A physician with the mission of maximizing human potential and reversing the epidemic of preventable chronic disease, Casey Means, MD, is passionable about empowering individuals with tech-enabled tools to inform smart, personalized, and sustainable dietary choices. To this end, she serves as the Chief Medical Officer of Levels, the metabolic health company she co-founded. She is also the Associate Editor of the International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention. A graduate of Stanford University School of Medicine with past research positions at Stanford, NYU, and the NIH, Dr. Means’s perspective has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Men's Health, Forbes, Business Insider, Techcrunch, and more. We spoke with her about where she feels most centered, how she feels about her career (so far) and what is (and isn’t) in her bathroom cabinet.
When and where do you feel the most centered?
In nature. Taking a walk is so impactful for me. Whatever challenge I might be dealing with, I feel significantly clearer and more centered after being outdoors, even if it’s a walk around the block. Physical movement is so good for the brain, and being exposed to nature can generate a sense of awe and perspective that is extremely grounding. Fortunately, I have spent the past 7 years in Portland, OR, where there are trails surrounding the downtown area, so forest is never far away.
What’s the best part about this point in your life?
The best part about this point in my life is that I am at an age where I realize that all struggles or challenges are really just learning opportunities. I have enough years behind me to know that every perceived struggle, roadblock, pain or “failure” was just an opportunity for growth, learning, and integration. I am now in a place where I feel grateful for every single bit of the journey. Given that, I have a lot less fear about future challenges that will inevitably come in the future. I’m now curious about them: What is it going to teach me? How is it going to expand me?
Losing my mother suddenly to advanced pancreatic cancer this year was the experience that most solidified this perspective; I had feared her death my entire life, and yet when it ultimately happened, it was by far the most profound learning experience of my life.
What’s one thing you never thought you'd experience in this decade?
I didn’t think I was going to completely walk away from the surgical field in this decade, since I’d spent 8 years of post-graduate training working for this—4 years of medical school, and 4 years of a very intense residency. In my time in the surgical world, I came to a staunch realization that I wanted to be on the proactive, preventative side of healthcare. Surgery is fundamentally reactive: patients get sick, and then they come to you and you “fix” them. In many cases, however, you are not fixing the underlying problem that caused the illness. For instance, if someone has chronic inflammation that is leading to sinusitis, taking them to the operating room to drain the pus can help with symptoms, but doesn’t necessarily fix the chronic inflammation that led to the condition.
I have always had a longing to keep people well rather than treat disease; to “turn off the faucet” of illness, rather than tirelessly “mop up the floor.” To me, the focus on reactivity is a key failure of our healthcare system, particularly because most of the chronic diseases we are facing—that contribute to 90% of our healthcare costs—are largely preventable and related to diet and lifestyle. Most chronic diseases are connected by the same core physiology (ie, insulin resistance or chronic inflammation), and when we can impact those core pathways (which are modifiable through preventive strategies like optimized diet and lifestyle), we can help a lot of people in one fell swoop.
This inspired me to join Levels as a co-founder. Our company’s mission is to reverse the metabolic crisis by empowering people with their personal data. I highly recommend subscribing to our newsletter or reading our blog. Learning more about metabolic health, and implementing strategies to optimize it, can uplevel all aspects of your health and wellness and minimize risk of chronic disease and premature death.
What’s on your playlist?
EDM (electronic dance music). I love a beat that makes me want to dance, and I generally listen to EDM when I do deep creative work, and when I work out. A few of my favorite artists are Gryffin. Tiesto, Illenium, and ODESZA. You can find some of my favorites in this shared playlist.
What’s in your bathroom cabinet?
All non-toxic products. I am a semi-minimalist when it comes to personal care products, because I want as few chemicals on my body as possible. An instant life-hack is to make sure that nothing in your products has fragrance, whether it’s “natural fragrance” or artificial fragrance, as these can be endocrine disruptors and toxic. The only fragrance I generally allow in personal care products is essential oils, preferably organic. Also, use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database to check your products before you bring them home. My favorite products in my bathroom cabinet are:
- Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap (I buy it by the gallon, and I also use this as dish soap, and house cleaner!)
- Organic jojoba oil (for my moisturizer)
- Giovanni's Invigorating Tea Tree Triple Treat Shampoo and Conditioner (I also use this brand for hair serum and hairspray, which I rarely use)
What’s not in my cabinet is any Advil, Tylenol, sinus rinses, decongestants, or any of that other over the counter stuff that we expect to be part of normal American life. It’s not. When we keep our bodies healthy, our need for these products plummets. I haven’t taken more than maybe one or two over-the-counter pain relievers in several years, and I attribute this to an anti-inflammatory diet, which is largely plant-based and organic, and without inflammatory refined grains, sugars, gluten or dairy. I eat tons of fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, spices, and a little fish.
You can see all about what I eat and why on my instagram, drcaseyskitchen. Growing up, when I was overweight and eating the standard American diet, I was popping Advil like it was candy… there always seemed to be an ache or pain or headache. This almost never happens now. When you feed your cells with the nutrients they need to function properly, manage your stress, get good sleep, and move your body, many of these symptoms melt away.
If I do have soreness or any aches now, I double down on my anti-inflammatory diet, and add in functional foods like turmeric, ginger, and raw garlic. I am not in any way adverse to using standard medications like antibiotics when needed, but I also have seen the profound effects of needing fewer medications when you get the basics of diet and lifestyle right.
What does self-care mean to you?
Simple: Managing my nervous system. Ultimately, our experience of the world and life is rooted in how we perceive it, and therefore directly downstream of our nervous system. There are so many modalities to make that interaction between the nervous system and the external world more functional and calm, ranging from therapy, to meditation, to simply taking a deep diaphragmatic breath, to exercise, to healthy eating, to spending time in nature, to psychedelics.
And since my entire experience of life is channeled through my nervous system, managing it is my self-care focus. I started working with a therapist after my mom passed away, and this has been my biggest breakthrough of this decade in terms of self care. This work has helped me understand what activates my nervous system, where those triggers come from, empathizing with the part of me that is activated, integrating it, and then letting it all go.
How do you feel about your career?
Aligned. My recreation, career, intellectual interests, and social life all tend to revolve around promoting human thriving and foundational health, and this alignment feels really good. I am also so grateful for the ways in which my career is challenging and stretching me right now. Transitioning from being a surgeon to a co-founder of a start-up has allowed me to be a beginner again in many ways, and afforded me so many opportunities to learn and grow. I can’t get enough of reading business books (some faves are They Ask, You Answer; Working Backwards; High Growth Handbook; ReWork; and Zero to One), and expanding my skill set and perspective on how to use business as a tool for societal progress.