Andrew Weil: Harvard Hatched a Gullible Guru

Book review of Natural Health, Natural Medicine: The Complete Guide to Wellness and Self-care for Optimum Health. By Andrew Weil. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004. ISBN 0-618-47903-1. 432 pp. Softcover, $14.

Andrew Weil’s Natural Health, Natural Medicine is a dangerous book. The preface states: “All the information is consistent with the best scientific evidence currently available.” This is simply not true. The information is a promiscuous mix of good science, unsupported opinion, and superstition, with no clues as to which is which.

Weil wants you to avoid conventional doctors except for cases of trauma, bacterial infection, and emergencies. He wants to keep the body healthy by natural means, allowing it to heal itself. He wants you to avoid drugs, but by golly, he wants you to try every herb, diet supplement, home remedy, and placebo he can think of. Some of his advice is based on good science (exercise and smoking cessation), but much of it is not supported by credible evidence (breathing exercises, fasting, and even homeopathy, which has been the laughingstock of science for two centuries).

Over and over, he asks the patient to experiment: try Ayurveda, try homeopathy, try an herb, try a diet modification. See if you can “make them work” for you. The problem with this approach is that many conditions are self-limited and others have variable courses. When your symptoms happen to subside, you will falsely attribute success to whatever remedy you happened to be trying at the time.

For recurrent ear infections in children, he recommends eliminating all milk and milk products from the diet for at least three months to see if any benefits result. The folly of this is readily apparent. Even children who have recurrent infections are likely to go without an infection for a three-month period. If they have avoided milk for those three months, they may falsely conclude they are allergic to milk and avoid it forever after.

And what does he base this advice on? I could find only one relevant article in the medical literature showing that 27 percent of children with true cow’s-milk allergy had recurrent ear infections, compared to 12 percent of nonallergic children. Admittedly, children with milk allergy are more likely to get ear infections; but the majority of allergic children do not get infections, nonallergic children also get infections, milk allergy causes a number of other symptoms, and its diagnosis does not depend on ear infections. The logic of Weil’s advice is like the logic of trying Ritalin on all children with poor grades just because children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to get poor grades.

His advice about rheumatoid arthritis is not only foolish but dangerous. He recommends avoiding prescription drugs, but research has shown that early treatment with disease-modifying drugs can change the course of this disease. If you waste time trying home remedies, you may miss the chance to prevent crippling deformities.

Fifty years ago, doctors could get away with saying, “In my experience. . . ,” but today, that is no longer acceptable. We know that experience can be misleading, and we use science to test beliefs derived from experience. Weil still wants us to accept treatments just because he thinks he has seen them work.

He debunks a number of myths but replaces them with others. In his discussion of the fad pseudodisease of hypoglycemia, he disparages practitioners who recommend “all sorts of vitamins and supplements that are unlikely to be of any value.” That is particularly amusing, since that is exactly what Weil himself does throughout this book for other diagnoses.

Weil is America’s leading advocate of “integrative” medicine. It seems he wants to “integrate” critical thinking with opinion, myth with reality, the twenty-first century with the fifteenth, and proven remedies with old wives’ tales. Why would he want to do this? What are we to make of an M.D. whose advice for herpes includes the standard drug acyclovir but also includes “visualizations and mental affirmations to let the herpes virus know that it is welcome in your body only if it stays in its dormant state”?

Insight into Weil’s shifty paradigms can be gleaned from “A Trip to Stonesville,” by Arnold Relman, M.D., editor emeritus of The New England Journal of Medicine (available online at www.quackwatch.org/11Ind/weil.html). Relman describes how Weil rebelled against his Harvard training, associated with native healers, took psychedelics, pursued states of altered consciousness, and came to believe that truth can be accessed through “stoned” thinking. Relman says, “Like so many of the other gurus of alternative medicine, Weil is not bothered by logical contradictions in his argument, or encumbered by a need to search for objective evidence.”

The book is indeed full of contradictions. Weil advises against suppressing hay fever symptoms with antihistamines or steroids, because “Suppressive treatment can perpetuate disease by frustrating it.” What does he recommend instead? Natural remedies that he says will . . . suppress symptoms!

I can agree wholeheartedly with Weil’s advice to stay away from conventional doctors unless you are really sick and not take drugs unless you really need to. It would be even better advice if it extended to staying away from unconventional doctors and not taking unproven remedies.

If you like to try a lot of things and experiment on yourself on the basis of opinion and nonscientific beliefs, you might like this book. If you want reliable, common-sense health advice based on good science, buy one of Dean Edell’s books instead.

 This article was originally published in Skeptical Inquirer.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.