Andrew Weil: The essence of natural health is trying to take advantage of the body's own natural healing mechanisms, so it's using gentle methods of treatment such as herbal medicine and diet therapy, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, education of patients of how to change lifestyle, how to have more confidence in their natural healing potential.
After nearly ten years of attending environmental conferences in Japan, I'm always sort of amazed and depressed at the enthusiasm with which Japanese audiences listen to very complicated English expressions, Western expressions of things that their grandparents took for granted as sort of second nature. In the field of health don't you feel a little weird coming over here and telling people about holistic concepts in a region where the Yellow Emperor and these ideas have been running around for two millennia?
AW: Yeah, but as you know that's all been forgotten in modern times. Japan has really embraced Western allopathic medicine in a big way. And in some ways, comparing their medical system with the American system, it seems even more authoritarian. You never ask doctors questions here. Doctors just give you drugs and tell you what to do and they take very little time with you. And there's even cozy little arrangements between Japanese pharmaceutical companies and doctors that make the dispensing of pharmaceutical drugs, I think, even more of a problem here than in America. So, I think it's very useful to remind Japanese of some of their medical traditions.
Well, why don't the fundamental insights or the wisdom of this teaching have more evolutionary vigor? I mean, they always seem to be driven out by allopathy, by surgery...
AW: I think it's the same reason why American Indians go for distilled alcohol and injections of modern drugs - that these things look very powerful on the surface. Modern, technological medicine looks more powerful than giving people herbal teas. And in fact in some areas it's very good. So, I think it's obvious why people get dazzled by the technological hardware. You know, the fact is that in many places in the world today people have much more faith in the healing power of technology than they do in the healing power of nature.
But again, this is after several generations in the West and, one would think, much disillusionment, and yet it hasn't come back in a rush.
AW: Well, I think the disillusionment in the West is really fairly recent. I think up until the 1960s most people in Western countries were convinced that technology was going to solve all their problems, including health problems. And during that period, what we now call alternative medicine was completely in eclipse. And somewhere around late 1960's, 1970, that technological dream began to fade and people began to realize that it caused as many problems as it solved. And in that period, alternative medicine began to have a great resurgence. I think that movement has accelerated as the economic impossibility of delivering technological medicine to people has become more apparent, that the costs of allopathic medicine are impossible right now, and also the limitations of it have become much more apparent. You know, its ineffectiveness in areas like cancer treatment, in treating viral infections and dealing with a lot of chronic, degenerative illness. The things that it does well, it does well - it's very good for treating trauma and acute bacterial infections and generally for crisis kind of medicine. But for ordinary kinds of problems it doesn't do so well. It's very expensive, it's dangerous, and, I think, there's been a lot of disillusionment about it, and accompanying that has been a great reinterest in all these other modes of treatment. So, my sense is that Japan lags behind the West by a number of years, but that the same trend is happening here. I see the same beginnings of interest in alternative medicine here that you could see in America ten years ago.
Also in your writing you've dietarily implicated eggs, meat, milk not to mention the companies pushing the alcohol and tobacco drugs, as being major sources of modern illness and malaise. Considering the fact that they've got thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal to systematically poison us, doesn't this almost come down to a matter of criminal liability?
AW: I think in the case of tobacco companies it does and it will be very interesting to see if courts finally begin to take them to account for that. There's been, over the years, many liability cases brought against tobacco companies by people who have died of lung cancer and have been unable to stop smoking even as they were dying in hospitals. And their relatives have sued tobacco companies and generally courts have sided with the tobacco companies and said, "this was the patient's free choice; that tobacco was not an addiction." That view has just begun to change and there are some signs that there will begin to be judgments against tobacco companies. That will be a really interesting change if that begins to happen. In fact, I think the tobacco companies are very much accountable for that - you know warnings on cigarette packs of dangers of lung cancer and emphysema, I don't think mean anything. I think what should be stated very clearly is that this substance is so addictive that you shouldn't try it even once. The fact is that if you inhale cigarette smoke into your lungs, even one time, the risk of addiction to that is very, very great and that's the toughest of all addictions to break.
Okay, but running down the line to seemingly more domestically common-sensical things like eggs and milk and...
AW: Well, let's look at milk. I mean, in America the dairy industry has been a very powerful force in supplying nutritional information to schools, for example. It got itself in that position in the 1920s by making very high quality educational materials that they gave away for free to the public school system. And supposedly these were objective nutritional materials but really they were designed to make American kids life-long consumers of dairy products. And that's not necessarily in their best interests.
Well, what do you make of the extraordinarily passive role of the entire medical profession in pointing out these things?
AW: You know, I think the medical profession is often times in bed with these industries; and at best they're completely unconscious of it and at worst they're working as active promoters of those things. I mean, you can see that very clearly in America in relation to the professional nutrition industry. You know, there are schools of nutrition and there is a whole class of professionals called registered dieticians who have gotten themselves in the position of being the only people qualified to dispense nutritional information in public institutions and hospitals. And that profession, I think, is very much the tool of the food industry. You know, the kinds of stuff that they learn is industry-produced material and you can see that they are the people who are responsible for the food served in hospitals, for example. And doctors are not in the position to challenge them because they don't learn any nutrition in medical school. There's zero effort in this field. In my four years at Harvard Medical School and a year of internship, the total instruction I got in nutrition was 30 minutes which were grudgingly allowed to a dietician in one hospital that I worked at to tell us about special diets we could order for patients there. And that has not changed since I've been out of medical school. I'm on the faculty of the University of Arizona Medical School and it's the same...no nutritional education.
AW: Still. And I think that is the one deficiency of medical education that is most obvious to the public. I think the public is generally aware of that and angry about it. There are many other deficiencies but at least that one the public knows about.
As I remember, the first time that you became famous or notorious was for "The Natural Mind", your definitive text on the ubiquity and, perhaps, evolutionary necessity of psycho-active substances in human history. Where do your allegiances lie in the current American "war on (some) drugs?"
AW: Well, I think you can imagine. I'm a very strong opponent of criminalization of drugs, of all sorts I think that that approach has done immense damage to our society and all societies. I think the only way that society can deal with drug problems is through education - to really educate people about what are the risks and benefits of pyscho-active substances. I think that these kinds of social controls that people have available for minimizing drug abuse operate much more efficiently without criminal sanctions. And I think, I'm also very much opposed to the commercialization and promotion of some drugs. You know, the fact is that governments profit handsomely from the sales and distribution of some drugs including tobacco. And you know, the talk in America about creating a drug-free America is pretty laughable. Nobody has any intention of doing that. They would just like to make some drugs go away. I don't know what it will take for the American people and people in other countries to realize that that approach doesn't work. It's been a hundred years trying it and everything has gotten much worse. But maybe things have to get even worse before people are willing to back off. So, anyway, I'm a member of several groups that work for drug law reform and as I said I'm in favor of dismantling this whole structure of criminal control that has been built up around drugs.
In America today it seems that for every ten people who are serious or sensible about taking care of their health, you have one type-A yuppie or cyberpunk who's wanting to push the envelope with free ion zappers or neurotransmitters or smart drugs or something. Beyond natural healing, do you see "supernatural" healing or "supernatural" health?
AW: I'm interested in all of that. You know, I think there is one area of treatment that is going to develop greatly in the next century is the whole field of what is called energy medicine; you know of looking at ways of using forms of energy to diagnose and treat illness. And that ties in some of our ancient kinds of concepts like martial arts and chi gung with very modern technological concepts. And I think that's an interesting field to keep an eye on. You know there is, at the moment our conventional medicine is very much "matter" medicine and the chief example of that is that the main way of treating is giving people substances, material substances in the form of drugs. And the possibility of using forms of energy for treatment, I think, is really interesting. And I definitely think that's one thing to keep an eye on.
In Japan there's quite a revival of traditions of energy healing through channeling energy through the hand, for example. You see this in a lot of the new religions. And that's interesting stuff. I've seen some real effects of it and it would be interesting to research and try to document that. I do some work with one of these groups called Seikai Kyusei Kyo that does Jorei healing and I've been advising them about setting up some medical research. And they've got some interesting documentation at the moment looking for brain wave changes in people receiving this - they're looking for changes in blood measurements of immune function and if they can document that, that's really interesting. The fact that a non-physical intervention can produce a physically measurable change, that's big stuff. That really challenges a lot of the assumptions of western science and medicine.
A number of years ago I interviewed Norman Cousins a couple of times before he died, and he was, if not obsessed, at least fascinated with the placebo effect. Given that placebos are now a part of standard drug testing, they're considered to be a solid artifact within medicine. Yet in spite of this, nobody seems to be focusing upon that solidity, that reality as a possible clue for a new way to approach healing.
AW: Right. In "Health and Healing" I have a couple of chapters on the placebo response which I think is really the heart of medical treatment. I think really the history of medical treatment is the history of the placebo response and how it changes in relation to changing beliefs. Placebo responses are pure healing responses from within, and that's what you ought to be trying to produce more of the time with methods that are less and less directly damaging and invasive. You know, it's really a wonderful thing. And even if you look at your double blind testing that you mentioned, there's a very interesting phenomenon that nobody pays attention to, and that's if you look at any double blind drug test in the placebo group, there will always be one or two or three or a small number of individuals who show all of the changes produced by the real drug. And that's really interesting. That means that anything you can cause, any change that you can cause in the body with a drug can be mimicked in at least some individuals who think they are getting a drug. I mean, that's really remarkable. I mean, there's like no change that can't occur just as a result of expectation and belief.
What all of this speaks to is the incredible creative potential of the human organism, you know, with mind and belief as being the key to this. There's a really strong desire in hardcore scientific medicine to rule out placebo responses rather than to rule them in and see them as the very heart of medical treatment.
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Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak