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A Moment with the Holistic Cannabis Academy

Laura Lagano and Donna Shields have both long been focused on nutrition, but they came to cannabis differently:

Lagano—who has worked as a nutrition consultant everywhere from a settlement house in the South Bronx to Fortune 100 food companies—learned early on about the positive effects cannabis can have in combatting anxiety. Shields—a former officer in the US Army Medical Corp and a media spokesperson, who has consulted on product innovation for Fortune 100 companies—discovered cannabis after a breast cancer diagnosis.

Both women felt that there was a serious dearth of knowledge about the healing benefits of cannabis—and particularly CBD—within the medical community, and that seemed like a wasted opportunity. And so, together, they created the Holistic Cannabis Academy, which educates and trains professionals and others about the proper usage of medical marijuana.

Here, the duo explains why cannabis is just one part of a holistic approach to health:

Live The Process: You’ve both had impressive career trajectories up to this point. How has your respective past experience led you here? 

Laura Lagano: My initial interest in nutrition was incited in high school when I learned about the Feingold diet, which was about eliminating certain food products (mostly artificial ingredients and sugar) to quell hyperactivity. I became mesmerized by the relationship between food and mood. I saw the impact of food choices on behavior in my own childhood household.

After an undergraduate degree in dietetics and master’s in nutrition education, I worked primarily in food communications. This was at a time when only a handful of dietitians were writing articles and getting interviewed on TV and radio (way before the internet).

Fast forward several years: I followed the path that my daughter, Isabella—who has a development delay—set for me, back to my original interest in food and behavior. I revisited the Feingold diet, completed the Institute of Functional Medicine coursework and opened a private practice focusing on brain, gut and immune health. Ever investigating alternative healing options, I started Isabella on CBD oil with great results, helping to mitigate her low-level anxiety. Noticing the significant education gap among my colleagues and other health professionals and armed with my background in health education and communications, I co-founded the Holistic Cannabis Academy.

Donna Shields: My career has been extremely diverse. Starting out as an Army dietitian, I then moved into nutrition marketing and communications as a result of a unique graduate program at Boston University. I’ve spent most of my career as a nutrition consultant doing spokesperson work and developing nutrition education programs for large food brands, but with corporate in-house stints along the way. 

I also veered off into the culinary word as a faculty member at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where I taught nutrition to undergraduate students and professionals chefs within the continuing education arena. This also led me to work in recipe development for many food brands and magazines and as a cookbook author. After a breast cancer diagnosis, I relocated to Boulder, Colorado and the Holistic Cannabis Academy was born.  

LTP: Have you both always been open to the idea of cannabis as a healing tool? When did you each respectively discover that potential?

LL: Early on, I learned that cannabis is helpful for ameliorating anxiety. Because of my interest in food and mood, I have always been on the lookout for other modalities that influence brain health and behavior: Hello aromatherapy, meditation, yoga, gardening, hiking! After educating myself and hearing testimonials from patients, I learned about the more far-reaching effects of cannabis on health. Once I learned about the endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for balance and homeostasis, learning more about cannabis became a priority.

DS: I’ve always been in and around health and wellness, but it was my breast cancer diagnosis that led me down a more integrative path to treatment, which included exploring cannabis as a modality along with my conventional treatment plan. This diagnosis also opened my eyes to reiki—also a staple in my treatment. As I learned more about the healing aspects of the plant, I also learned that my health professional colleagues knew next to nothing about this. It was this gap that represented a huge opportunity for me and Laura. We saw that we could build a program that would educate and train the practitioner community to provide better patient outcomes, while also enhancing their businesses.

LTP: How did you come to launch the Holistic Cannabis Academy?

LL: We launched the Holistic Cannabis Academy soon after producing the Holistic Cannabis Summit in 2016, which was a free online event with 28 speakers. We were honored to feature three luminaries in functional medicine as part of the Summit: Jeff Bland, Aviva Romm and Sid Baker. The Academy offers 31 modules about integrating cannabis with other holistic modalities to upregulate the endocannabinoid system, leading to a certificate as a Holistic Cannabis Practitioner. It’s online and evergreen, so students can move at their own pace. In addition to the 31-module signature program, we’ve bundled 23 of the 31 modules into smaller packages for those not ready to make the full commitment.

DS: The Holistic Cannabis Summit drew a worldwide audience of 17,000 people. We knew there was a demand for looking at cannabis through a holistic lens, something that no one is doing. Rather than using the bandage/pharma model, we think cannabis is but one healing tool along with nutrition, acupuncture, aromatherapy, herbal medicine, exercise, yoga, meditation and so forth. These things all work synergistically for a better patient outcome.

We are now accredited by several health professional organizations, throughout the US and Canada, for continuing education credit hours. The most noteworthy is the recent approval from the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics which is the largest mainstream organization representing nutrition professionals in the US.  

LTP: What are some of your current wellness obsessions and rituals that keep you each feeling balanced and healthy?

LL: I’m all about lowering my toxic load as much as possible. I cannot change the air I breathe or ask everyone around me to stop wearing perfume and using offensive cleaning products, but I can change the products that I use. Selecting personal products and cleaning products that do not contain toxic ingredients is a key component of my life and my family’s. Part of keeping the air clean in our home involves using an essential oil diffuser. My kids love it and have all taken diffusers with them to college! My husband has one his office and many of my clients value essential oils. Water, water, water—I always make certain to drink half my weight in ounces of the cleanest water available. Hiking, walking and biking are my go-to things to do to feel good and to clear my head.

DS: I love the ocean and the mountains, and I’m lucky enough to spend time in both places. Having lived in Key West for many years and now in Colorado, I get to experience the best of both worlds. I’m an avid yoga practitioner and hike quite a lot while in Colorado. I’ve become quite familiar with various meditative practices and adore cooking in the newly renovated kitchen of my 1910 Victorian house. 

LTP: What does happiness look like to you?   

LL: Feeling connected to the world around me.

DS: Getting alone time with my college-age son and going for a hike in the Boulder Flatirons with our yellow lab, Chris. Oh, and a really great dinner afterwards.

LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?

LL: It’s all about the journey and paying attention. Many of us go through life not taking the time to slow down and reflect. Smell the roses.

DS: We all spend so much time looking for the “next thing,” and I was as guilty as anyone of that in the past. While being successful at this business is still a priority, I’ve shifted my goals to literally make more time for me. I think it's something you come to realize as you get older: The journey is the only ride you get, so better make it the best one you can.