The Path to Weilness

Conventional medicine and its indifferent bedside manner have finally pushed Americans into the arms of alternative therapies. Andrew Weil, the father of natural living, has been patiently waiting.

By Robert Pela, published on November 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Tucked into a leather wing chair in his office—a converted horse stable that still smells strongly of manure—Andrew Weil, in khaki shorts, a rumpled cotton button-down and worn suede sandals, a pair of Rhodesian Ridgebacks at his feet, looks more like a friendly Deadhead than a millionaire medical practitioner. He is, in fact, a fusion of his former angry young mushroom-munching rebel and an urbane, self-possessed CEO. He lives on an 80-acre ranch in the Arizona desert yet dresses more like a groundskeeper than the master of the house. His advice has been sought by the Saudi royal family, and his last three books have topped The New York Times best-seller list, yet he appears unfazed by both his reputation as a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and the wealth and fame it's brought him.

During the three decades he's spent championing his own brand of health care, Weil has gone from drug-culture shaman to alternative-health guru, earning pots of money and the sometimes-grudging respect of his peers along the way. And if we've been too hardheaded to buy into Weil's prudent approach to healing until just lately, he's forgiven us. All that matters now, he says, is that integrative medicine, which combines both alternative and conventional approaches to maximize the body's natural healing powers, is catching on in a big way.

The rising cost of traditional health care is high on the list of reasons that alternative therapies, from acupuncture to herbal remedies, are on the cusp of mainstream acceptance. Americans may be forking over some $27 billion a year for alternative treatments. According to the journal Medical Care, an estimated 28.9 percent of adult Americans used at least one alternative therapy in 1999. And the health care community is taking notice. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that most medical schools now offer courses in alternative medicine and increasing numbers of managed care organizations provide benefits for such therapies.

Integrative medicine is comforting to those of us reluctant to entirely abandon prescription meds in favor of dietary supplements and meditation. And its emphasis on a true partnership between patient and practitioner, in which lifestyle issues such as diet, stress and relationships are considered, is also proving popular to a nation of people increasingly discontent with the five-minute physician consultation.

"In integrative medicine, we might give a patient with rheumatoid arthritis a whole package of things to do: a change in diet, a dietary supplement, a mind-body technique, an herb, an exercise regimen," Weil says. "Conventional medicine would just give her a prescription for steroids."

Singer Naomi Judd sought out Weil after she was diagnosed with potentially fatal hepatitis C in 1991. Now healthy, Judd says Weil walks the talk. He's "the real deal," and she knows because she looked in his fridge.

"I eat well; I grow a lot of my own food," says Weil. "I do some kind of physical activity every day, whether it's bicycling or walking or swimming. I do breathing exercises and some sitting meditation. I take a vitamin regimen of my own devising—no iron, lots of antioxidants," confides Weil. "I won't prescribe treatments I haven't tried."

Those treatments include guided imagery, acupuncture, herb therapy and even the science of Western medicine; Weil's is a Cuisinart approach to health and healing. "I look at everything out there and I say, 'Well, this part is good, and this part is stupid.' If an idea or practice makes sense to me, I will recommend it—wherever it comes from."

People are drawn to Weil's simple, unthreatening principles. He espouses moderate, sometimes age-old preventative measures. Our grandmothers used some of Weil's favorite remedies—like cod-liver oil. He was touting the benefits of fish oils and omega-3 fatty acids long before the rest of us.

But Weil has his detractors, who point to his oft-told tales of recovery as proof of his quackery—like the story of the twenty-something fellow with prostatitis who Weil cured with a prescription of drinking water and a daily, self-prostatic massage. Or the teenager dying from a terminal blood disease who was cured by hypnosis. Or the young woman with an inflamed abdominal wall who Weil cured with a regimen of applied heat, ten glasses of water a day and meditation.

Weil's roll-your-own approach to health care has "led the charge to reform medicine by returning therapies that aren't pharmaceutical or surgical to the mainstream," according to Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a colleague of Weil's and author of Coyote Healing: Miracles in Native Medicine. "His strength in fighting for a place for integrative medicine at the table makes him the King Arthur of the movement."

"Medicine should begin with prevention and self-healing," Weil says between sips of mineral water. "Then use the least invasive, least expensive and most natural methods possible. But our doctors are trained to use drastic measures far removed from nature, and not to work with the body's healing mechanisms. They tend to start with heavy interventions, which is one of the reasons for the economic crisis in health care."

As more doctors adopt Weil's approach to health care, he's morphed into a cottage industry. Equal parts spiritualist and physician, Weil is a doctor for the Oprah generation; an herb-friendly, media-savvy scholar with a long list of self-help best sellers, a popular product line that offers healing wisdom via audio-cassettes, CDs, videos and a monthly newsletter. He has a celebrity-doctor status second only to that of Dr. Phil. He's a frequent guest on Larry King Live, and has hosted his own PBS specials on health and healing. Visitors to Weil's Web site, which registers more than 2.5 million hits each month, are greeted by his warm basso and offered a heap of health tips, an advice column and the opportunity to shop for health products. Weil, the ultimate superstar physician, has even had a mushroom named in his honor.

Thirty-five years ago, Andrew Weil was just another Harvard Medical School graduate with a degree in botany. The only child of Philadelphia millionaires, Weil spent his teenage years as a perpetual exchange student, circling the globe from Thailand to Greece and discovering that Western thinking was "just one way to approach reality." Fascinated by the psychedelic properties of certain plants, Weil conducted Harvard's first controlled experiments on humans with marijuana, then moved his cannabis studies to the National Institute of Mental Health, where he lasted one frustrating year. "They decided I was politically undesirable, and the views I had on marijuana were unacceptable," he recalls. "It was a completely unworkable relationship."

Weil then lived on a South Dakota Indian reservation, where he studied herbal medicine and ritual healing with a Lakota medicine man named Leonard Crow Dog. In his 1972 book The Natural Mind, Weil criticized American drug policy and revealed his fondness for states of altered consciousness induced by psychedelic drugs, hypnosis and meditation. The work earned him a cult following.

As founder and director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona's Health Sciences Center, Weil has set out to reform—rather than topple, as his critics often suggest—the medical establishment he once shunned. He insists that his philosophy, which in the '70s advocated something called "stoned thinking" (perception based on intuition), hasn't changed much in the past several decades; what has changed is his reception by colleagues and a public leery of HMOs and an impersonal medical industry.

"I've always said that the body is capable of healing itself," says Weil, "and that the majority of diseases that kill and disable people are diseases of lifestyle that could be minimized if people made better choices. The culture has finally caught up with me."

"People are finally listening to Andy because he's preaching common sense," says Linda Goin, a Weil fan who swears the good doctor's prescription for broccoli changed her life. "I was diagnosed with a digestive disorder a decade ago. I was sick, I couldn't eat, and no treatment was helping. I read what Andy wrote about the antioxidants in broccoli, so I started drinking filtered water and eating broccoli, and everything settled down."

For starters, he says, we should forget about being healthy all the time. "It's unrealistic to imagine that you can never be sick. Health is cyclical: It breaks down; it reforms. Being sick is part of being alive."

And being well is easier to achieve and maintain than we believe. Weil says that the key to better health is in taking positive control with simple tasks, like learning to prepare healthful food, buying fresh flowers, taking a stress-reducing "news fast" by avoiding newspapers for one day and spending time only with kind people. His prescriptions tend to be for lifestyle changes or items found at the greengrocer: Don't drink tap water. Take vitamins. Mend a broken relationship. Volunteer. Eat more fish. Eat more garlic. Breathe.

Weil's self-health prescriptions can also tackle bigger medical problems. Genital herpes got you down? Try munching red marine algae, which Weil says inhibits the herpes virus. Halitosis? Toothpaste containing tea-tree oil can help, as can chewing fennel seeds. Migraines a bother? Eliminate chocolate, coffee and sardines from your diet. If that doesn't work, make friends with your headache. Weil writes that migraines "can be a good excuse to drop routines, focus inwardly and let stress dissipate."

Weil's critics claim that his ways are much like snake oil. They point repeatedly to his unproven therapies, which they say aren't based on any objective evidence or science. Weil's most devoted critic is former New England Journal of Medicine editor Arnold Relman, whose broadsides tend to hammer on Weil's refusal to deliver scientific evidence. "He's ambivalent, and he plays both sides of the street," Relman says of Weil. "He's smart enough to know that when he's talking to scientists and physicians, he has to offer evidence based in medical science. But when he talks to the public, he talks in a weird way, as if he believes in miracles and healing at a distance and all sorts of clearly irrational modes of therapy. What's most irritating is that he pretends he doesn't know the difference."

Weil finds Relman's ire amusing. "He's a dinosaur," Weil says. "He's the essence of that old-style, paternalistic, authoritarian physician. He always says, 'Show me the evidence, and I'll believe you.' But when I do, he says, 'You call that evidence?' I can't win."

Let others gather medical proof, says Weil, who waves away requests for an explanation of how or why any of his treatments work. "I'm not a researcher, but I'm great at coming up with hypotheses to test. When you see a recovery from a serious illness that doesn't fit your model, it should be taken seriously. They're living examples of people who've had what you have and done very well. I may not know how to make the same cure happen in you, but at least I can show you it's possible."

He'd like to see the word anecdotal (as in anecdotal evidence) stricken from the medical vocabulary, because it trivializes what he calls "uncontrolled clinical observation" (meaning undocumented incidences of healing). There are plenty such Weilisms to choose from. In his 1986 book Health and Healing, he writes, "Sickness is the manifestation of evil in the body." He has mentioned that he'd prescribe the club drug MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy) as a painkiller, if it were legal. And then there's the matter of "stoned thinking," to which he still subscribes.

"In some ways, I regret having used the term 'stoned,' left over from my '60s-era life," Weil says. "It was meant to be provocative—but not about being intoxicated. It's about a different way of perceiving the world that relies on intuition, and using what you see in the world to develop a hypothesis. Of course, doctors are discouraged from using intuition—another unfortunate practice of Western medicine."

Despite his loud opinions about Western medicine and its practitioners, Weil claims a love of medical professionals and worries that doctors are as unsatisfied with the state of the medical industry as are patients. "The unhappiness of physicians is at an all-time high," he moans, "and significant numbers are leaving the profession—becoming pizza chefs or going into nonclinical medicine—because everything that made medicine satisfying is disappearing."

But ask Weil what will become of doctors once we all learn to heal ourselves, and he frowns and sighs. "I'd like to see more doctors become guides, teachers, lifestyle consultants, people who you can partner with to decide on treatment options," he says. "That's what patients want, but doctors aren't trained to provide that."

Weil knows this will change, because he has watched many of his own therapies gain mainstream acceptance in recent years. In the meantime, he's busy building a case against anti-aging medicines, which he considers unnatural and harmful. He's excited about studies he's conducted in Okinawa, Japan, which has the largest centenarian population on earth.

"By now, it feels right when I get attacked from all sides," Weil says from a shadowy corner of his office. "It gives me a sense that I'm in the right place, somewhere between alternative medicine and Western. I call it the future of medicine, and you'll know it's finally arrived for good when we stop calling it integrative medicine and start calling it what it really is: good medicine."