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HEALING MEDICINE: AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME
Janice Stensrude
published in Uptown Express June/July 1995

Click here to read a transcript of the interview on which this article was based.

Physician, botanist, author of six books on health and healing, Andrew Weil's latest book, Spontaneous Healing, promises to be an important addition to the sparse literature on medical consumerism, as well as a classic among healing texts. Uptown Express recently had a telephone conversation with Weil concerning his book, his medical practice, and two exciting new projects on which he is working.

Andrew Weil's only hobby outside his work is his organic garden, "a real jungly garden with everything mixed up," he says. Weil is a man with a dream and a purpose. "The teaching I'm doing is trying to set up a training program for doctors who will do medicine the way that I think it should be done," he says, "and we've been inundated with applications and requests for this. I think it's really an idea whose time has come. . . . there's really widespread desire for this."

Weil spent eight years at one of the nation's most prestigious educational institutions, four years studying botany and four years studying medicine. Having worked for the National Institute of Mental Health in addition to his 15 years as a Research Associate in Ethnopharmacology at the Harvard Botanical Museum, his research background is impressive.

Weil's work as a physician, as well as his writings in the areas of health and healing, are far removed from standard medical practice, yet he has positioned himself well to make a difference in the way medicine is practiced. As Associate Director of Social Perspectives in Medicine and Director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Weil is in a capacity to influence the educational experience of a new generation of doctors and the medical-school curricula that will, to a large extent, determine the manner in which they will conduct their practice of the healing arts.

Weil is calling for a major shift from a disease-centered practice of medicine to a health-care system focused on marshalling the body's natural healing ability. "You know, I think it's about time that this change happened. I think it's going to happen," he insists. And he has every intention of being an active partner in the change. One of his major projects currently is a training program for physicians at the University of Arizona, "the first thing of its kind in the country," he announces with enthusiasm. "Our hope is that the people who graduate from this are going to set up similar programs at other institutions."

In his current book, Spontaneous Healing, Weil relates the story of his personal search that began in 1969 for the "source of healing power," a quest that began in exotic jungles and ended in his own backyard.

"When I finished my basic clinical training, I made a conscious decision not to practice the kind of medicine I had just learned," he writes. "Most of the treatments I had learned in four years at Harvard Medical School and one of internship did not get to the root of disease processes and promote healing but rather suppressed those processes or merely counteracted the visible symptoms of disease. I had learned almost nothing about health and its maintenance, about how to prevent illness--a great omission, because I have always believed that the primary function of doctors should be to teach people how not to get sick in the first place."

"I say that I practice natural and preventive medicine," he replies to a question about his part-time medical practice in Tucson. The number of healthy people consulting him for preventive lifestyle counseling, he relates, is about ten percent of his practice and growing. "Of the remaining 90 percent of people who come to see me, about half have what I call routine problems--things like headaches and sinus conditions and anxiety and arthritis--and in those cases, I think I really practice alternative medicine," he says. "I think the things that I recommend are cheaper, safer, and more effective [than standard treatments]."

The remainder of Weil's patient population are those with very serious illnesses, he says, divided about equally between those with well known diseases, such as breast cancer and multiple sclerosis, and those who have "very odd diseases that nobody knows what to do with." "Those people are very challenging and interesting," he states, "and I think I end up there being mostly a counselor, giving people ideas and information for how to build intelligent combinations of selected use of standard therapies and selected use of alternative therapies."

Weil's limited use of standard medical treatments is not all that sets his medical practice apart from the American norm. Whether it is because he has other income from teaching and writing or because he believes, as he wrote in Spontaneous Healing, that doctors need to be living the healthy lifestyle that they recommend to their patients, Weil has a very relaxed attitude about the time he spends with patients.

"I have the luxury of being able to take time," he confides, "so I really ask a lot of questions to get at all aspects of their lifestyle. I usually ask people to make some changes in how they're eating. I recommend selected use of vitamins and supplements. I recommend a lot of botanical remedies because that's my area of particular expertise. I teach most patients breathing exercises to help them relax. I give people reading to do. I make referrals to a wide range of other kinds of practitioners, sometimes to doctors in standard medicine, and very frequently to people outside of it, especially to traditional Chinese doctors, naturopaths, osteopaths who do manipulation, hypnotherapists, various kinds of massage and bodyworkers, acupuncturists."

Weil doesn't believe in miracles--at least not in the magical sense. The miracle to him is that the human body has the capacity to heal itself and maintain health.

"The body can heal itself . . . because it has a healing system," he writes in Spontaneous Healing. The book is organized into three major sections: the case for the existence of a healing system, how to optimize your healing system, and managing illness.

Using dozens of case histories, Weil tells the stories of patients on whom the medical establishment had given up--aplastic anemia, scleroderma, crippling arthritis, and more. Weil is a self-professed collector of these types of testimonials--what medical science labels "anecdotal evidence."

He claims his interest in testimonials is not so much to gather a library of treatments as it is that these stories represent proof of the existence of a healing system in the human body. "To most doctors, the stories are just stories," he writes, "not taken seriously, not studied, not looked to as sources of information about the body's potential to repair itself." Weil proposes that research topics should be chosen from among the plethora of existing testimonials of the efficacy of herbs and home remedies. He finds testimonial evidence of great interest "because it may suggest directions for experimental inquiry as well as provide clues to the nature of healing."

Weil is not a great believer in affirmations, but he is a believer in the power of confronting and believing in the experiences others have had in successfully triggering the natural "spontaneous healing" response of the body. In his own medical practice, he uses this device frequently. A woman with breast cancer is put in touch with a woman who has successfully healed from breast cancer; a man who has successfully healed his scleroderma is asked to relate his experience to patients with scleroderma. Thus, his collection of testimonials becomes a registry of hope for patients who have been given no hope by standard medical practitioners.

Weil's fascination with and belief in spontaneous healing has helped him overcome his medical-doctor bias against practitioners who have been routinely labeled "quacks" by the medical establishment. Fifteen years ago, at the repeated urging of friends, he went to experience and then observe the healing practices of Dr. Robert Fulford, an osteopath then in his late 70s. Fulford's healing technique centered on cranial therapy (a gentle, but skillful, "touching" of the scalp) and patient instruction in breathing exercises. Impressed with both the healing results and Fulford's own vigorous health (which continues today in his 90s), Weil observed, asked questions, and listened.

From Fulford's teachings, Weil developed his key ideas on spontaneous healing:

The body wants to be healthy.
Healing is a natural power.
The body is a whole, and all of its parts are connected.
There is no separation of mind and body.
The beliefs of practitioners strongly influence the healing powers of patients.

Unlike some proponents of natural healing, Weil does not totally reject the merits of mainstream medical practice. He particularly believes in the value of modern techniques for treatment of trauma and in diagnosis of illness or establishing the metabolic basis for symptoms. His departure with contemporary medical practice is at the point of healing from the trauma. Once the broken leg is set, the task of healing lies in strengthening the body's natural ability to heal.

One might label Weil a believer in belief--a theme that repeats throughout Spontaneous Healing. "It is well known that belief in medicines can cause favorable outcomes even if the medicines are ineffective. This is the placebo response," he writes. The placebo response is anathema to the researcher seeking to isolate and prove the properties of a single substance. Having recognized the value of isolating parts of the whole to promote scientific understanding, reductionist science seems to have little curiosity about the truly intriguing placebo response--the well-known "sugar pill" cure.

As a botanist and a medical practitioner who frequently suggests herbs to his patients, Weil, too, has an intellectual interest in the active chemicals found in the plants used for treatment and maintenance of the human organism; however, his greater interest lies in the healing power of the mind. "I regard the placebo response as a pure example of healing elicited by the mind; far from being a nuisance, it is, potentially, the greatest therapeutic ally doctors can find in their efforts to mitigate disease," writes Weil. "I believe further that the art of medicine is in the selection of treatments and their presentation to patients in ways that increase their effectiveness through the activation of placebo responses. The best way to do this as a physician is to use treatments that you yourself genuinely believe in, because your belief in what you do catalyzes the beliefs of your patients."

Using Weil's reasoning, one could propose that the failure of contemporary medicine may be that its practitioners do not themselves believe in its value to heal. And judging from the response from physicians to the University of Arizona's new training program, much of the medical community is ready to find a system in which to believe.

Not a proponent of supplements taken by the fistful, Weil does recommend selective use of herbs, vitamins, and other natural substances. "I mostly use the antioxidant vitamins and a few other things," he states. "But you know I don't like the idea of people taking handfuls of pills, but I think there is clear evidence for the therapeutic benefit of some of these things, and I think they're also, in the long run, cheaper and more effective than many of the drug therapies that are out there."

In Spontaneous Healing, Weil achieves the difficult balance between information that could be oppressively alarming and counteractive material that offers reasonable solutions. A case in point is environmental pollutants, one of the most important issues today, Weil contends. "It's air, it's water, it's contaminants in the food that we eat and drugs that we take. I think this is really something that people need to be informed about and take reasonable precautions against," he declares. And the precautions he recommends in his book are reasonable and easily achieved.

The father of a three-year-old daughter and stepfather to three, Weil says he has no regrets about waiting so long to become a parent. "I feel more ready to parent now than I would have before." It is this relatively new parent role that perhaps influenced his decision to undertake writing a children's book. Using his philosophy of preventive health, he hopes to put it in a form "that will inspire kids to begin building healthy lifestyles at an early age."

Weil persuades the reader that it is possible to build a healthy lifestyle at any age. He not only presents a convincing case for the existence of a spontaneous healing system in the human body, he also provides readers with the information they need to maximize the potential of their own healing systems. The unique aspect of Weil's writing is that the task of changing lifestyle does not seem so overwhelming. He makes it sound easy; he brings the reader to believe it is easy.

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