Tackling Toxins Without Tears: Advice from Dr. Aly Cohen
By Anne Levin
“It’s all about learning to limit exposure and making choices to at least cut down exposure in a way that’s reasonable, and creates awareness and empowerment. It’s about looking forward, not back.”
After graduating from medical school, Aly Cohen got a job with a rheumatology practice in Monroe Township, New Jersey. It was a conventional office, where patients got about 15 minutes of face time with physicians, who prescribed the usual drugs for their problems with arthritis and immune system disorders.
Though Cohen loved the work at first, the “in and out” schedule and the lack of focus on factors like diet and stress began to wear on her. “It went against my grain,” she says. “I tried to make the best of it, but I just didn’t like what I was doing.”
A few years and two babies later, Cohen, a 1991 graduate of Princeton Day School, decided to take the leap and open her own practice. By integrating the best of her traditional training and experience with a more holistic approach to medical care, and focusing on women’s health, she has created a model that she continues to refine through constant research and education.
Her rheumatology, integrative medicine and environmental health practice in Monroe Township examines alternatives to drugs and surgery and explores the root causes of various ailments common to women. At the same time, Cohen has become something of an expert on the effects of environmental chemical exposure. She has worked extensively with Dr. Andrew Weil, known as a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine. Cohen’s book, “The Smart Human’s Essential Guide to Living Healthy in a Chemical World,” is due for release this fall.
In November, Cohen will introduce a pilot program at Princeton High School that integrates environmental health information into the health curriculum. Using some contributions of content from the nationally recognized non-profit Environmental Working Group, where she is the medical liaison, Cohen will talk to students in Chemistry 1 and Human Health about the effects of the environment on well being. She hopes to extend this curriculum to area private schools and public schools nationally.
I thought about who this kind of information could really affect, and I believe one of the most critical age groups to reach out to is young people who may one day have children of their own,” she says. “Pre-teens and teens are also one of the largest consumers of cosmetics and personal care products. When I walk into Sephora and see pregnant women trying out and buying things that might harm them and their babies, I want to start crying.” Growing up in Yardley, Pa., Cohen knew from early childhood that she wanted to be a doctor. “My father, my brother my cousins – everyone in my family is a doctor,” she says. “It was just natural for me.” After PDS, she earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania and then graduated from the Hahnemann University School of Medicine (now Drexel University College of Medicine). Her internship and residency programs were at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, and a rheumatology/autoimmune disease fellowship was at Montiefiore/Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx. Cohen’s husband, by the way, is a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician. Responding to a comment that her father must be proud of her, Cohen smiles. “He is. He’s a bit old school. And I’m not. But I haven’t abandoned my westernscience- based training,” she says. “What I have done is gotten a whole new set of tools to incorporate into what I already knew.”
Cohen’s questioning of the conventional medical profession began in her first job. “I had this feeling that we should have been putting more of a focus onto things like diet, exercise, sleeping habits, and stress management,” she says. “A lot of it is something you’re not trained for in medical school. Everyone wants patients to get well, but the system is set up in such a way that prevention isn’t part of the equation.”
Once she started her own office in 2011, Cohen found herself spending up to an hour with each patient. Instead of directing them only toward medications, she incorporated such options as dietary change, exercise, biofeedback, acupuncture, cognitive therapy, environmental toxin counseling, and smoking cessation into her practice. “My office is set up somewhat like a spa, because that goes along with my philosophy,” she says. “When you walk in, you don’t see ‘The View’ playing on a TV screen. Instead, you see beautiful videos of the Great Barrier Reef and Arizona wildlife and things like that.”
Cohen’s preoccupation with environmental chemical exposure started with her beloved golden retriever, Truxton. Only a few years old, he came down with autoimmune hepatitis. “It’s very unusual for dogs, let alone golden retrievers. And it’s ironic that I’m an autoimmune specialist. So I was trying to figure out how he got sick. I looked at his environment, his food, and finally at his rubber ‘Kong’ toy, which he never let out of his mouth,” she says.
After doing some research, Cohen found some isolated cases of healthy young humans who worked in rubber plants around the world and had come down with autoimmune hepatitis. “Although there is no way to make a link of direct causation between chemicals in the toy and liver disease, it opened my eyes up to chemical laws and regulations in the U.S—or lack thereof—and set me off on a journey which I still continue on today,” she says.
Cohen received a scholarship to work with Dr. Andrew Weil and colleagues at the Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson, Arizona. By the end of the two-year program, she was sold. Since then, she has been lecturing across the country to physicians and health care workers on endocrine-disrupting chemicals and their effects on human health. While she is frequently shocked at what she discovers, she is also a realist. And she doesn’t want to make people panic.
“It takes work to take this information and not scare people,” she says. “It’s all about learning to limit exposure and making choices to at least cut down exposure in a way that’s reasonable, and creates awareness and empowerment. It’s about looking forward, not back.” Weil has asked Cohen to co-edit an integrative health text in his academic book series for Oxford University Press. She is also putting together a “Smart Human” video blog on environmental health issues such as creating cleaner drinking water, safer choices of cosmetics and personal care products, “topics that will positively effect our everyday lives,” she says. “The idea is to show viewers, in a non-scary, comfortable way, about easy, practical changes they can make.”
Cohen says she tries very hard to practice what she preaches. Though she juggles a busy schedule of practicing medicine, lecturing, writing, editing, and research while raising two young boys, she radiates infectious energy and looks younger than her 41 years.
“It’s all coming together in a nice way,” she says. “I really feel strongly about doing good medicine.”