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Dr. Andrew Weil is perhaps the Dr. Spock of the next generation of physicians. That's Dr. Benjamin Spock, not the Spock of Star Trek, although Andy has certainly gone where no doctor has gone before. His brilliance is matched by his courage as a physician-diplomat willing to challenge a profession often being dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. He has taken on the daunting task of refashioning a system that is in many ways in crisis.
Sometimes people mistake his stance as exclusively favoring natural medicine. In fact, he is equally committed to conventional allopathic medicine, which has much to recommend it. But he is willing to explore everything and to use whatever really works. Above all, he treats people, not diseases.
He may be one of very few doctors in the country who were botany majors in college. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in the 1960s, he worked for thirteen years on the research staff of the Harvard Botanical Museum and traveled the world to study ancient healing and medical lineages, from Ayurveda to shamanism. He has been relentlessly attacked by forces within the medical profession who discount alternative therapies as "unproven." The irony is that according to medicine's own standards, 85 percent of prescribed standard medical treatments lack scientific validation.
Andy has played a central role in bringing about the historic transition to an integrative medicine. He is best known for his prodigious output of eloquent popular books and lectures. He has written a fistful of classics such as Natural Health, Natural Medicine, The Natural Mind, Spontaneous Healing, and, most recently, the popular best-sellers Eight Weeks to Optimum Health and Eating Well for Optimum Health. He also publishes a newsletter and website rich with practical information.
But in many ways his most important work takes place in the trenches of medical education. He is director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona, a visionary pilot effort to include alternative therapies in the training of physicians. He has helped create a consortium of sixteen Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine. He is working to change the entire culture of medicine. And in addition to all of that, he manages to maintain his general practice in Tucson.
Above all, Andy's mission has been about reconnecting medicine with nature, and he stands as one of the most brilliant and heartfelt advocates for the ecological health of the planet. It's no coincidence that he's also a passionate gardener and cook. As Erma Bombeck said, "Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died!" Andy's plants are thriving.
I'M A PHYSICIAN IN TUCSON, ARIZONA, where I practice what I call natural and preventive medicine. Really I think that I just practice commonsense medicine, but it's not what most doctors do. As a result of my botanical training, a lot of the prescribing that I do is botantical. During my freshman year at Harvard in 1960, I had no idea what I wanted to do in life (I still really don't). Thumbing through the course catalogue, I thought I would take one of everything and I found a course called "Plants and Human Affairs." What a wonderful name for a college course! It was about the relationships that human beings form with plants.
It turned out, although I didn't know it then, that it was the oldest course continuously given at Harvard. At the time I took it, the senior lecturer was Paul Mangelsdorf, who had done a great deal of work on the ancestry of corn, but the main lecturer was Richard Evans Schultes, who later became head of the Harvard Botanical Museum. You had to go over the museum to sign up for this course. It was an old, gloomy Victorian brick building, and when I went over there, in the fall of 1960, out of the entrance came a being I had never seen the likes of before. It was a proto-hippie-a long-haired man who I'm sure had been up in the Library of Economic Botany, which had the greatest collection in the country of books of psychoactive plants.
I got the immediate sense that this was someplace I wanted to be. You had to climb up stair after stair, past exhibits of South American blowguns and an exhibit on ayahuasca. Every week we had a lab. There was a Deepfreeze in this course, with tropical fruits from all over the world, and we had a fruit-of-the-week to try every week. In the first lab we made a typical Mexican meal. Schultes had a Mexican graduate student then, and his wife would come in to lead this exercise. We had subsequent laboratories on making ink and soap and perfume. We made whisky out of corn. We had a drug lab in which we tried exotic Amazonian drugs. This was 1960, remember. Later I became a laboratory instructor in the course.
I think this was the only college course in which I learned practical things. It was real stuff, some of which I still use. Anyway, I have an undergraduate degree in botany. Actually, it's in "biology" because there wasn't a botany department at Harvard. Botany was a unit of the biology department and it was seen as a very old-fashioned, musty sort of biology. There was constant rumbling by the molecular biologists to push it out into a farther and farther corner of the university. I am sorry to tell you that in the years since then, I have met only two other physicians who were botany majors as undergraduates, and neither of them uses his botanical training in his medical practice.
At all the meetings that I go to in which I hear people talking about plant chemistry, medicinal plants, herbal medicine, the FDA, and politics, there are never any practicing physicians. It's botanists, plant chemists, and people working in pharmaceutical laboratories; almost never do practitioners of medicine have a working knowledge of botany. There are many people out there who have great knowledge of plants and their structure and chemistry but who have no knowledge of real-world medicine.
And there are people who deal with patients who have not the slightest interest in or knowledge of botany. I think that's sad. I feel lonely in my position, and sad because it shows the degree to which science and medicine have separated themselves from nature and separated us from nature. Two hundred years ago, if you wanted to study medicine, you had to know botany because most of medicine consisted of giving people preparations of plants. Even today, many of the drugs in clinical use are of plant origin or are molecular variations of chemicals originally discovered in plants.
Yet to most doctors today, the idea of giving a patient a plant seems at best hopelessly old-fashioned, and at worst outright dangerous and unscientific. There's almost no dialogue between the fields of medicine and botany. Pharmacy maintained a better connection with its botanical origins, but every pharmacy college in the country has dropped pharmacognosy as a required course. Pharmacognosy was the branch of pharmacy that dealt with the discovery, extraction, and identification of new drugs from natural sources. It was the living heart of pharmacy and that field's connecttion to nature.
Today, I'm sorry to say-and I don't mean this with disrespect-it seems to me that the only requirements you really need to be a pharmacist are not to be color blind and to be able to read and count. All the good stuff that used to go on, like the compounding of natural remedies, is gone.
The separation between medicine and botany has enormous consequences for our society, because fundamentally, healing is a natural process. If you want to understand healing and how to make people better, you must understand the ways of nature. You should live close to nature and develop a feel for natural processes. Not only does medical training today isolate people from nature, but our medicine and our science even contribute to a fear of nature.
As an example: Most people in this country think that if they randomly eat plants in their backyard, the likelihood is that they'll die. Actually, the percentage of plants that can kill you is very, very small. The percentage of plants that can do wonderful things for you is probably also relatively small. And the vast majority probably aren't going to affect you one way or the other. But most people have that fear, and that fear is very much reinfoced by medical scientists. I have a colleague in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Arizona, where I teach, who periodically writes popular articles about the dangers of herbal teas. He tells people that if you are enough of a consumer of health food store products sooner or later you're going to be poisoned.
There are a few herbs to be concerned about, but most of the products that you find in health food stores are not dangerous and certainly not deadly. There are many questions about whether herbal products are efficacious, whether they're overpriced, and whether false claims are made for them, but not about whether they're going to do you in. The message that's not overtly stated but is between the lines is that nature is fundamentally wild, dangerous, and unpredictable. It's out to get you, whereas the products of pharmaceutical laboratories are safe. That message is especially annoying because it's actually the other way around, and I say that as a doctor who often has to deal with the casualties of pharmaceutical science. I see many patients who have been seriously hurt by taking pharmaceutical drugs. In fact, the single greatest black mark against conventional medicine is the amount of toxicity that it causes as a result of its preference for chemical drugs that are very strong and very fast acting.
The whole emphasis in medicine has been to discover bioactive compounds that produce even more dramatic effects even more quickly. It's sometimes useful to have such compounds at your disposal. In an emergency, where there's a real crisis and you don't have time, it's nice to have a drug that's going to work within minutes and produce and immediate effect. But such conditions amount to a very small percentage of total illness. Nevertheless, most regular medicine is geared toward treating all illness as if it were a crisis. Conventionl medicine is good at the management of crises, but it deals with everything in that mode. It brings out the heavy artillery, the big guns, for everything. There's a huge price to pay for reliance on pharmaceutical agents of that sort, and that price is toxicity.
Any dedicated patient sooner or later is going to experience an adverse drug reaction. That's a certainty, I guarantee you. Adverse drug reactions can be as mild as hives and as major as death and permanent disability. This is a huge problem in our medicine and in our society today.
Because Chinese medicine, like many older medical traditions, is based on conceptions of health and illness very different from those of Western medicine, it is an interesting example to consider. Chinese medicine is mostly concerned with energy and energy flows through the body. In the Chinese conception, all illness results from imbalances in energy in the body. Chinese diagnosis tries to determine where those imbalances are in the body and whether they are excesses or deficiencies of energy. Chinese treatment aims to correct the balances, bringing more energy to places that are deficient and draining energy away from places that have too much of it.
Chinese medicine places much more emphasis on prevention than does Western medicine. We have a specialty called preventive medicine, but it's not what I consider the real thing. Preventive medicine as it's now set up is concerned mostly with immunization and public sanitation. Those are important, but they're not the essence. Preventive medicine should be about teaching people how to change their lives in order to reduce the risks of disease. It should be about how to design optimal diets so that we don't fall prey to the diseases that kill and disable people prematurely. It should be about teaching people to handle stress in ways that protect their bodies, and teaching people how to breathe properly so that their nervous systems are nurtured. None of that is now taught in preventive medicine training.
In Chinese medicine there is an idea I find very powerful. It's that there are two categories of illness-visible and invisible-and that visible illness is always preceded by invisible illness. What Chinese doctors mean by invisible illness is a disturbance in the energy dynamics of the body, in the energy flow pattern. They say that if that's not corrected, sooner or later it will crystallize into a disturbance of the structure of the body, and that at that point it is not longer so easy to change. Once disease has become fixed in the structure of the body, it takes much more energy, time and effort to correct it, and the chance of correcting it is less.
If you try to talk about that concept with Western doctors, if they listen to you at all, they'll shake their heads in disbelief. It doesn't compute. For one thing, it's very difficult to talk about energy with Western doctors and scientists, even though energy is a hard, physical concept. In physics, energy is defined as the ability to do work. Yet when you talk about energy in a biological sense, it becomes a kind of buzzword like "natural" that types you as New Age and mystical, meaning not scientific, and people stop listening.
The Chinese concept of invisible illness, like Chinese medical science in general, developed in an absence of familiarity with the detailed inner structure of the human body. Instead, it is a science that concerns function and functional relationships in the human body. Where Chinese doctors diagnose a disturbance in a body function in the invisible stage, we in the West often use the term "functional illness," meaning an illness in which there is a disturbance of function but nothing materially, structually wrong. Let's say a patient comes in complaining of urinary incontinence, and you do all the tests, and they all come out normal. The Western doctor says, "This is a functional urinary disturbance." True. But the connotation in Western medicine of the word "functional" is "unreal." When we diagnose a patient as having a functional complaint, we mean it's all in the patient's head, and therefore we don't have to bother with it.
In Chinese medicine the problem would be taken more seriously because it's at this stage that you can attack it with the least effort. The fact that Western medicine relegates the whole category of functional illness to the status of "unreal" is an indication of the materialism of Western science and medicine. What is real in materialistic science is that which you can touch and measure. If you can't measure it or find a structural correlate, then it's not real.
Excerpted from Ecological Medicine Copyright © 2004 by Collective Heritage Institute. Excerpted by permission.
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|Pt. I||Ecological Medicine: One Notion, Indivisible|
|The Coming Age of Ecological Medicine||3|
|Personal Healing and Planetary Healing||12|
|Thinking Like a Girl Is Good Medicine||20|
|Redesigning Environmental Health||26|
|Generations at Risk: Children's Health and the Environment||32|
|Pt. II||The "Duh" Principle: Precaution Means Not Having to Say You're Sorry|
|The Precautionary Principle: Golden Rule for the New Millennium||41|
|Quantifying the Unknowable: The Risks of Risk Assessment||53|
|Closing the Loophole of Uncertainty||58|
|Putting Precaution on the Street||61|
|But What Is the Alternative?||65|
|Pt. III||Public Health, Cancer, and Prevention|
|Reconciling Human Rights, Public Health, and the Web of Life||73|
|Florence Nightingale: Mystic, Visionary, Healer||78|
|Reversing the Cancer Epidemic||83|
|Hoxsey: When Healing Becomes a Crime||92|
|Pt. IV||Nature, Culture, and Medicine|
|Healing, Nature, and Modern Medicine||109|
|The Role of Herbs in Integrative Medicine||125|
|Community Herbalism in Modern Health Care||132|
|Relationships Are the Best Medicine||138|
|Mothering on the Front Lines: Protecting Kids||144|
|Pt. V||Taking Action|
|Cycles of Continuous Creation||155|
|Just a Little Too Well Behaved||165|
|Why I Went to Jail to Protect My Daughter from Toxic Polluters||175|
|Not in My Front Yard, or in Anyone's||182|
|Globalizing Indigenous Resistance||186|
|Overcoming Environmental Racism||193|
|The Global Politics of Precaution||198|
|Pt. VI||Healing the Spirit|
|Think Globally, Act Non-locally: Consciousness beyond Time and Space||209|
|Reading the Mind of Nature: Ecopsychology and Indigenous Wisdom||223|
|Stopping the War on Mother Earth||228|
|Green Medicine and Plant Spirit||231|
|Ecological Medicine: A Call for Inquiry and Action||237|
|About the Bioneers and Collective Heritage Institute||247|