The Transformative Power of Integrative Medicine:
An Interview with Dr. Andrew Weil
By David Jay Brown
Andrew Weil, M.D., is an internationally recognized expert on Integrative Medicine, which combines the best therapies of conventional and alternative medicine. Dr. Weil’s lifelong study of medicinal herbs, mind-body interactions, and alternative medicine has made him one of the world’s most trusted authorities on unconventional medical treatments. Dr. Weil’s sensible, interdisciplinary medical perspective strikes a strong chord in many people. His recent books are all New York Times bestsellers and he has appeared on the cover of Time Magazine twice, in 1997 and again in 2005. USA Today said, “Clearly, Dr. Weil has hit a medical nerve,” and The New York Times Magazine said, “Dr Weil has arguably become America’s best-known doctor.”
Dr. Weil has long had a talent for blending the conventional with the unconventional. He received an undergraduate degree in botany from Harvard in 1964 and his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1968. After completing a medical internship at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, he worked for a year with the National Institute of Mental Health. From 1971 to 1984, he was on the research staff of the Harvard Botanical Museum, where he conducted investigations into medicinal and psychoactive plants. Then from 1971 to 1975, as a Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, Dr. Weil traveled throughout Central and South America, collecting information and specimens for this research. These explorations–where he not only studied plants but indigenous peoples, their medicine and pharmacology–were to have a profound effect on Dr. Weil’s medical career.
Dr. Weil has long been interested in altered states of consciousness and how the mind effects health–even before he began studying medicine. He has written extensively about this interest and about how his early psychedelic experiences profoundly influenced his views on medicine. Dr. Weil’s first book, The Natural Mind, was an investigation of drugs and higher consciousness. Because of this interest in altered states of consciousness, Dr. Weil has been honored by having a psychedelic mushroom named after him–Psilocybe weilii, which was discovered in 1995.
Dr. Weil is the author (or coauthor) of ten popular books, including The Marriage of the Sun and Moon, From Chocolate to Morphine, Health and Healing, Natural Health, Natural Medicine, Spontaneous Healing, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, and Healthy Aging. He has also appeared in three videos featured on PBS: Spontaneous Healing, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, and Healthy Aging.
Dr. Weil is currently the Director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine. He also holds appointments as Clinical Professor of Medicine, Professor of Public Health, and is the Lovell-Jones Professor of Integrative Rheumatology. A frequent guest on Larry King Live, Oprah, and The Today Show, Dr. Weil is the editorial director of DrWeil.com, and he publishes the popular newsletter Self Healing. To find out more about Dr. Weil’s work visit: www.drweil.com.
Dr. Weil lives near Tucson, Arizona. I conducted this interview with Dr. Weil on March 8, 2006. Dr. Weil appeared to be especially interested in the relationship between consciousness and health when we spoke. We talked about some of the most important lessons that physicians aren’t being taught in medical school, why it’s important for conventional Western medicine to be more open-minded about alternative medical treatments, and how the mind and spirituality effect health.
David: What originally inspired your interest in medicine?
Dr. Weil: My father had wanted to go to medical school but was unable to finish college. It was during the depression. I had a G.P. family doctor who was an influence in that direction. I was interested in science and biology, and I kind of went to medical school by default, because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a sense that a medical degree would be useful to me, and I wanted a medical education, but I really never saw myself being a doctor.
David: How did your early study of botany and the medicinal use of plants in South America effect your views of medicine?
Dr. Weil: That was a huge influence. I think that’s one of the luckiest choices I ever made. It really gave me a grounding in natural science. It connected me to the plant world. It got me interested in ethnobotany, and uses of plants in other cultures. It exposed me to Native American culture, both in North and South America. It gave me a perspective on drugs that I don’t think anyone else in Harvard Medical School had, and it really started me on a career interest in medicinal plants. I think it was one of the major influences in how I think about and practice medicine.
David: What do you think are some of the biggest problems with modern medicine and what do you think needs to be done to help correct the situation?
Dr. Weil: I think it’s too reliant on technology. I think it overly reliant on very powerful pharmaceutical drugs, without appreciating their potential for harm. I think it is very effective in many areas, but I think it’s very ineffective in large categories of disease that effect people. I think it’s doing a very poor job at prevention. I think it neglects, or underplays, the body’s potential for healing, which has been a major theme of my work and writing. And I think it’s become very divorced from the natural world.
David: What do you think are some of the most important lessons about health that most physicians aren’t currently being taught in medical school?
Dr. Weil: I think the major one is that the body has a tremendous potential for self-regulation and for healing, and that that’s where good medicine should start. You want to figure out how to make that happen or remove obstacles to it. I think that physicians are generally uneducated in the whole realm of lifestyle medicine–that is, how diet, exercise, mental states, habits effect health. I think they’re very uneducated in mind-body interactions and the spiritual dimension of human health. I think there’s almost a complete omission of education about nutrition, about use of dietary supplements, about use of botanicals, about many of these other systems of medicine, like Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, that are thousands of years old, and very effective in many areas. So there are large areas I think of omission in conventional medical education.
David: Why do you think it’s important for conventional Western medicine to be more open-minded about alternative medical treatments?
Dr. Weil: First of all, a huge number of patients are using these systems and doctors should know what their patients are doing–if only for the point of view that they might interact or impact the conventional treatments that they’re recommending. Secondly, there are a lot of ideas and treatments out there in the world of alternative medicine that are very useful, that can compliment these deficiencies in conventional medicine. So that alone is, I think, a reason for doctors to at least to be aware that these other systems and methods exist.
David: Can you talk a little about Integrative Medicine and why you think it’s important?
Dr. Weil: I think Integrative Medicine is the way of the future. It makes sense. It’s what patients want increasingly. It’s what doctors want to practice. And I think the real potential of it–which is going to make it a mainstream phenomenon–is that it has the potential to lower healthcare costs by bringing lower cost treatments into the mainstream, while preserving outcomes or even improving them.
David: Can you explain what you mean by the body’s “healing system”?
Dr. Weil: I think this is obvious if you watch the way wounds heal on the surface of the body. The body has a capacity to diagnose problems, to repair them, and to regenerate. This exists at every level of the organism, and it seems to me that good medicine should start with that principle, that the body has the ability to heal itself, and wants to get back to a state of health. And that your job as an outside practitioner is to help that process. So you’re not putting a cure into somebody. You are impacting, removing obstacles to, allowing that natural healing power to work.
David: What are some of the basic suggestions that you would make about diet?
Dr. Weil: First of all, the basic theory of my work is in the book Health and Healing. I think that appeared in 1983. In a lot of my practical books I’ve included information about diet. I have a whole book on that subject called Eating Well for Optimum Health, and in that cookbook I did with Rosie Daley, The Healthy Kitchen,