Andrew Weil, M.D., is the founder of integrative medicine and one of the world’s foremost authorities of natural healing. Early in his career, Dr. Weil expanded beyond the limits of conventional medicine to develop an approach that more comprehensively promotes health and prevents disease. This includes, but is not limited to, diet and lifestyle, conventional and alternative methods, mind, body, spirit, and community.
Dr. Weil founded and currently directs the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. The Center is the leading effort in the world to develop a comprehensive curriculum in integrative medicine (IM). Through its Fellowship and Integrative Medicine in Residency (IMR) curricula, the Center is now training doctors and nurse practitioners around the world. Some of the educational programs are open to all, addressing topics such as pain management and mental health.
Dr. Weil is the author of fifteen books and many scientific and popular articles. From his love of cooking he also founded True Food Kitchen restaurants located across the U.S. He frequently lectures and appears on talk shows, sharing his expertise on medicinal plants, alternative medicine, the reform of medical education, and the future of healthcare.
Thomas Van Deven, D.O. – an osteopathic physician who completed the IMR program and has taught for the Center – chatted with Dr. Weil to discuss the growth and future of IM, and his health advice for the next generation.
Thomas Van Deven: As a Harvard medical school graduate, what drew you to healing approaches outside of conventional medicine?
Andrew Weil: I have had a lifelong interest in plants, which I got from my mother. That eventually led me to major in botany as a Harvard undergraduate. Under the mentorship of professor Richard Schultes (the godfather of modern ethnobotany), I became interested in ethnobotany and the study of medicinal plants. For as long as I can remember, I was also fascinated by the mind and how it interacted with the body. That eventually led me to study medical hypnosis. I began learning about alternative medical practices while still in college. After I completed a medical internship in 1969, I decided not to practice conventional medicine because I saw it do too much harm while paying little attention to the promotion of health and the teaching of how not to get sick. I also traveled widely from 1971-75, looking at healing practices in other cultures. After that, I began to put together my own system of practice that I came to call “integrative medicine”.
TVD: What is your definition of integrative medicine (IM), and how do you see it playing a role in health as it relates to COVID-19?
AW: IM is the intelligent combination of best conventional practices with natural and alternative approaches. It emphasizes the body’s innate healing capacity, looks at the whole person (body, mind, spirit), pays attention to all aspects of lifestyle that influence health, and makes use of all available therapies that do not cause harm and show reasonable evidence of efficacy.
With regard to COVID-19, IM teaches that healthy individuals are less likely to become seriously ill with the virus and recommends many strategies for maintaining immunity (such as using medicinal mushrooms).
TVD: What have you seen as the biggest wake-up call stemming from this pandemic?
AW: It exposes our vulnerability to new zoonotic diseases that result from human activity (deforestation, climate change, industrial agriculture, excessive population density, etc.), as well as our lack of preparedness—even though we had ample warning that such an event was coming. It also reveals the great disparities in healthcare that put poor communities and people of color at greater risk. More and worse pandemics are likely in the future; we must be better prepared.
TVD: Aimed at educating a new generation of physicians and other health professionals to change medicine and healthcare, you established the internationally recognized and innovative Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Please describe the programs offered and who should consider the training. What resources are available for the layperson interested in wellness?
AW: The flagship program is the two-year fellowship offered for physicians, PAs, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, dentists, and others. We have more than 2000 graduates in all specialties practicing in all states and in a number of other countries. People can find our graduates by clicking on the Find a Practitioner link on the Center’s website. The training corrects all the deficiencies in conventional professional education, and a condensed IM curriculum is now part of residency training in many residency programs in a number of fields. The Center also trains medical students and allied health professionals and offers excellent online programs for the general public.
TVD: With increasing evidence of the efficacy and safety of many of the approaches of integrative medicine, do you see it becoming more accepted by conventional medicine or even covered by insurance companies? How do we best move in this direction?
AW: The movement is now economically driven. IM can lower healthcare costs and improve outcomes by shifting the focus of healthcare away from disease management and toward health promotion and prevention. It does this by emphasizing lifestyle medicine and by bringing into the mainstream treatments not dependent on expensive technology. IM is definitely becoming mainstream, but we need to collect outcomes and efficacy data comparing integrative and conventional treatment options for common health conditions that absorb most of our healthcare dollars. That’s the only way to convince payers to change policies of reimbursement.
TVD: What has been the most profound experience you have personally had or witnessed as it relates to natural healing?
AW: I have reported many remarkable case histories in my books, Spontaneous Healing and 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. During my mentorship with Robert Fulford, D.O., I saw him end recurrent cycles of pediatric otitis media (inflammation or infection in the middle ear) with one session of cranial therapy. I recorded one such case in a short documentary: Robert Fulford; An Osteopathic Alternative.
TVD: Nutrition plays an integral role in health and healing, and you cover this well in all that you have shared over the years. With so much information at our fingertips, it is easy to become overwhelmed and confused with conflicting advice when it comes to diet and nutrition. How do you advise navigating through this to identify the ideal diet to fuel health and longevity? How does this vary from one person to another?
AW: Given that we are biochemically unique and come from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, it is difficult to make specific dietary recommendations that apply to everyone. But, we can make general recommendations backed by strong scientific evidence. The main one is to avoid refined, processed, and manufactured foods as much as possible. Seek out reliable sources of information, such as my books (Healthy Aging and Eating Well for Optimal Health) and my website. Also, reduce consumption of animal foods, learn about better and worse fats and carbohydrates, and follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
TVD: You have now written numerous best-selling books on integrative medicine. For anyone who may not be familiar with your books, what might you recommend as a great starting point for 1) the health professional and 2) the average health-conscious individual seeking to enhance their personal wellbeing and/or support that of family or a friend? Do you have another book in the works?
AW: For health professionals, I recommend Health and Healing as it explains the philosophy of IM. Mind Over Meds is also informative as it covers the problem of overmedication and gives IM treatment protocols for managing common conditions without medication or with minimal medication in combination with lifestyle modification and other approaches. For health-conscious individuals, Spontaneous Healing, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, and Healthy Aging are all great reads. And right now,I do not have other books in the works.
TVD: Paul Stamets has significantly impacted the advancement of our understanding of mycelium, its many health benefits, and the availability of products on the market. Knowing of your fascination with the health benefits of mushrooms, what are some of the advancements that you have been most excited about and what are the top two mushrooms you recommend for supporting immune function?
AW: I’m pleased that, finally, there is a great deal of research interest in the medicinal properties of mushrooms, especially their ability to modulate immune function and increase resistance to infection and cancer. Reishi has significant anti-inflammatory effects and Lion’s Mane stimulates nerve growth and appears to improve cognitive function. I recommend including a variety of mushrooms in any diet and taking quality mushroom supplements.
TVD: How is psilocybin, a.k.a. “magic mushrooms”, being used as a medical treatment, and what is your take on this?
AW: In the U.S., it remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, unavailable for therapeutic use, although it is now decriminalized or legal in several states and cities. It will likely soon be made available for use in “psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy” for drug-resistant depression, OCD, anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions. I believe it is safe and has great therapeutic potential, not only in psychiatry but in general medicine.
TVD: How do you keep yourself healthy amidst all your responsibilities? What does a day in the life of Andrew Weil look like? Are you doing anything specific with respect to COVID-19?
AW: I follow my own advice. I follow my anti-inflammatory diet, grow much of my own food, and mostly eat food I cook myself. I also swim every day and my dogs take me for walks. I meditate, practice breath work and gratitude, make judicious use of preventive medicine and dietary supplements, spend time with friends, and try to set limits on my use of devices. I now have had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and am beginning to venture out, still wearing a mask and practicing social distancing when I do.
TVD: What emerging or advancing fields of medicine do you believe have significant potential for improving health?
AW: Individualized medicine based on genomics, regenerative medicine, and psychedelic therapy.
TVD: Based on your extensive research and decades of experience, what pivotal advice would you give to the next generation?
AW: Learn how to breathe, do not smoke, get your recommended vaccinations, be physically active, get good rest and sleep, and learn and practice methods to neutralize the harmful effects of stress on the mind and body.