The most simple, free movement that could have the largest impact on our nation’s health would be stress reduction. Stress and over stimulation leads to higher cortisol levels. High cortisol leads to weight gain, insulin resistance, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and even bone loss. We need to fight this health epidemic that is making us vulnerable to so many diseases.
One of the Midwest’s most credentialed female healthcare providers, Dr. Stephanie Gray, DNP, MS, ARNP, ANP-C, GNP-C, ABAAHP, FAARFM, is a functional medicine provider with a focus on helping men and women build sustainable health and longevity so that they can focus on what matters most to them!
As a nurse practitioner with a doctorate focusing on estrogen metabolism, a Master’s in Metabolic Nutritional Medicine, and a Fellowship in Anti-Aging Regenerative and Functional Medicine, Dr. Gray’s life work is bringing people back to their full health.
She is the author of the best-selling book Your Longevity Blueprint, co-founder of Your Longevity Blueprint nutraceuticals, and alongside her husband Eric, runs the Integrative Health and Hormone Clinic in Hiawatha, Iowa.
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?
I was born and raised in the Midwest and grew up in what I considered to be a healthy family. Early on, I knew I wanted to practice functional medicine, but I never imagined my own health struggles would provide me with even greater inspiration to pursue this path for myself and my patients.
I attended the University of Iowa and became a nurse practitioner in 2009. In Iowa, there weren’t many opportunities to work in a functional or integrative medicine environment, so I decided to become a pioneer and start a practice straight out of school. I was young, single, female, and charting a course as an entrepreneur nurse practitioner — as you can imagine, this was rare, and many people cautioned me on such a risky undertaking. However, I couldn’t imagine myself in a primary care setting where you manage chronic disease by masking symptoms with medications. I knew I wanted to focus more heavily on nutrition, overall wellness, and finding patients’ answers, so I created a better path and founded the Integrative Health and Hormone Clinic while simultaneously continuing school to finish my doctorate in 2011.
I dedicated the first several years of my career to learning as much as I could to help my patients determine the root cause of their health ailments. I authored my first Ap, available on iTunes called FNP Mastery. I also pursued additional education and completed the Advanced Fellowship in Anti-Aging Regenerative and Functional Medicine, and shortly after I completed a Masters in Metabolic Nutritional Medicine in 2013.
In addition to the efforts of stretching myself professionally, I was also growing my team at the clinic, and was beginning to feel the stress of managing the business and serving as our family’s primary source of revenue. I had employees to pay, clinic administration to run, and most importantly patients to help. All of these endeavors led to burn out and mysterious symptoms; I reached a point in my life when I needed to pursue the root cause of my own health.
The pace I set for myself put me in a spiral, and I ended up with a very fast heart rate which landed me in the emergency room and eventually the Mayo Clinic (more of my story is included in my book, Your Longevity Blueprint). I had to get my life back on track quickly. Conventional medicine had no answers for me other than to take medication to control my heart rate. I suddenly felt such a personal connection to all my patients facing health concerns with no way out. I knew there had to be more to my story. I knew I was going to have to treat myself to discover the root cause of my problems, and there ended up being many: high stress, food sensitivities, nutritional deficiencies, and even hormone imbalances.
In pursuing my own health I developed a unique way of viewing how the human body is structured. My journey revealed a blueprint for my health, so I wrote Your Longevity Blueprint which dives into functional medicine and breaks down how we can improve all organ systems, from gut health, genetics, hormones, and even immune function. This approach served as a solution for me and it’s fueled my passion even more to share it with others.
My husband and I started Your Longevity Blueprint Nutraceuticals and I have grown my speaking career and I’ll be launching my first online courses very soon!
Shortly after discovering the root causes of my health problems and following the publication of my book, I hit another huge personal milestone: I was able to conceive after five years of infertility, and in 2019 my husband and I welcomed our first child. My struggles not only led me to find answers to my own health challenges, they taught me how to empathize in a deeper way with my patients, and ultimately helped me create a guide which is now the foundation of my practice. I am currently working on my second book, and I’ll be forever grateful for my journey.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Early on in my practice I learned about a competition called “Invest in She” — a local entrepreneur pitch competition similar to “Shark Tank.” I applied to be a contestant and was selected as one of six finalists who would be given the opportunity to pitch their business model or product to local investors for cash prizes to help build our businesses. I created a presentation, memorized my pitch, and delivered it on the stage of our local theatre surrounded by a large gathering of supportive friends and family. I ended up winning thousands of marketing dollars that I placed towards a commercial for the business the next year.
What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
The competition provided me the opportunity to narrow and hone my elevator speech. Normally, my business attracts those who are seriously seeking my services and have a basic knowledge of what it is I do. In this scenario, I was literally pitching my business to total strangers who were wholly unfamiliar with integrative medicine. It was much more challenging for me, but it gave me the opportunity to clarify my message and polish my pitch.
The second thing the competition taught me is the importance of personal boundaries. The stress of the competition — although fun and rewarding — was one of the catalysts to my health decline during a period of my life when I was overworked, overstressed, and over stimulated. That experience taught me to say no, set healthy boundaries, schedule down time, and not overcommit.
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?
I started my clinic from scratch and initially tried to keep billing in-house to reduce costs. In the early stages it was a good decision, but as we continued to grow, I discovered the billing wasn’t getting completed efficiently and in a timely manner by our staff. Not knowing much about billing at the time, I didn’t realize what was not getting done. Eventually, I had to hire a company to clean up the mess and get us back on track. I felt betrayed by the employee responsible for the billing, and frustrated about what happened right under my nose. As a result of the revenue lost, I learned the hard way that it’s okay to outsource what is not my strength. It’s also okay to hold employees accountable and to ask for proof of completeness when it comes to tasks that need to be accurate. I now know to check in with employees sooner to ensure problems aren’t festering or being ignored.
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?
When I first started my business back in 2011, I was looking for a location to rent space. It was the night of Christmas Eve and my family and I were on our way to attend a church service when my brother began to complain of some pain in his eye. This was not our normal church that we were attending that evening, but as God would have it, we were greeted at the door by our local optometrist, Dr. Richard Noyes. He took one look at my brother and knew he needed to be seen that evening and asked us all to accompany him back to his eye clinic to examine my brother after the Christmas Eve service was over. During the examination, he asked for updates in all our lives. I explained my dilemma of searching for a clinic space to rent for a new clinic that I was starting. He interestingly, mentioned that he had an available suite for rent.
I immediately expressed interest but told him I knew it would be out of my budget. Without hesitation, he told me he’d make it work. He arranged a contract for me that started with only utilities and marginal rent as I built my practice that first year. This gift was truly priceless. His generosity allowed me to start off with less debt and put me at less financial risk. Sadly, within a month of starting my practice, Dr. Richard Noyes passed away of a heart attack. He was an incredibly generous man and I was undoubtedly one of thousands of individuals he gave back to throughout his life and career. Dr. Richard Noyes left an indelible mark on everyone he came in contact with and I’m thankful to this day for how he showed me kindness and I work to pay that gift forward every day.
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?
Our society has more chronic disease than ever before. We are overstressed, overmedicated, overstimulated, and unhappy. Many individuals are looking for answers, but don’t always know where to turn. My clinic has pioneered the way in anti aging, functional, and integrative medicine in the Midwest. We are able to reduce patients’ need for medications, improve their nutrition, and reduce their health risks. I help men and women find answers to their health dilemmas, getting to the root cause of their problems and ultimately regain quality of life.
One of my specialties lies in optimizing hormones. With such a high number of baby boomers, conditions like osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and diabetes will cost our nation billions and lower the quality of life for thousands of people. Optimizing hormone levels can actually reduce use of medications, save health care dollars, and reduce the risk of those conditions while providing significant improvement in overall wellbeing.
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.
My top recommended lifestyle tweaks can be summed up in five words:
- Supplement: Supplement with a high quality capsule multivitamin or get tested to see what nutrients you need the most.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our food is simply not as nutrient dense as it used to be. Since the 1950s, USDA agricultural figures show the nutrient content in our foods has been on the decline. Foods also lose nutrient density because of harvesting, processing, storing, freezing, and cooking at high temperatures. Medications, caffeine, alcohol, and stress also rob us of nutrients. Therefore, we need to supplement to make up that nutritional deficit.
At my practice I offered a compressive nutritional evaluation, and I find that all of my patients need to supplement with at least something! Taking a high quality capsule multivitamin can help cover many of your bases. Testing can reveal what specific additional nutrients you need.
Take Kathryn for example. She was a 70-years-old patient with osteoporosis, but she ate organic food, slept well, detoxed twice a year, and still exercised five days a week. She had no major symptoms, her hormones were balanced, and she only took one medication for reflux. She took a “one-a-day” multivitamin and a salmon oil product. She was really an ideal patient. Because she practiced wise lifestyle choices, she was shocked to discover her nutrient testing revealed she still needed additional supplementation. While her lifestyle choices made her less dependent on supplements, her testing still revealed her greatest needs. She didn’t realize her digestion wasn’t optimal — the medication she was taking was disrupted her absorption. Even though she ate organic, she didn’t realize her foods weren’t giving her body everything it needed to function optimally. As she continues to age, her testing also revealed that she needed more omega 3s, and vitamin D and magnesium for her bones, and she also had an unexpectedly higher need for antioxidants. As a result of this testing, she switched from salmon oil to a more potent and pure fish oil to increase her omega 3s, and switched from a “one a day” multivitamin to a higher quality capsule she now takes three times a day. The result turned out to be improved bone mineral density, improved energy, and reassurance that she was receiving benefit from the higher quality products she was switched to.
Relax: Find a daily relaxation practice that you enjoy, works with your schedule, and do it daily! A few examples include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, grounding, or nature walks.
In a world bombarded with “To Do Lists,” technology, and performance expectations, scheduling downtime can be difficult but very rewarding. Our “fight or flight” response is often triggered more than our rest and digest. We need to schedule what I describe to my patients as “mental downtime” with no responsibilities, emails or texts. We need to shut off technology and honor our body’s need for breaks. Some individuals love deep breathing, while others enjoy meditation, yoga, or even the simple act of walking on grass or the breach, grounding oneself with the earth.
I personally enjoy deep breathing. It has been shown to calm the nervous system and can quickly take one’s body out of that “fight or flight” response. It can have a profound impact on lowering stress and cortisol levels. You can practice now while reading this you. Sit comfortably. Start by breathing in for three seconds (1–2–3), hold for four seconds (1–2–3–4) and breathe out for five seconds (1–2–3–4–5). If you can comfortably master that, consider extending your counting by a few seconds. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for six, and breathe out for eight. Count it out and repeat over and over for as long as you have, whether it’s two minutes or ten. Everyone can squeeze a few minutes in for deep breathing.
I started scheduling a short deep breathing session before each time I speak publicly and I’ve found my nerves are calmer, I’m more alert and ready to present.
Detox: Incorporate detoxification into your life.
Toxins are any substances that have a negative effect on the human body. It’s no secret that toxins contribute to weight gain, chronic disease, and even cancer. We’re exposed to toxins in the air we breathe, the water we drink, in the personal and cleaning products we use, medications we take, and even in our environment.
Thankfully, there are small lifestyle choices we can make to help reduce our overall toxic burdens. Choosing to eat organic (without pesticides and herbicides), drinking out of glass instead of plastic, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, and electing for safer skin care products are all good starts in reducing the incoming toxic burden.
Toxins are cleared through the stool, so it’s important to have regular bowel movements. They can also be cleared by sweating. I encourage my patients to exercise, increasing the heart rate to help promote healthy sweating, or to sit in an infrared sauna to further help release toxins from the fat cells. It’s beneficial to take periodic breaks from caffeine and alcohol, allowing the liver time to rest. Foods like artichokes, beets, cilantro, parsley, cruciferous vegetables, and simple supplements also help with detoxification like bile, milk thistle and dandelion. (Please take under supervision of your medical authority).
Unplug: Lessen your electromagnetic exposure, especially at night.
Beyond the toxins I describe above, we all are exposed to what has been called “invisible” toxins in the environment — electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs).
We’re exposed to approximately 10 billion times more EMFs than we were in the 1960s, and we really don’t know what this exposure can cause…..which is scary! EMF exposure increases oxidative stress (which weakens our cell membranes), damages DNA (which can lead to cancer), and impairs our body’s ability to create energy (ATP), leading to fatigue. They can cause sympathetic overdrive and overstimulation.
One of the most common ways we are exposed to harmful EMFs is through our cell phones. Cell phone radiation is on the list of Class 2B possible carcinogens next to lead and the insecticide DDT which got banned 40 years ago.
EMF sensitivity can lead to symptoms including: fatigue, headaches, memory fog, insomnia, anxiety, tinnitus, dizziness, visual disturbances and even skin issues (to name a few).
I purchased an EMF measuring device which I’ve been taking with me everywhere, curious to test out various environments. Guess where the highest volume was coming from in my house? Our cable box! I’ve turned off our cable box at night, and honestly my husband sleeps better. EMFs block melatonin, which is partly why they can affect sleep! They increase your cortisol, and higher cortisol equals a higher stress state which can lead to weight gain.
Many countries have already banned Genetically Modified Organisms from their food, and don’t allow toxins in personal care products, and are now also implementing safe standards for EMFs. Even though our country hasn’t implemented these changes yet, individuals can!
Here are some practical tips for lowering your exposure to EMFs.
- Don’t charge your electronic devices (including phones) in close proximity to you. This is especially true at night. Charge your phone another time and far away from you. Your exposure is higher the closer you are to the source.
- Turn WiFi off on your phone at all time unless you need it. If you want to listen to music or a podcast, download them with WiFi, then turn it off.
- Don’t use 4G in your car, which is essentially a metal cage where EMFs get trapped, ultimately increasing your exposure (I’ve actually measured the exposure).
- Download what you need before you get in the car or airplane. Consider putting your phone on airplane mode when not using it.
- Get a router guard for your home. This is essentially a metal cage around your router, which can greatly reduce the EMFs. I’ve tested my guard and according to my meter, it does significantly reduce the EMFs. It’s amazing.
- Some individuals get as serious as turning off the circuit breaker to their bedrooms at night.
These small changes have long-lasting benefits. Lessening your electromagnetic exposure, especially at night, can help create a better sleep haven. Creating a low-EMF environment has also been clinically shown to speed up healing and make any treatment or protocol more efficient. This is certainly a lifestyle tweak we all should strongly consider!
- Avoid: Avoid inflammatory foods
Many of my patients don’t realize the foods they commonly consume negatively impact their health. Countless unpleasant and avoidable symptoms from each organ system often stem from an inflamed gut. Everyone knows sugar is bad for you, and many of my patients are conscious of this and keep their intake to a minimum. However, if I had to pick two additional food groups for my patients to avoid it would be the gluten family (wheat, barley, rye) and cow’s dairy (milk, cheese, butter). These foods greatly contribute to inflammation, which is the root of many diseases.
Dairy often comes from cows injected with growth hormones, or which have consumed genetically modified corn sprayed with herbicides and insecticides. The genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and chemicals then get into our bodies, causing our immune systems to attack the altered food proteins (from genetic modified/chemicals) but can also attack our own tissue. Finding alternatives to cow’s dairy like flax, almond, rice, pea, hemp, oat or coconut milk are becoming much easier. There are even coconut-based yogurts and cheeses to enjoy. Gluten free substitutes to consider include rice, quinoa, and even potatoes. Focusing on what food truly nourishes our cells like fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, and lean protein should be the focus of our diet.
I see health dramatically improve in my patients simply by avoiding inflammatory foods and making diet changes. Patients benefit from improved gastrointestinal health, become regular, and feel less bloated with less heartburn. In addition to these obvious benefits, there are many other positive impacts on your health when you avoid inflammatory foods, including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reducing blood sugar, losing weight, clearing skin up; mental health and sleep can improve, and even hormone balance changes for the better.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
The most simple, free movement that could have the largest impact on our nation’s health would be stress reduction. Stress and over stimulation leads to higher cortisol levels. High cortisol leads to weight gain, insulin resistance, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and even bone loss. We need to fight this health epidemic that is making us vulnerable to so many diseases. Simply prioritizing time for deep breathing can have a profound impact on our health Deep breathing calms the nervous system in contrast leading to lower adrenaline and cortisol.
Other cultures have long honored at least one day of rest, but we as a nation don’t always follow this. Too many of my patients work on weekends. They never allow their bodies true relaxation time when the body can heal and mend. The implications on reducing chronic health diseases are huge!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Work towards designing a business that can run itself …without you. You don’t have a business until it runs without your presence. That’s called a job. In my situation, running a business while being a full time clinician has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I see patients from 8:00 a.m. — 5:00 p.m. On top of that, I serve as my business’ human resources, public relations, marketing, and accounting offices. Over the years I’ve started outsourcing which allows me to focus on my strengths I’m still working on creating a business that doesn’t require my presence at all times, developing multiple avenues of revenue beyond pure patient consultation. I’ve made progress, but I’m not there yet. I’m learning to focus my time on revenue producing strategies and delegating or outsourcing the rest.
- Part of this involves finding the right people to be on your bus (team). When I started my business I was thrilled anyone wanted to work for me. I’ve learned over the years to hire slowly and fire quickly. It’s truly taken years to get the right people on our team. I’m embarrassed to state that in the past I’d let an employee stay much longer than was healthy for my organization out of fear that I couldn’t find a replacement. Now I know it’s a much better to work shorthanded than jeopardize our culture from a toxic employee who could do the job but ruined morale along the way.
- Focus on your culture, before your company. Managing people is even more difficult than you will anticipate. Spend time investing in learning this. Employees will not be as passionate about your business as you, and that’s ok. Love them, listen to them, and set boundaries, but extend grace. Schedule staff meetings and spend time with your team outside normal business hours. Show them you care. Praise in public, criticize in private.
- Take time for yourself. It’s ok to schedule in self-care and vacation! I don’t know how many years I went without any days off, or any scheduled vacation, or vacation where I was checking in with work all day. Now I know the importance of taking time off, resting my brain from the grind, and returning to work refreshed and passionate.
- Pay yourself first, following profit first principles. With every check always allocate a portion away in a separate bank account. So many business owners are living paycheck to paycheck. Paying yourself first before expenses will force you to minimize your expenses, as if you don’t have money to spend you shouldn’t. You will still be profiting personally as you will have already put some away in savings. This concept felt odd to me at first but has been something I’m also working towards.
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 the dearest to me. Every day I see women in my office who have been medicated for anxiety/depression/insomnia/menopause with antidepressants. Although there is a time and place for medications, many times what has been neglected with these individuals is the hormone connection. Optimizing hormones and improving gastrointestinal health can drastically improve mental health. It’s now becoming more commonly accepted that a connection between mental health and gastrointestinal health exists. Improving my patients’ diet, removing inflammatory foods and improving the gut microbiome can assist them in making neurotransmitters they need to feel well. Fixing nutritional deficiencies, detoxing the body, and influencing genetics can also improve mental health…yet many times patients are never asked what they eat and are never offered genetic or hormone testing. Functional medicine can truly provide a comprehensive and individualized assessment and treatment approach that could truly improve the mental health of our nation.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Facebook: @ drstephaniegray
And @IntegrativeHealthandHormone Clinic
And @ longevityblueprint