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Introduction and Exciting Announcements
Hey! Welcome to episode eight of season 2 of Lichen Sclerosus Podcast. Today we are joined (again) by therapeutic nutrition consultant, LS warrior, and vulvar cancer survivor, Heather Cooan.
In the last two episodes, we heard an inspiring story of Heather, who was failed by the system and who consequently developed vulvar cancer from untreated Lichen Sclerosus. Critically, when faced with the decision of removing her clitoris in surgery or receiving brutal rounds of radiation, Heather advocated for her health, body, and values. Accordingly, Heather beat cancer and put her Lichen Sclerosus in remission through alternative medicine such as vitamin C infusions, hyperbaric chamber treatments, supplements, and, importantly, nutrition and lifestyle. This inspired Heather to pay it forward. Today, Heather works as a therapeutic nutrition therapist and helps others on their healing journey.
In this episode, we focus on the diet and lifestyle aspects of Heather’s healing journey. Specifically, this episode describes what nutrition therapy is, how it differs from seeing a registered dietician, and what nutrition therapy focuses on when evaluating the health of a patient.
Lichen Sclerosus Support Network – Thanks to Our Sponsor!
Before we jump into what nutrition therapy is, however, I want to thank our sponsor, the Lichen Sclerosus Support Network (LSSN) for making this podcast possible. LSSN is helping bring information, education, and most importantly support to all Lichen Sclerosus warriors.
Be sure to follow them on IG and FB @lichensclerosussupportnetwork. Continue reading to the end for exciting announcements coming from LSSN!
What on Earth is Nutrition Therapy, Anyway?
You might be asking yourself, what is nutrition therapy? In fact, Heather herself didn’t know what it was until she was diagnosed with vulvar cancer. Before her diagnosis, Heather was aware of conventional medicine and naturopathic medicine.
Heather discovered nutrition therapy later on in her healing journey when she was looking into how she could pay it forward to others in need of healing. She wanted to share her knowledge with others to empower them to reclaim the functionality of their bodies. Heather initially considered becoming a naturopathic doctor but decided against it. During this search, she came across nutrition therapy.
Ultimately, this is the avenue Heather pursued and became certified with the NTA as a nutrition therapy practitioner and as well as a functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner.
What Makes a Nutrition Therapist Different from a Registered Dietician?
A nutrition therapist is a health coach; a non-licensed professional who works alongside you and your licensed professional to help with dietary and lifestyle change to complement whatever treatment plan you are doing with your doctor, with a heavy emphasis on nutrition.
A registered dietician works in a clinical setting and provides you with tools for whatever problem you are trying to solve from a medical perspective. Conversely, a nutrition therapist focuses on the proper functioning of the body from a holistic perspective. For instance, they look at where things are out of balance in the body by identifying stressors and triggers that are pulling the body out of alignment. Once those triggers are identified, the nutritional therapist puts together a program focusing on diet and lifestyle to help mitigate those stressors and re-align the body.
The Importance of Focusing on the Body from a Holistic Point of View
Typically, when we think of stress we think of our jobs, kids, relationships, etc, and while these certainly play a role in the health and functioning of our bodies, stress is much broader than this. Many hidden stressors aren’t given much attention in conventional medicine. For example, hidden stressors can include food sensitivities and allergies, infections, heavy metals, etc. Accordingly, Heather notes when focusing on health and healing, it is important to blend conventional medicine with alternative medicine, as the former often ignores these hidden stressors.
Nutrition Therapy, Hidden Stressors, and the Autoimmunity/Lichen Sclerosus Connection
Lichen Sclerosus is considered an autoimmune disease, and thus, if someone has Lichen Sclerosus they will have certain imbalances in the body that need to be addressed. Identifying stressors and re-aligning the body can be a key part of healing the body and getting Lichen Sclerosus into remission, according to Heather.
With Lichen Sclerosus and autoimmunity, nutrition therapy focuses on the 3-legged stool theory. This theory posits three factors that need to be present for an auto-immune disease to occur. First, there is a genetic component (e.g., a genetic expression), second, there is a disruption to the gut microbiome, and third, there are environmental stressors present.
Nutrition Therapy and the Genetic Component
Autoimmunity requires some kind of genetic expression/component to be present. This can be a genetic marker of some sort and can be identified by genetic testing. For example, you can go to https://geneticgenie.org/ to help shed light on what genetic expressions may be contributing to your autoimmune disease.
Nutrition Therapy and the Gut Microbiome
Autoimmune disease also involves a disruption to the gut microbiome. In many cases, this is leaky gut. Leaky gut refers to intestinal permeability. Heather breaks down leaky gut in the following way: think of your gut as a hose. This hose has a lining that is only 1 cell thick. Immune cells live around the gut’s cell wall to catch anything coming through that shouldn’t be there. That cell wall contains finger-like projections; when healthy, those projections are erect and moving. When they aren’t healthy, however, they droop and become inactive. Accordingly, when they are inactive, anything in the gut can leak through the cell wall into the bloodstream.
Importantly, our immune systems function to ensure things that shouldn’t be in the bloodstream aren’t. If they detect otherwise, your immune system will go into defense mode. For example, if you eat a hamburger and that leaks into your bloodstream, the immune system will rev up. Critically, there is nothing wrong with this in itself, especially if you eat fast food only on occasion. However, when this happens daily, over time, the immune system becomes chronically turned on and starts attacking things it shouldn’t. This is how you can end up with chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease.
Concerning the gut microbiome, a nutrition therapist will run a GI stool test to look at all these factors to identify the specific issue and subsequently work on balancing and healing the gut.
Nutrition Therapy and Environmental Stressors
The final component is stressors and triggers. This is arguably the most complex leg of the 3-legged stool of autoimmunity. Genetic testing and GI Mapping are relatively easy to test and work with, but with stressors and triggers, things are extremely individualized. There are 6 buckets of possible stressors and triggers, and it could be one, or any combination of the six, Heather explains.
The 6 Buckets of Possible Environmental Stressors
The first bucket is food sensitivities. Nutrition therapy tests for food sensitivities with an MRT test that looks at 170 different foods. This test looks at your body’s reaction to different foods. For example, are you producing histamine reactions, are you producing more white blood cells, etc.
A popular debate in the realm of Lichen Sclerosus is oxalates. Some argue oxalates are bad and trigger Lichen Sclerosus symptoms and flare-ups. However, food sensitivities are personal and never an objective rule. Some individuals with Lichen Sclerosus have no problems with oxalates.
And this is where nutritional therapy and testing are critical. Nutrition therapy can help discern whether oxalates are problematic for you or not. For instance, if an MRT test shows sensitivities to spinach, chocolate, almonds, etc., then you might want to try removing them from your diet and tracking your symptoms to see if things improve. This removal works to validate the test. The next step is to remove the triggering foods for 3 months. During this time, the patient and nutrition therapist are focused on healing the gut.
The second bucket is environmental toxins such as heavy metals. We accumulate heavy metals in many ways. For example, drinking out of aluminum tins, amalgam fillings, consuming ocean fish, etc. These heavy metals linger in the body and we do not always excrete them well.
Another example of toxins are parabens and chemicals in your hygiene and cleaning products. These can also accumulate in the body and throw it out of balance. Similarly, drugs, both prescription and recreational, can throw the body out of balance and disrupt one’s hormones.
Nutrition therapy also looks at hormones, in particular, stress hormones like cortisol to see if it is performing optimally.
Interestingly, with Lichen Sclerosus, we typically see two groups of people: one group seems to be more autoimmune-related, and the other, more hormone-related. Therefore, a nutrition therapist will test hormones to see what might be disrupting the functionality of their body.
Infections and Parasites
The fourth bucket is infections and parasites. Examples of these can range from parasites, H pylori, candida, etc. If it is parasites, there are two options: first, you can treat with your doctor and take antibiotics, or, second, you can treat with herbs and botanicals. In either case, Heather stresses you must use a biofilm breaker. This is a supplement that breaks biofilm (which allows the parasites to hide) down, even if you opt for antibiotics.
The fifth bucket comprises nutritional deficiencies. A big deficiency Heather sees with her patients is copper and zinc. Interestingly, birth control can deplete you of zinc, and zinc needs to be balanced with copper to avoid copper toxicity. Thus, in this example, it is important to ensure a proper balance between copper and zinc. If Heather sees a zinc deficiency, she will bring down the copper a bit and bump up the zinc.
Vitamin D is another deficiency Heather commonly sees, and this vitamin is especially important for individuals with autoimmune conditions. This is because, as Heather explains, vitamin D controls the mechanism of self-differentiation within the immune system. If you do not get enough vitamin D, the immune system has a hard time discerning what is you/safe and what is foreign. And we know with autoimmunity the immune system kicks into overdrive and starts attacking itself, so this is why vitamin D is so important. Heather recommends getting your levels checked to see how much you need.
The final and sixth bucket is systemic inflammation. Many things cause inflammation. It could be Epstein-Barr, Lyme disease, or perhaps chronic stress (either mental or physical). Localized inflammation from an injury is a good thing and critical for the body’s healing process. However, when the whole body is inflamed, this is where you can get into trouble.
With Lichen Sclerosus, many treat with steroids but still experience chronic pain in the pelvic/vulvar area (and the steroids do not help with that aspect). In this case, Heather says it is critical to identify stressors and triggers and then re-balance the system to provide pain relief. With steroids, you are supressing the inflammation in the vulvar area, but you are missing the rest of the body. Accordingly, if you are chronically inflamed, the steroids alone won’t and shouldn’t be the only tool in your toolbox.
Once you take the stress off your body, the immune system can start to settle, and, accordingly, inflammation goes down and patients tend to feel better.
Recap: Nutrition Therapy in a Nutshell
To recap, the 3 aspects of the 3-legged stool of autoimmunity are:
- Genetic expressions/markers
- Disruption of the gut microbiome
- Environmental stressors and triggers.
The 6 bucks of the last leg — environmental stressors and triggers are:
- Food Sensitivities
- Environmental toxins and heavy metals
- Infections and parasites
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Systemic Inflammation
Want to work with Heather?
Heather begins with intake paperwork. Here she collects a very detailed medical/lifestyle history. From this, she comes up with a score of where you are currently to check against later. Based on your goals and budget, Heather will suggest labwork (for example, hormones, saliva, blood, urine, stool, neurotransmitters, etc). Once the lab work is back, she goes over these results with a doctor and then puts together a protocol for you based on your individualized needs, goals, and the results of the labs. Your plan includes detailed lifestyle and nutrition advice, including recipe recommendations. Clients continue to follow-up with Heather on a regular basis. It is a lot of work, but if you are ready to commit and make the change, the payoff can be really worth it.
Depending on your HSA or FSA, you may be able to use some of those funds to put towards the labs. Heather’s fee is separate from the labs. You pay the labs directly and this can cost up to 500$.
Heather can work with you domestically or internationally. Get in touch with her via her website to discuss what that might look like for you.
To conclude, nutritional therapy is an approach that focuses on looking at health from a holistic perspective. It seeks to identify triggers and stressors in the body that underlie your symptoms, and then re-balance your system so you can get back to living your best life! Working with Heather can help identify underlying stressors and triggers contributing to your Lichen Sclerosus so that you can kick it into remission and heal.
I am so grateful to have had these amazing conversations with Heather for the podcast! I hope you learned a lot from her story and her information on Nutrition Therapy. Follow her @heathercooan on all social media sites.
Virtual Meetup Information
Did you learn anything new from this episode? Are you curious to delve deeper into the realm of nutrition? Let me know! Email me at Kathy@lssupport.net or DM me at @lichensclerosuspodcast on Instagram.
Better yet, why don't you tell us at our Lichen Sclerosus Support Virtual Meetup!
We meet every other Saturday from 2-4 pm and/or 7-9 pm Eastern Standard Time. This is your opportunity to share your diagnosis story, what is working for you and what isn’t, and ask a question to the group. Perhaps share your experience with appointment anxiety! I have met so many incredibly strong LS warriors through these meetups, and I would love for you to join our community.
Sign up at lssupport.net/connect for notifications and updates! Our next meetup is on April 3rd. I cannot wait to meet you!
Exciting Announcements From LSSN You Do Not Want To Miss!
My girl Jaclyn dropped her second blog on March 16th on The Lost Labia Chronicles. If you've ever found yourself struggling with the mental health aspect of Lichen Sclerosus and/or struggle with compulsively checking your vulva, you will definitely want to check out her latest blog. You can read it here. Be sure to check out her follow-up piece which will go live on March 30th!
For more information on nutrition therapy and/or Heather's journey, check her out here: heathercooan.com
Follow her @heathercooan on all social media sites snd for help on finding your triggers go to Heathercooan.com/lspodcast.