Dr. Gus Vickery is a licensed, practicing medical doctor who helps individuals experience their full human potential through health optimization. He is the author of Authentic Health, is a well-respected speaker, and the founder and directing physician of Vickery Family Medicine in Asheville, NC. He established his practice with a commitment to delivering holistic, compassionate and evidence-based care, and strives to help everyone achieve their authentic health. He is an expert in weight management, human performance and longevity.
Q: What was your motivation behind writing Authentic Health?
A: As a family physician, I was always trying to understand how to help my patients experience good health. I had expected that I would spend most of my consultation time focused on preventative care and urgent, acute care issues. I observed that many of my patients were challenged by chronic disease and the many symptoms associated with poor health. I also found that pharmaceutical treatments were primarily palliative and not curative. My patients were becoming sicker rather than experiencing the benefits of good health. All day long I was listening to patients talk about how much they hurt, how they could not lose weight, how they were always tired, how anxious and depressed they were, and many other symptoms of poor health. I knew this was not how things were supposed to be, and the treatment models I had been taught were not sufficient to solve these problems. I began to study nutrition, neuroscience, habit change, stress responses, meditation, movement, and many other aspects of human health. The more I learned, the more I wanted to share with my patients. I realized they wanted to understand these truths because they sincerely desired to feel better. I eventually decided to write a book that would outline the philosophy of health I had learned through my experience with my patients as well as my additional studies. That book became Authentic Health. I wrote it for my patients.
Q: You advise your patients to “remove the blame.” Please explain.
A: Most of the patients that I see who are dealing with poor health blame themselves. They feel their poor health is the result of their lack of willpower and their inability to change. This causes shame, guilt and a negative self-concept. Others blame their poor health on circumstances beyond their control and develop a victim mentality. Whether they blame themselves or blame others, the result is a negative mindset that further disempowers them from being able to pursue their best health. The truth is that most people truly desire to feel good and be healthy. More than likely, individuals who find themselves in a state of poor health did not intentionally choose the habits that created this state. Their behaviors were conditioned patterns that started long before the age of conscious choice. They need to recognize this and let go of blaming themselves or others, practice self-forgiveness, and leave shame behind.
Q: How are stress responses destructive to a person’s health? In what ways can breathing and meditation combat stress?
A: Stress is a natural part of life. Our bodies are designed to deal with stress through finely tuned systems that promote our survival. Stress, in the right dose and duration, is good for us. Exercise, sauna, fasting and cold therapy are forms of stress that can promote better health when done properly. However, we are not designed for chronic, unrelenting, daily stress that we feel is out of our control. We now live in a time that fear is continually imprinted into our consciousness. This creates a continual feeling of stress to our minds. This is then translated into hormonal signals that alter our physiological state. We end up with an unbalanced central nervous system that stays in a state of sympathetic (flight or fight) activation which causes unnaturally high levels of stress hormones. The body and mind are not designed for this. Stress should be counterbalanced by periods of real rest, recovery and sufficient sleep. Chronic stress results in neurotransmitter imbalances that cause depression, anxiety, sleep issues, loss of focus and fatigue. It also contributes to gastrointestinal problems, weight gain, insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, muscle tension, headaches and many other symptoms and conditions. If this continues then it will eventually result in diseases. Breathing is a powerful tool to reduce bodily stress responses. The breath can be used to rebalance the CNS (central nervous system) and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Proper breathing reduces physiological stress responses. Forms of meditation and mindfulness can help us to retrain our brains from a state of worry and other negative emotions into a state of wellbeing and positive emotions. Over time, meditation allows us to take control of our thoughts, feelings and emotions so we can foster a peaceful inner state of being.
Q: For losing weight, you go against conventional wisdom regarding consuming small meals throughout the day. Please explain your reasoning.
A: Our eating behaviors and body composition are powerfully influenced by genetic and hormonal processes. Our genetics have been finely tuned over an immense span of time to promote the ability to survive and thrive. If you study the pattern of eating of our remote ancestors, you will find very few examples of societies that ate multiple small meals a day. The typical pattern was one or two meals daily with ample fasting periods.
Our bodies were designed to spend more time in a fasting state than in a fed state. Our ancestors who grazed throughout the day would have been climbing trees to pluck fruit, cracking open nuts and digging roots and tubers out of the ground while walking long distances. They would not have been stopping to eat a meal every few hours. Eating every few hours causes us to focus on food all day long and keeps changing our physiological state from an energy utilizing state to an energy storing state. Fasting helps develop the metabolic flexibility that allows us to use stored energy properly, which results in stable energy levels and the ability to manage our hunger effectively.
Q: In your book, you talk about why physical activity is essential for health—how often should a person exercise? Why?
A: It depends on the individual’s genetics and their goals. I emphasize focusing on overall body movement. If a person is primarily focused on living their longest healthiest lifespan, then I recommend trying to move as much as possible most days of the week. I recommend embracing the opportunity to squat, kneel, stand, walk, hang, push, pull, stretch and any other movements that maintain optimal biomechanical mobility. It is also important to maintain lean body mass by engaging in some type of strength training. This can be once or twice a week, but the individual should make sure they take all of their major muscle groups to failure to send the body the right signals and create the positive hormonal responses associated with strength training. Finally, I recommend some form of higher intensity exercise two to three days a week. This can be accomplished with high intensity interval training in relatively short sessions. Essentially, move as much as possible, strength train at least once a week, and perform some form of higher intensity activity a couple of times a week. This is different than what I would recommend for a high-level athletic individual.
Q: What steps should someone take to get a better sleep quality and quantity?
A: Getting sufficient sleep is one of the most important things we can do to foster our best health. First, we have to recognize how important sleep is and place a high priority on it. Second, we have to create an environment that supports good sleep—dark, quiet, cool, comfortable, no blinking lights or screens, and minimal exposures to EMF (eletric and magnetic fields). Third, we have to create a daily rhythm that supports optimal circadian rhythm function—maximize natural light and reduce screen time, exercise, proper breathing, hydration, proper timing of eating and a soothing bedtime routine that conditions our brain to move into restorative sleep cycles. We also must provide sufficient time for sleep which is seven to eight hours for most adults. Getting sufficient restorative sleep is like unlocking a superpower you did not know you had. Once experienced you will highly value it.
Q: You have stated, “I think our health care system makes health sound complicated and difficult, but I believe that it’s actually quite simple and quite enjoyable.” How do you help your patients achieve simple and enjoyable health?
A: I try to help my patients understand that, although our bodies are infinitely complex, the basic habits that support our best health are relatively simple. We need sleep. We need nutritious foods. We need clean air and water. We need movement, natural light and exposure to nature. If we create a daily rhythm that honors these needs, our bodies and minds will be fine. The challenge is that our current lifestyle paradigm works against these principles. But if we are willing to start making small changes in the right direction, our bodies will return us to a much healthier state of being. Once people experience the benefits of better health, these habits become self-reinforcing. They feel too good to return to their old patterns.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: Human beings have so much potential. Our minds and bodies are capable of giving us such an incredible experience of life when they are cared for properly.
While our bodies are infinitely complex, the path of authentic health is relatively simple. Do not settle for the current status quo of health. Do not accept the idea that poor health is expected as we age. Learn the truth of your body and pursue your best health. You will never regret the journey.