A New Kind of Medicine 12

January is the month of resolutions, and most of them orbit a single idea: health. Gyms fill with new fitness devotees, piles of organic produce dwindle at alarming rates, folks hit the pillow earlier and their yoga mats later. And yet, good health is a seemingly unattainable goal for a growing percentage of Americans.

Dr. Gus Vickery is a doctor in the truest sense of the word, in that his singular goal is to improve the overall health and well-being of all his patients—and even those who aren’t his patient. Over the past decade, he’s watched as rates of formerly rare conditions like fibromyalgia, diabetes, chronic pain and migraines have increased with alarming swiftness. Simultaneously, he’s pinpointed the cause of these health problems and set out to revoke it. It all comes back to one factor: poor health.

“The first thing they have to do is actually desire [good health],” Dr. Vickery notes, his elbows propped on the desk, fingers arching to meet. “We can almost always identify things that individual could begin to implement themselves that will facilitate their movement toward optimal health.”

The problem is that those simple changes are actually difficult. Dr. Vickery notes that folks often have a large list of complaints, but when you offer solutions they shut down quickly. But if you’re open to those solutions and genuinely want to feel good, the first step is to see how your daily habits align with your end goal—namely, good health. “Take an inventory of your daily habits,” he says. “What do you eat, drink, sleep, expose your brain to, who do you socialize with, who are your influencers? Are those consistent with what you say you want for yourself?” And if not—be willing to change.

But often Dr. Vickery is met with the response, “I get that, but why can’t I make it happen?” That’s where the science comes in.

The prefrontal cortex is the muscle of the brain that allows you to develop emotions, think critically, create visions and act upon them. For years, dopamine (received through addictive habits—anything from eating fatty foods to shopping to gambling to watching tv) was thought to be a direct response to pleasure, but recent research has proved it’s actually the desire or craving for pleasure, which triggers repeated actions. Dopamine also activates a stress response that directly inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which under most circumstance would help you think more clearly.

“Brains weren’t supposed to have dopamine triggered over and over again, but that’s what happens,” Dr. Vickery notes. “We’re constantly surrounded by sights and smells of fatty, sugary food, alcohol, tobacco, our tech pinging constantly.” These are products that were engineered to be addictive; you crave them, but they never lead to actual pleasure.

On the other hand, there are healthy habits that help build and sustain true well-being. “Exercise, meditation, yoga, listening to music, socializing, reading, taking a walk, playing with your pet, attending a religious ceremony—the things people sought for millennia,” says Dr. Vickery. “The more you do them, the stronger pathways become, and the less susceptible you are to dopamine.”

So how do you build those positive habits that will in turn eliminate the bad ones? The first step is to source your food well. Chronic inflammation and blood clots are common ailments in his practice, but Dr. Vickery says that the right foods can eliminate those symptoms. Local, grass-fed meats, smaller portions, eliminating sugar and junk carbs—simple changes that reverse a host of metabolic diseases and naturally manage weight. The other keys to health include sleeping, exercise (or, as Dr. Vickery puts it, simply “movement”), and meditation (just taking some reflective time for yourself).

But Dr. Vickery understands that these changes are all easier said than done, which is why he and his team do their absolute best to make them accessible to everyone who steps though their door. For primary care copay, they offer patients a nutritional curriculum, help teach them their new skills, and offer access to cognitive behavioral specialists and nutritionists whenever possible. “We help them see that future they want for themselves,” he says. “They’ll access a mental and physical vitality they may have never tasted in their life, and they will never trade it back again.”