Interview with Dr. Andrew Weil
by Joseph Roberts
JR: What are your strategies for healthy aging?
AW: First of all I am not interested in trying to reverse the ageing process or extend life span. There is a great deal of anti-ageing medicine out there and that does not interest me. What I am interested in doing is to think about how we can delay the onset of age-related diseases. The technical term for this is compression of morbidity. You want to squeeze the time of sickness and decline into the smallest period as possible at the end of life and have a longer healthy productive life. This includes everything from maintaining good social and intellectual connections to having physical activity throughout life to eating right, taking the right kinds of supplements and so forth.
JR: So we are talking about having a healthy and balanced life?
JR: Why do some people age faster? Is there a stress factor?
AW: Stress certainly plays a factor in it. The hormone that mediates stress, cortisol, is toxic to nerve cells of the brain. So I think that’s all you need to know about the harmful effects of stress. Personally, my favourite technique for stress is balanced breathing. It is free and simple and you don’t need any equipment. It is very time efficient and so I often teach people simple breathing techniques to reduce stress.
JR: What are the harmful effects of standard over the counter pharmaceutical drugs?
AW: If I go to the home of an older person I look in the medicine chest. Typically there are a dozen different prescription drugs and often these are prescribed by different physicians with nobody overseeing them and no sense about the possible interactions. I think it is a great concern and we are seeing more and more stories in the news of serious toxicity of widely used pharmaceuticals such as the anti-inflammatory drugs. I think it is appropriate to be very cautious about using medical drugs and make sure you take them for the intended purpose where there are no other treatment strategies.
JR: It seems to me that a newly developed drug like Celebrex can cause huge problems. It comes out on the market with big fanfare. Wine and cheese parties for all the doctors of the world and a few years later it is yanked off the shelves because it is killing people.
AW: That’s an old pattern that we have seen over the past century. It’s probably going to keep going. So this is one reason why I encourage people to be informed about the natural strategies of managing common kinds of illnesses in the normal sense. For instance, if you look at inflammation there are some excellent natural anti-inflammatory agents like ginger and turmeric. Also the omega-3 fatty acids that you get from fish. So just by changing diet and by adding some of these herbs you can control most inflammatory diseases.
JR: So an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?
AW: Definitely, and even if it comes to cures there are natural treatments that are usually cheaper and safer. They may take longer to work but they work as well as standard medical ones.
JR: There is much debate about the medicinal use of marijuana. It seems to me that there is a lot of criminality involved with pot and it might be better off if it was looked upon as a potential medicine. In Europe they are making changes to laws.
AW: Well, there has been a lot of talk here for a long time in Canada. There are many reasons to recommend it as a medicine. It’s got extremely low toxicity and it’s useful for conditions that it manages well like muscle spasms, chronic pain and also lack of appetite that occurs in HIV infections and cancers. The downside of marijuana is that you know most doctors are not very comfortable recommending that patients smoke and the affects are variable from individual to individual. It just seems to me silly to deny ourselves the benefits of marijuana. It doesn’t work for everyone but it works for some people. The real problem you are up against is that this is not a rational area of discussion. Marijuana becomes a powerful symbol of a lifestyle and it represents a lot of things that most cultures are afraid of and I think the resistance to legitimizing marijuana as a medicine, really stems from this irrational fear that if we do that we are chipping away at this whole superstructure of myths that has been built up of cannabis as a devil drug that has no redeeming qualities.
JR: Smoking puts hot carbon particles into your lungs, which is not a healthy thing to do.
AW: Canada has just approved a product called Sativex. It’s a cannabis extract that you spray under the tongue. www.drugdevelopment-technology.com/projects/sativex/ It may have a lot of advantages. For one thing it looks more like a medical drug. Physicians would be much more comfortable recommending this product than to recommend people smoke a joint. It is whole extract, not an isolated THC. It will be interesting to see how it changes the situation.
JR: One of the most profitable drugs out there now is Viagra. As we age naturally how can we improve and maintain a good sex life, as we get older without using pharmaceutical drugs?
AW: Well I think there are many natural things out there such as ginseng that has similar effects. There are also common habits that people indulge in that interfere with sexual function. Smoking is probably the obvious one because it disturbs circulation. So I’m not saying that there are not people who can benefit from Viagra. But again, as with other things, there are alternative strategies available.
JR: OK, we have covered sex and drugs. So what’s next?
AW: (laughs) Independent media.
JR: In the same way we have junk food, fast food, we also have monopolized junk media, fast media, which keeps people undernourished in terms of intelligent information and variety of opinion.
AW: I couldn’t agree more. You know the trend we are seeing is the consolidation of the media under big conglomerates. I think the importance of having the independent voices in all the media, print and broadcast is crucial to a healthy democratic society. We are up against a trend moving in the other direction though.
JR: Yes, it is manufacturing consent on a larger scale much like huge factory farming. For example in the United States, Clear Channel owns a huge whack of radio stations. Here we have CanWest Global owning both old daily newspapers, the Vancouver Sun and The Province, many weekly newspapers and now it just helped put out a daily free commuter newspaper. It is more of the same junk media, faster and faster. Someone jokingly said, it is amazing how there is only enough news to fill up a newspaper and that’s all there is.
JR: What are universities teaching about natural health care?
AW: In the States there is a real trend toward what’s being called integrated medicine. I am one of the pioneers of this field. We have a group called the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrated Medicine. We have almost 30 member schools including two Canadian schools. I think this is a clear trend. There is such demand for sensible medical practice that combines alternative and preventional care and this is clearly what people want. But also I think what is really going to drive it now is economic analysis. Because our health care system in the States is collapsing fast and I think we are a little ahead of Canada in that. But the same thing is going to happen everywhere. You know that our economies can’t support this kind of high tech medicine. So I think as people begin to realize this, integrated medicine offers the promise, lowers treatment costs and produces as good or better outcomes. It’s going to gather real momentum.
JR: I asked our BC health minister for a definition of health. He said he was very concerned about health but I was unable to get a clear, positive definition of health. Health care in Canada has basically slid into Pharmacare with the major focus on cheaper prices for drugs, rather than identifying what health is, and supporting health at the very onset.
AW: This is a general problem in conventional medicine. If you ask most doctors what health is you get the answer that it is the absence of disease. What we call the health care system is really the disease care system and not a system of health and health maintenance. To me health is a dynamic state of balance in which the organism is in balance with the environment. One of the analogies I like to use is a child’s knock down toy with a weighted bottom. You know if you have that kind of an inner resilience you could get knocked down and go back to centre. If you have the inner resilience you can move through the world of treacherous germs, toxins and allergens and that system will rebound. Also Chinese medicine offers an interesting contrast. Chinese medical doctors say that the two strategies that you need to deal with in managing disease are to dispel the evil and support the good. In Western medicine we put all our effort into dispelling evil. We develop anti-drugs, antibiotics and drugs that counter our system. We don’t do things, which support the good, which is to identify and support the body‘s internal mechanics and human defences.
JR: When body stops co-operating with itself autoimmune diseases and other kinds of breakdown begin such as rheumatoid arthritis.
AW: Well I think that these kinds of diseases are becoming more frequent in our societies and I think they result from pressures on bodies today and the toxins and the environment and all the stress we are exposed to. These are diseases of civilization. You know if you look at the simple primitive tribal cultures, allergies are very rare, autoimmune diseases are rare. These are the things that go with modern urban living.
JR: Does the fear of germs create a dynamic of resistance and tension in the person?
AW: If you jump in at the first sign of an infection with an antibiotic you are not really letting the body’s own defensive system develop. So you know again these things have their place if you have life-threatening or serious infections. But I think that while learning to interact with these challenges out there and overcoming them you get stronger.
JR: There is a lot of focus on early detection of cancer or other diseases by drug corporations. Unfortunately it is a Machiavellian situation. The earlier the detection is, the more treatment that can be given i.e. sold. It is a way of getting people on drugs earlier, and low and behold, more and more people are going to have symptoms discovered. There are people out there I call the pandemic PR. I get phoned about the next international conference on such and such a pan-virus or whatever, which is the gateway virus to cancer, and that 80 percent of people in the world have it but they just do not know it yet. It just turns out that the corporation has a patented drug, which is the answer for that neo-disease, and it is looking for market share. And oh, by the way do you want to purchase some stock options? The greed of the stock market is driving medical research. Early detection is their gateway to more drug sales and higher profits. A patented cure looking for a disease.
AW: It will be a problem. I think to me the solution to this is to have people become more empowered as the result of education and information of what they can do on their own and be independent in these times. I am a great fan of Common Ground and I read it as often as I can. I think it is one of the really independent voices that provides people with a different perspective on a lot of the common problems in our society. So thanks.
JR: What we are trying to do is to inform and inspire and educate people and give them the courage to be independent in their choices instead of blindly following TV. I think what we need to have is a healthy sense of skepticism which needs to be open-minded.
AW: I teach medical students and doctors to be open-minded skeptics. I run into a lot of closed-minded skeptics in my field, that is people who dismiss things without even looking at them. But I regard myself as an open-minded skeptic and really willing to entertain a hypothesis but then I want to see the evidence for it.
JR: Do you have anything to mention to our quarter million readers in closing.
AW: Well, I think the most wonderful thing about the human organism is that it has the capacity to renew itself and it regenerates. I would encourage them to find out how to protect that ability of the natural system and nourish it.
Andrew Weil, M.D., has devoted the past thirty years to developing, practicing, and teaching others about the principles of integrative medicine. Dr. Weil combines a Harvard education and a lifetime of practicing integrative medicine to provide a unique approach to health care which encompasses body, mind, and spirit.
He is the founder of the Weil Foundation. Read about this not-for-profit organization at www.weilfoundation.com