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DR. ANDREW WEIL: MR. NATURAL

17 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger/Tucson

Andrew Weil likes to tell the story of Oliver, the man who was cured by a bumblebee. There was a time when nobody believed Oliver, but when Weil heard the story, he didn’t doubt it for a minute. At the time of his cure, Oliver was 64 years old and had been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis since he was in his 30s. His hands were so swollen that he had given up trying to find gloves to fit them. His shoes were two sizes larger than they used to be and seemed to be growing each year. He took up to a dozen different pain relievers every day, though few actually relieved his pain.

One evening Oliver was putting on a pair of pajamas that had been dried on the backyard line when he felt a sharp pain in his left knee. He slapped at the spot, shook his pajama leg and out tumbled a bee. The next day Oliver’s knee was tender, swollen and hot with venom. After another day or two, a curious thing happened: as the pain from the sting subsided, the ache from the arthritis in that knee began to diminish as well. A few weeks later, the swelling in all of Oliver’s joints was gone. A short while after that, the chronic body-wide pain vanished too. Oliver is now a limber 86 years old. He hasn’t been bothered by arthritis for 22 years.

“There’s a long history of studies documenting the benefits of animal venom,” Weil says today. “Bee venom in particular contains some very powerful anti-inflammatory compounds. Oliver was the lucky beneficiary of that.”

Weil, 55, a Harvard-educated physician, ought to know better than to tell stories like this. But Weil has a thousand of them. There’s the one about the 19-year-old girl just months away from dying of a terminal blood disease who began a regimen of hypnotherapy, diet therapy and psychic healing, miraculously overcame her affliction and is now a 43-year-old mother of four. There’s the one about the man apparently suffering from ulcerative colitis who did not respond to years of treatment by gastroenterologists but did respond to a therapist who manipulated his skull until his “cranial motions” were back in synch, allowing his digestive “impulses” to begin to flow again.

To hear the medical establishment tell it, Weil’s stories are the worst kind of hooey–or, in the far more clinical but equally damning phrasing of the scientist, “merely anecdotal.” Yet Weil, best-selling author, TV personality, Internet columnist and medical school instructor, intends to keep telling them. And Americans, to all appearances, are buying much of what he has to say.

As recently as two years ago, few people had even heard of Weil. Since 1995, few people haven’t. Weil’s newest book, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, a familiar mix of herbal medicine and nutrition and life-style tips, is entering its eighth week at the top of the best-seller lists, with more than 650,000 copies in print. An earlier book, Spontaneous Healing, is in its 65th week on the lists, with a press run of more than 1 million. His site on the World Wide Web–cozily titled “Ask Dr. Weil”–recorded 1 million hits in April alone (and he is currently in discussion with Time New Media, a corporate cousin of this magazine, about affiliating with the Pathfinder Website). His recent appearances on PBS stations around the country drew record audiences; his audio CD of music and meditations is selling briskly. He is, by any measure, the man of the moment in America’s eternal search for an alternative to the conventional, interventionist, pharmaceutical medicine most of us grew up thinking of as the only medicine there is.

The appeal of alternative healers and their uncommon cures is hardly new. Nationwide, health-care consumers spend nearly $14 billion a year for medical treatments rarely offered by the family doctor. Deepak Chopra, the India-born endocrinologist, spiritualist and publishing juggernaut, has enjoyed perennial best-seller status since the 1993 publication of Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. Other author-healers, from Dr. Bernie Siegel to Marianne Williamson, have enriched themselves and their publishers by offering a buffet of alternative approaches that range from meditation and visualization to the curative powers of love and positive thinking.

What distinguishes Weil from the rest is his radical eclecticism. Almost any treatment can have a place in his healing universe, so long as it doesn’t cause harm.

Indeed, much of what Weil recommends is pretty simple stuff: self-administered, commonsense cures like eating less fat, getting more exercise and reducing stress. He leads readers a little farther afield when he introduces them to herbalism, acupuncture, naturopathy, osteopathy, chiropractic and hypnotism, although most of these protocols fall into the can’t-hurt-could-help category. Where he may get into trouble is when he wanders farther still, uncritically endorsing treatments such as cranial manipulation that seem like folly even to many alternative-medicine believers. For skeptics looking for reasons to dismiss Weil, this kind of at-the-fringes medicine provides more than enough.

Where Weil wins many of his critics back, however–and where the genius of his appeal may lie–is when he avoids straying from the medical fold at all. Throughout his books he concedes that for all the promise of his alternative cures, sometimes the best answer is the one consumers are most familiar with: the high-tech medicine of the industrialized West.

In a field filled as much with dogmatists as doctors, this is nothing short of revolutionary. “There’s a lot that conventional medicine does well,” Weil says, “and in many cases, it’s just what’s called for. If I’m in a car accident, don’t take me to an herbalist. If I have bacterial pneumonia, give me antibiotics. But when it comes to maximizing the body’s natural healing potential, a mix of conventional and alternative procedures seems like the only answer.”

Many mainstream physicians reject even this middle-of-the-road position, condemning Weil’s books as the worst kind of medical malarkey, filled with sloppy science and tent-show miracles. What Weil sees as medicine, says Dr. Graham Woolf, a gastroenterologist at ucla-Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, “would never pass as a research protocol.” Others are less troubled by Weil’s science than by Weil himself, particularly the controversial positions he took earlier in his career, such as his perceived tolerance of marijuana and other recreational drugs.

Still others in the medical community are troubled by none of this, concerned not with what doctors think of Weil but with what patients think. “People respond to Andy,” says Shirley Fahey, associate dean of the University of Arizona medical school, where Weil lectures on alternative medicine, “because Andy responds to them. As long as he does that, they’ll keep coming to him for answers.”

For all his newfound fame, Andrew Weil finds it easy to drop completely from sight. One of the most recognizable doctors in the country lives in one of its most private corners, at the foot of the remote Rincon Mountains in southern Arizona. To get there you have to travel about 35 miles outside downtown Tucson, along progressively rutted, flood-prone roads, until an incongruously suburban sign points you to the WEIL RESIDENCE. If Weil didn’t show the way, it is unlikely you’d ever stumble across the place.

But if few people ever visit Weil in his desert hideaway, untold numbers somehow manage to reach him nonetheless. Every week a flood of more than 500 pieces of paper mail–passed on, bucket-brigade style, from publishers, post-office boxes and agents–washes up at Weil’s door. Thousands more pour in electronically, transmitted to Weil not at his unpublicized mailing address but at his widely known Web address (www. drweil.com) If the tone of the letters is not exactly rapturous, it comes pretty close.

One correspondent writes to thank Weil for saving her mother’s life. Suffering from a rapidly advancing case of cancer, the mother had been given three months to live–until, in desperation, she began listening to Weil’s tapes and following his advice. That was two years ago, and her disease is in complete remission. Another woman reports that she was once told by her doctor that she had just months to live. She began experimenting with alternative treatments, and she reports with perhaps a dollop too much satisfaction, “It’s four years later, that doctor is dead, and I’m still going strong.”

Others write not to praise Weil but to probe him. Is there any alternative to pharmaceutical drugs to treat allergies? someone wants to know. There sure is, Weil answers on the Web. Try a few leaves from the stinging-nettle plant, generally sold freeze-dried and packed in capsules. Are there any natural sex enhancers available? someone else asks. Absolutely, Weil answers. Men can try the Indian herb ashwagandha, which literally translates as “smells like a horse” but may pay back in sexual vigor whatever price it exacts in aroma. Women might consider damiana, the dried leaf of a Mexican plant that has a reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Weil rather enjoys his role as epistolary medicine man and most times would be perfectly content to spend his days answering his mail, writing his books and rarely leaving his desert redoubt, which he shares with his wife, their five-year-old daughter and his wife’s three children by her first marriage. “I’m rather shy,” Weil says. “If I had my druthers, I’d do most of my work without ever leaving home.”

It’s been a while, however, since Weil had his druthers; this year the congenitally shy physician has gone decidedly public. A recent, typical fortnight saw him making book-tour appearances in Miami on a Saturday, Austin on Sunday, Minneapolis the following Thursday, Chicago on Friday, Cincinnati on Tuesday and Phoenix the next Saturday. He has breezily chatted up hosts on morning talk shows, shared his thoughts on evening-newsmagazine shows and kept studio audiences captivated for 90 minutes at a stretch discussing nothing more dramatic than antioxidants, ginseng and the value of regular exercise. Weil’s crinkly smile, easy manner and Father Christmas beard certainly help. But what really sells Andrew Weil is the good-health message he comes bearing; and what’s most remarkable about that message is just how unremarkable it is.

Readers of Spontaneous Healing and 8 Weeks to Optimum Health are introduced to very little they haven’t heard about before from other self-styled healers, including exceedingly familiar treatments like biofeedback and gingerroot, alternative medicine’s universal solvents in which virtually all sickness is said to dissolve. No matter how many times consumers have been shown this shopping list of cures before, however, only a comparatively small percentage of them have expressed any interest. When Weil shows it to them, they tend to buy. Weil thinks he knows why.

“I think people are fed up,” he says. “They want to be more in charge. Throughout the world there’s a growing suspicion of non-natural things and a growing belief that Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers. Perhaps I speak to that belief.”

Many mainstream doctors aren’t so sure, dismissing Weil as more huckster than healer. While this is almost certainly unfair, it’s also true that for much of his life he has indeed had a perfect-pitch sense of how to attract attention to himself.

Weil’s first brush with demi-fame came in 1962, when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. Writing for the Harvard Crimson, he fell into an unlikely assignment: poke around the psychology department and investigate rumors that students and professors there were openly experimenting with illegal drugs. The substance of choice was the so far little-known hallucinogen LSD. The professors providing it were the so far little-known Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary.

Weil recognized a scoop when he was handed one, and he struck a deal with the university administration: if the Crimson provided Harvard officials with enough information to help them get rid of Leary and Alpert, Harvard officials would keep the scandal quiet until Weil published his exclusive story. Harvard agreed, Weil went to work, and when he proved the rumors true, his subsequent Crimson articles caused such a stir that Look magazine commissioned him to write a similar piece for national publication. To the surprise of no one at Harvard, Leary and Alpert were soon forced out.

A few years later, when Weil had moved on to Harvard Medical School, he attracted public attention again–this time to the other side of the drug divide. Having earned his undergraduate degree in botany and having witnessed the growing frenzy over the popularity of marijuana on campus, Weil began to wonder just how much of a scourge the drug really was. Since one of his course requirements was to conduct an independent research project, he petitioned Harvard administrators to allow him to attempt the first-ever double-blind human experiments on the intoxicating powers of pot. Harvard agreed but reminded Weil that he had an obvious problem. In order to conduct marijuana studies, he had to get hold of marijuana–an easy enough proposition at any college in 1968. But in order to have his studies published, he had to get hold of it legally.

Weil sent repeated letters to health officials in Washington, requesting a small amount of the marijuana the government kept for research of its own. Not surprisingly, he received repeated refusals. Ultimately, Harvard had to intervene, endorsing the study on the strength of the impeccable antidrug credentials Weil had earned as a result of the Leary-Alpert affair. Not long after, federal officials relented. “One day,” says Woodward Wickham, Weil’s Harvard roommate and now a vice president at the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, “this box of government marijuana just arrived in the mail.”

Weil’s pot studies, like his Leary-Alpert expose, quickly made national news, owing in no small part to the kindly conclusions he reached about the contraband plant. “Marijuana did appear to raise heart rate,” Weil says, “but it didn’t seem to affect pupil size or blood sugar. More important, it didn’t really impair performance, at least in people who had some experience with it. It seemed to be a rather mild intoxicant.”

The marijuana study, combined with his botanical research, led Weil to a pivotal choice–one that would determine the direction of the rest of his life. After medical school, he decided, he would forgo the young doctor’s traditional apprenticeship as a hospital intern and resident and instead devote his time to traveling through the forests and villages of South America, studying not the great engine of Western medicine but the gentle power of the curative herb. Weil spent more than three years in the field in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and elsewhere, and when he returned to the U.S. in the mid-1970s, he decided that he would make his living teaching, writing and otherwise spreading the alternative-medicine word. Today that word has rewarded him well.

In addition to Weil’s existing books, three new ones–largely compilations of questions and answers skimmed from his Website–are in the works, and requests for other books, personal appearances and television shows arrive every day. Weil’s publishers justifiably expect a fresh explosion of sales sometime next year when 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, which is still on the best-seller lists as a hardcover, at last appears in paperback. The barnstorming touring that Weil has agreed to of late has done a good job of keeping all this merchandise moving, but it has come at a personal price. Weil and his wife Sabine Kremp recently agreed to end their marriage, the split coming as much as a result of the new demands on Weil’s time as anything else. “Running this empire,” says Kremp, “has been tough.”

Even without the new books, it’s likely to get tougher still. This summer Weil and the University of Arizona medical school will launch a fellowship program designed to train M.D.s in various protocols of alternative medicine, or, as Weil prefers to call the eclectic healing he practices, “integrative medicine.” In addition to classroom training and research work, physicians admitted to the program will get extensive hands-on experience with patients, working alongside Weil at a new integrative-medicine clinic the university has established. Even before the program had begun, Weil was developing plans to market the curriculum to other medical schools looking to develop similar fellowships of their own.

“Ultimately,” he says, “we’d like to set up an American College of Integrative Medicine that will establish residency training, set standards, administer exams and do all the other things that lead to accreditation.”

Whether conventional medicine will ever extend such diplomatic recognition to breakaway practitioners like Weil is an open question. Part of the problem appears to be Weil himself. Even after 30 years, many of his mainstream colleagues still remember him mostly for his marijuana studies and persist in seeing him, at best, as a drug apologist and, at worst, as an advocate. Weil hasn’t always helped his own cause: his third book, From Chocolate to Morphine (Houghton Mifflin, 1983), seemed to argue for the essential blamelessness of most mind-altering drugs and to make little distinction between plants like cocoa and plants like coca–at least in terms of their potential for abuse. Since his recent fame, Weil appears to have become a bit less public with beliefs like this; in promo spots for Weil’s pbs specials, the word morphine on the book’s dust jacket is conveniently obscured. In private, however, Weil continues to sound defiant. “My views about illicit drugs haven’t changed,” he says. “There are no good or bad drugs, just good or bad uses.”

What disturbs Establishment doctors more about Weil, however, is his medicine. When you look behind all the miracle testimonials in Weil’s books, they insist, the science that supports them–whether it’s the science of homeopathy, osteopathy or ordinary herbs–looks just plain shabby. “Weil cites a lot of anecdotes,” says Dr. James R. Allen, a vice president of the American Medical Association, “and while they can be instructive, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily valid in terms of scientific proof.”

The rub for Allen and others, however, is that–if the testimonials in Weil’s books are to be believed–many people who try these treatments do get better. A mainstream gynecologist may not be able to explain why raspberry and nettles could help cure endometriosis, and a traditional neurologist may be stumped at how breathing exercises could dramatically relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. But the fact remains that in a number of cases these treatments appear to work. For many in mainstream medicine, of course, such a cause-and-effect disconnect sounds like nothing more than an elaborate placebo effect, a sort of self-fulfilling medical prophecy, in which the mere act of having faith in a cure actually leads to one. If alternative treatments are indeed based on such self-healing, that’s O.K. with Weil.

“People who attend hypnosis demonstrations,” he says, “talk about something called the hypnotist’s aura. At every show there are a few people in the audience whose expectations are so high that the moment the hypnotist comes out onstage, they fall into a trance. If belief in a hypnotist is enough to do this, belief in a cure is enough to help you get well.”

Not surprisingly, conventional researchers see this as dancing away from the question. “Weil wants you to believe that you don’t need the scientific approach, that you don’t need to demand evidence,” says Dr. Arnold Relman, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and emeritus professor at Harvard Medical School. “I resent well-educated people exploiting irrational elements in our culture, and that’s what he’s doing.”

The debate between alternative and mainstream medicine will not get settled anytime soon, but even if Andrew Weil the scientist does not prevail, it’s clear that Andrew Weil the crusader has already made his impression. What’s less clear–at least for now–is whether Weil and other alternative healers are selling real cures or, like the hypnotist, just casting good spells.

–With reporting by Alice Park/New York

For more on health and fitness, see Time Inc.’s health Website pathfinder.com/thrive

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com