From 1996 through 1999, HIGH TIMES also published HEMP TIMES, a sister publication that promoted the hemp industry. This interview appeared in the Fall 1998 issue.
by Marta Zmoira
Dr. Andrew Weil is shirtless. He’s wearing shorts, industrial-strength sunglasses and a ball cap with the word “relax” embroidered on the front to protect his head from the scorching Arizona sun. He points me in the direction of his office. With a curriculum vitae that stretches six pages long, Dr. Weil is probably one of the busiest men on Earth. He’s a world traveler; author of several books including Natural Health, Spontaneous Healing and 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. He appears frequently on talk shows and as a guest lecturer; and teaches medical students the virtues of integrative and alternative medicines.
You have been spreading the same messages about alternative medicine for decades. How did you become interested in the field?
My interest goes way back to childhood. I have had a lifelong interest in plants, and that eventually led me to a botany major at Harvard. As far back as I can remember I have always been interested in the mind in relation to things like hypnosis, mind-body attractions. In college I began looking into alternative medicine before medical school; when I got out of med school and was finishing my internship, I was just real clear that I would not be practicing that kind of medicine. So I began traveling around the world and looking at other healing practices. I studied medicinal, psychoactive, nutritional plants, and all sorts of other uses for plants and foods.
This was a long period of 11 years when I made my living as a writer and did a lot of traveling. In 1973, I settled in Arizona. At that time I wasn’t practicing alternative medicine, but people began showing up at my doorstep, so I gradually found myself going into practice.
Has the climate around what you have been saying changed?
There’s a night-and-day difference. When I was first doing this it felt really lonely. There weren’t many other people doing it. I was putting information out there and there wasn’t much reinforcement. It’s just been astonishing what happened.
Do you feel almost vindicated?
[Laughs] Totally, but I always knew I was right. And I wasn’t out to really convince other people – I just wanted to put information out, and if anyone wanted to use it, that was fine.
Attitudes towards alternative medicine have definitely changed now, but do you think that there’s an over-correction in our society? Are there practices and methods that you would not endorse?
Absolutely. I’m very discriminating about what I include in my world and what I don’t. I think there’s a lot of nonsense out there in the world of alternative medicine, and the real challenge now is to sort out what’s useful and what is not. I try to teach more doctors to do that as well.
What is the state of Western medicine right now?
It’s gotten really good at dealing with crises and emergencies of all sorts, but the expense is sinking it – the economics of the system just aren’t working. The corporatization of medicine in the form of managed care is just really alienating both patients and doctors. It’s in real crisis right now. The economics of it aren’t working and its day-to-day practice is very difficult for both patients and doctors. It’s definitely ripe for change.
What is the Program in Integrative Medicine?
Yes, the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona is really the first of its kind in the country. We train doctors in a different way. We have very broad aims; we’re really out to try to change medical education and medical practice. And one way of doing it is by training doctor-leaders who are going to be able to go out to other medical schools and set these programs up. Another is developing educational programs for doctors in practices in different specialty areas, to bring them up to speed about what they should know in areas they’re not now trained in. Another is doing the research that’s lacking.
It’s a big effort, and it’s great to be in a medical school that’s open to it and supportive of it. The program has been up and running for over a year now, and the first group of physicians has completed their first year of training and have a year left. Our second group has just come on, our research project has just started, and the clinic has been running for a year.
Can you actually obtain observable, measurable results in your experimentation with this integrative medical practices?
One of our big pushes is for what is called outcomes research, trying to document the improvement and cost-efficacy of methods we are using compared to the standard medical interventions. We’re setting up now to gather that kind of data. We also do basic laboratory and clinical research as well.
So the Institute has had a full year now. At this point, has it actually changed the climate in the medical profession?
Absolutely, it has certainly changed the climate in the med school here. And we have begun to see a responsiveness of other leading medical schools that want to partner with us. It seems like it’s really sparking a change.
Do you see any specific areas in alternative medicine that need to be explored?
I think there is so much to do. In general, I am most interested in reconnecting people with nature, as well as science with nature and medicine with nature. I’m very interested in the area of natural products, particularly in medicine. I’m interested in the drugs we use, nutrition, and also in the education of kids and encouraging kids to have a healthy lifestyle.
I’m actually about to start working on a book on aging. I am curious about finding out what practical information helps the aging process – teaching people how to age well.
Does spirituality come into play with any of the practices you have discussed?
Spirituality is important in my own life. I think humans are spiritual beings as well as physical bodies and emotional beings. All of that has to be taken into account in looking into what makes people healthy and what makes them sick. Everybody talks about bringing spirituality to medicine. It sounds very nice but when it comes down to the concrete, what does it mean? What do you do? Do you pray for patients? Do you have a Native American medicine man come in and dance around the bed? I think that needs looking at. Maybe the methods I use in my own practices are somewhat different today, but I am as much interested in higher consciousness as I always was. To me, spirituality means there’s more to life than the physical. There is a non-physical essence, and at some level, we’re all connected. There are different practices we can do, like breathing exercises, meditation, being in nature. Some of the things I have suggested in my book: being around flowers, paying attention to how other people make you feel and spending more time in their company, being in the presence of art and beauty. All of those are techniques that actually nourish our spirit or our spiritual energy. There’s very little attention paid to it, so we’re trying to encourage our doctors to think about that.
What reactions do you get from patients when you say to them, “You need meditation or visualization?”
I try to tailor my recommendations to the individuals. I try to determine an individual’s belief system and present them with suggestions that are compatible. I find that people are very accepting of this today. I’m careful of who I tell that they need to meditate; I know who I can tell and who I can’t. We use a lot of techniques like visualization in our clinic, and they are very widely accepted. People really enjoy doing them, and I think they help enormously.
The art of healing is something you have written and talked about extensively. How, then, does one heal?
I believe that healing comes from within. n some way it’s the most important thing that I teach. Our Integrative Medicine program is not really just about brining alternative methods into the mainstream – it’s about reorienting the philosophy of medicine. A big shift is for both doctors and patients to realize that the source of healing is inside you. It’s something you are born with, and treatment just facilitates healing, activates it or removes obstacles. You are not putting anything into a person that is not already there.
Can the healing of the self be connected to the healing of the planet?
Absolutely. We teach a lot about environmental causes of illness on all levels. One is the environment in which you see a patient. We have made an effort to change the examining rooms in which we see patients, to make them more user-friendly. I think there are all sorts of ways in which environment impacts on health. One of the responsibilities of the medical profession is to pay attention to and deal with those environmental issues that really impact on people’s health in a big way – and treat them as a reality. If the medical profession really got its act together in that area, it could be a very powerful force for moving the planet in a better direction. That’s a big area that we’re trying to wake people up about.
Do you see similarity between the way the medical profession has treated alternative medicine and the political situation involving the hemp plant?
I do see a connection, a lot of it having to do with fear and ignorance – not understanding the true nature of something, being afraid of it and trying to exclude it. Hemp has been around for a very long time, and it’s one of the plants most closely associated with human beings. Some plants remain relatively independent from us and some plants get very involved with us. Hemp is a plant that a long time ago made a decision to throw its lot in with human beings. It is so involved with human beings that it’s very hard to determine its wild ancestry, because we can’t really find examples of hemp plants that have never been affected by humans. The genetics of hemp are very influenced by human breeding and selection. It’s a plant that has served us in many different ways, and those uses are now being rediscovered in our culture.
I don’t think there are such things as good plants and bad plants, or good drugs and bad drugs. That’s something that I have always taught. I think there are good and bad uses of things, and by excluding hemp from our world, we’ve lost out on a wonderful fiber and on a very nutritive food and oil, and a medicine as well. I see a lot of parallels there. In the same way with a lot of alternative-medicine ideas, doctors have tried to make them go away because they don’t understand these things and have been afraid of them.
How important are Omega-3 fatty acids in our diets?
I have done a lot of work on Omega-3 fatty acids, and I think they are very important. There are many reasons why I believe that high intake of Omega-3 fatty acids throughout life protects us from cancer, heart disease, and maybe from Alzheimer’s disease as well. This is one of the big deficiencies in the modern diet. In most American diets, the Omega-3s are very insufficient. The two classes of essential fatty acids are the Omega-6s and the Omega-3s. The Omega-6 fatty acids are mostly the common vegetable oils.
There has been an enormous reversal of the ratio of the Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids in the human diet in modern times – mostly as a result of the way we raise animals for food, and the availability of processed vegetable oils.
In ancient times when people were more hunter-gatherers, because of the game they ate, their fat had a much higher content of Omega-3 fatty acids; the animals ate wild grasses that produced them. Now, as we raise animals in feed lots with grains, their fat contains the unsaturated fats and Omega-6 fatty acids. And in addition, the cooking fats people use now are mostly vegetable oils. In ancient times, in the Paleolithic diet, the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 might have been something like one to one. Now it can be nearly twenty to one in favor of Omega-6 to Omega-3.
What is it about the composition of Omega-3s that is so positive?
They have an unusual structure that is used by the body in particular ways. For instance, cell membranes in the central nervous system are mostly composed of one of the Omega-3 fatty acids. If that is deficient in the diet, it may lead to weakened structure of the central nervous system that will leave us susceptible to degenerative diseases later in life. That’s just one example of a way in which these fatty acids are used.
The Omega-3 fatty acids can be acquired from eating fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. What do you recommend for people who don’t eat fish?
I recommend flax sees rather than flax oil. Most flax oil you see on the market doesn’t taste very good because it’s already oxygenated somewhat, whereas the flax seeds are naturally protected by the seed coat and are much cheaper. I also recommend hemp, but the problem up to now has been that hemp has not been as readily available to people, whereas you can get flax from any health-food store. Actually, I think hemp is superior to flax, given its chemical composition. Hemp seeds are delicious and I recommend them to people. I like them dry-toasted in a skillet, then put a little olive oil and tamari and other spices in and eat them as a snack.
How have your views changed since your days traveling the world and experimenting?
I think my views are the same. It’s been a continual evolution of ideas If I look back on the work that I did 25-30 years ago, it seems to me it’s all in the same line. Even the early work I did with drugs I see as the foundation for my present work with healing. The main point of The Natural Mind, which I wrote in 1972, was that highs come from within and the drugs people take to experience them just act as releases or triggers of experiences that are already in the nervous system.The main thing that I now teach about healing is that it’s something innate and within, and that external treatments trigger or release healing. In a way, I see that as a generalization of something I observed when I was in research with drugs.
How do you manage your time?
That’s hard to answer, because it’s changed in various periods. This past year and a half I’ve been on the road a lot and I’m just about to stop. I want to begin limiting my travels and speaking engagements – partly because I want to work on writing this book and my focus is on teaching here. I like living out here where I do. When I’m home I have a pretty good daily routine, which includes time for walks, meditation, working in my garden, playing with my dogs, and writing. A few days a week, I’m teaching: I’m either at the medical school supervising a clinic or teaching integrative medicine with a little of everything, a bit of teaching on botanical medicine, mind-body medicine, and nutritional medicine. One day a week the doctors come out to the house for instruction. I do go out of town here and there to give talks.
What would you recommend as a general practice for people as busy, or almost as busy, as you?
To find methods that are time-efficient. For instance, I teach many breathing exercises that are very good relaxation methods that don’t take any time or equipment. I am also a big believer in walking; its a good thing to try to incorporate it into your daily routine. It’s also good to be conscious about your diet and make some efforts in that direction.