tell you your level). Some labs and doctors put the level as low as less than 12 ng/mL. Those of us trained in functional medicine believe that level should be much higher — at least 50 ng/mL, and optimally as high as 80 ng/mL. Most people don’t have a level that high. We make vitamin D when the sun hits our skin, but considering that most people spend most of their time inside and many live in climates where they can get outside in the sun only part of the year, it’s simply impossible to get enough. Sunscreen also inhibits vitamin D production, but the risk of skin cancer trumps the benefits of vitamin D production, especially since you can get it through supplementation. Be sure to look for the bioavailable D3, instead of the poorly absorbed D2. I recommend a daily dose of 1000 IU for every 50 pounds of bodyweight.
- Vitamin B complex. The B vitamins perform many critical functions in the body, including energy, growth, digestion, organ support, and hormone production, but they all work together and can be taken together. The best absorbed B vitamins are methylated formulas. Look for one that contains all 8 essential B vitamins: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12). Follow dosage directions on the bottle (which, by the way, are generally formulated for someone who weighs about 150 pounds).
- Magnesium with Calcium, aka Cal/Mag. These are the primary minerals I recommend. Magnesium is important for nervous system regulation, blood sugar and blood pressure regulation, and can help ease constipation (especially magnesium citrate). Magnesium can also ease anxiety and improve sleep quality (especially magnesium glycinate). Avoid the less well absorbed magnesium oxide. Women need 300 to 400 mg per day. Calcium is also important, especially if you are prone to osteoporosis, because it is necessary for building strong bones and teeth. Your muscles and nerves also utilize calcium. I recommend taking 1500 mg per day. Calcium citrate is better absorbed than calcium carbonate.
- EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) are omega-3 fatty acids from supplements made from fish oil. EPA protects your heart and is anti-inflammatory, while DHA protects your brain and can help to fight off depression and reduce your risk of dementia. Both EPA and DHA also maintain the health of the cell membrane. Be sure to get a purified, mercury-free version. I recommend getting up to 4000 mg of combined EPA and DHA per day for maximum benefit.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I am starting a movement! The Vibrant movement. It is exactly what you say — my way of bringing the most wellness to the most people. We know that lifestyle determines health. You are what you eat. You thrive based on how much you move. You create happiness from health as well as from connecting with others. You benefit from understanding your own body, knowing how it works at least at a basic level, and learning to listen to its signals.
Your body is always talking to you, telling you what it needs, and telling you when you are doing something that is harmful or suppresses health and healing. The Vibrant movement is about learning to listen, to tune in to that voice within that tells you what you already know: Health is mostly up to you. Even if you have a genetic propensity for disease, something in your environment has to flip that genetic switch. You can keep those switches flipped off if you live a healthy life and take care of yourself, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Vibrant isn’t just about the obvious aspects of physical health. It is a truly holistic self-care program that looks at everything about your lifestyle and urges you to look more closely, too. Every decision you make can potentially influence how you feel and how well you thrive, or don’t. To be vibrant is to choose wisely what you will eat, whether you will exercise, how well you will love others, and how you build mental and physical resilience, organ reserve, and joyful life. Join us!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
There are so many things I wish I’d known before launching into writing a book. Here are the top three that stand out:
1. It’s hard! I never realized how much energy it would take. I think a lot of people have the idea of writing a book, but the dream is much different than the reality of sitting down every day and getting your mind in the right place and writing content that will actually inform and help people feel empowered to live a better, more vibrant life. I wanted to go beyond the obvious advice and dig deeper, and that took quite a lot of mental endurance and complex thought. I’m sure I’m better for it, though! It has been great exercise for my brain.
2. It takes a long time! I imagined I could write a book in a few months and then it would be published, but working with publishers is complex and the writing, editorial process, production process, and distribution take a long time. That’s not even counting all the time it took me to formulate and reformulate what I wanted to say and participate in how I want the book to look. The deeper you go as you consider a complex subject, the more ideas evolve and new concepts rise to the surface. Before you know it, what you are saying is much deeper and more involved than you thought it would be. It’s invigorating and mentally stimulating, and it’s definitely not something you do in a quick couple of months.
3. It’s ultimately far more satisfying than I thought it would be. The relief and pride of finishing that first full draft is like nothing I’ve experienced before. I’m still involved in the editorial process now, and I can only imagine how it will feel when the book is actually on the shelves of bookstores! It’s very exciting.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Mental health is close to my heart because I believe it is that one missing piece from most healthcare programs, including holistic ones. Mental health is still in the closet, surrounded by shame and misunderstanding. I’m actually offended that we call it mental health, as if it is something apart from physical health. It’s a false dichotomy. You cannot separate them. They are a composite, and part of the Vibrant movement is to take a truly holistic view of mental health. By holistic, I mean WHOLE-istic, as in the whole person and everything that influences that person’s life, from internal biochemistry to external environment, from past experiences to present choices.
Mental health is organic and physical but it isn’t treated that way. When your body sends you signals about its own well-being, that includes emotional and mental signals, like joy and delight, or sadness and anxiety. Worry has a physical effect on the gastrointestinal system, and digestive problems have a physical effect on the brain. It’s all one, and I will continue to champion this approach until a mental health crisis is judged and treated in the same way as a physical health crisis.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
You can find me on my website where I post my blog at www.vibrantdoc.com, and you can subscribe to my video series on YouTube by just searching for VibrantDoc. My Instagram handle is @Vibrant.Doc, and on Twitter, you can follow me at @VibrantDoc. I’m on Facebook too, just search for VibrantDoc. I’ll roll out more resources in the future, and you can keep an eye on any of my channels for information on the book release next spring. I’m looking forward to seeing you online!