A few years ago, Andrew Weil was visiting his friend Loren Israelsen in Utah. Israelsen had scored a pair of tickets to the premiere of that year?s hottest movie at the Sundance Film Festival: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
?We walked into the room and everyone was, ?Oh, Dr. Weil, Dr. Weil, I read your book. Can I have your autograph?? ? Israelsen remembers. ?All these movie stars were there, and you could see them looking around thinking, ?What about me? What about me?? Andy was the one guy in the room who didn?t want attention, and he was getting all of it.?
Welcome to the world of Dr. Andrew Weil, star of the natural health movement.
Turn on your TV, and you?ll see Weil talking to Larry King or Oprah about healing methods ranging from vitamins to biofeedback. Leaf through a stack of magazines, and you?ll find Weil on the cover of Time, listed as one of the 25 most influential people in the United States in 1997. Visit a bookstore, and you?ll inevitably come across one of his nine books, three of which were New York Times No. 1 best sellers.
Take a trip to the Southwest, and you?ll find Weil ensconced at the University of Arizona, where he?s director and founder of the school?s Program in Integrative Medicine. Surf the Internet, and you?ll come across his Web site, Dr.Weil.com, or his monthly column at Prevention.com. Visit a natural foods store, and you?ll find his newly launched line of Weil Nutritional Supplements.
A melding of doctor, writer, chief executive, psychedelic-drug user, chef, teacher, botanist, dog lover and father, Weil is a brand unto himself and the most visible spokesperson for natural healing, integrative medicine and alternative therapies.
?His depth of knowledge in virtually every aspect of his field is quite deep,? says Paul Schulick, CEO of New Chapter, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based supplements company. ?He?s been a voice for our movement that?s been credible and helped legitimize and build the movement.?
But what makes Weil so influential? So famous? So trusted by millions of people who have never tried meditation or acupuncture, let alone echinacea? His friends and colleagues say it?s a combination of factors, including his medical credentials, his botanical research in indigenous cultures and his skill as a writer and speaker. And then, they say, there are the less tangible factors: Weil?s brilliance, courage, passion and honesty, not to mention that famous white beard.
?There?s something about him when you see him—I think he engenders a deep sense of trust just because of his visage, his demeanor,? says Israelsen, executive director of the Utah Natural Products Alliance. ?He looks like Santa Claus, and everybody likes Santa.?
Earning the credentials
Weil was born in Philadelphia on June 8, 1942 and grew up in a rowhouse, where his mother gardened in a small backyard. While she was introducing him to a lifelong love of plants, his aunt was acquainting him with a natural lifestyle.
?My mother?s older sister would have charge of me on Saturdays, and she would take me to the one natural foods store in Philadelphia,? he says. ?She was a vegetarian, which in the ?50s would have been called a food faddist. She introduced me to foods like mangos, avocados and raw cashews.?
Weil graduated from Philadelphia?s Central High School in 1959 and set out on a nine-month round-the-world study trip with the International School of America, courtesy of a full scholarship from the American Association for the United Nations. He returned to the States and graduated cum laude with a bachelor?s degree in biology/botany from Harvard College in 1964. During that time, he conducted research on marijuana, wrote articles for Look and other magazines and was editor of the Harvard Review and the Harvard Crimson newspaper.
?I had very wide interests,? he says. ?I really resented being pushed into a narrow track.?
After graduation, Weil contemplated working as a writer or botanist, but when the Vietnam War began, a graduate student-deferment suddenly became attractive. ?I didn?t see myself as a doctor, but I liked science and I thought an M.D. degree would be very useful to me,? he says. His friend Joseph Alpert, whom he met on his first day of medical school, says Weil?s ambivalence wasn?t unusual. ?In that era, here?s what people did?you became a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman or you became an academic. Those were your choices. There are so many more options these days.?
From the early days of his medical career, Weil chafed at the conventional way of teaching and practicing medicine. ?He and I led a revolt in our second year,? says Alpert, who is now chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. ?The curriculum was really 19th century, with long lectures and no seminars.? Weil, Alpert and a revolutionary faculty member formed their own curriculum of group study sessions and seminars. They didn?t go to class for a semester, with the dean?s blessing, yet maintained their grade point averages. ?A couple years later, Harvard completely revamped its curriculum, with fewer lectures and more seminars,? Alpert says.
Weil received his medical degree in 1968 and faced a crossroad. ?I couldn?t see myself going on in conventional medicine,? he says. ?It was a huge, frozen, monolithic world that didn?t show much interest in being changed.? In an interview on the PBS show Frontline, he added, ?It just seemed to me that first of all, [conventional medicine] caused too much direct harm. And secondly, in general it didn?t really get at the root of disease processes and change them. And I felt very poorly equipped to teach people how not to get sick. I had essentially learned nothing about prevention, about the role of lifestyle and health.
?So,? he says, ?I pretty much dropped out and made my living as a writer.? But he also tried working in the traditional medical profession, taking a job with the U.S. Public Health Service at the National Institute of Mental Health in Chevy Chase, Md. He quickly became disillusioned with the work, quitting after a year and holing up to write his first book, The Natural Mind (Mariner Books, 1972).
?The book was the first rational explanation of a basic biological and social imperative—a human need for altered states of consciousness—without making it pejorative. He made it sound so natural and normal,? says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council and a friend of Weil?s for 30 years.
Blumenthal attributes that quality, in part, to Weil?s ability to ?cut through a lot of the B.S. and sophistry of medicine and tell it like it is. He?s a very clear communicator.? Weil says those skills were ?very much developed in working for my college newspaper. I?m proud of my writing skills. In some ways, that gives me an unfair advantage in the medical field. People sometimes think a subject is incomprehensible, but it?s really just because of the quality of the writing.?
Captivated by the connection between drugs and consciousness, Weil wrote two more books on the subject. He also received a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs to study indigenous medicine, psychoactive plants and altered states of consciousness. From 1971 to 1975, he traveled widely in North America, South America and Africa, writing newsletters that later became part of his books. During that time, he continued his investigation into medicinal plants as a research associate in ethnopharmacology at the Botanical Museum of Harvard University, a position he held until 1984.
Weil?s fellowship newsletters also appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, and that, along with his monthly columns for High Times, earned him the reputation as a psychedelic guru, along with dubious titles like ?Pot Smoker of the Month,? awarded by Clear Test, a manufacturer of drug test products.
Weil?s colleagues in medicine were bemused by his career path. ?I think they pretty much ignored me, thought I was just crazy,? he says. Alpert offers a gentler assessment: ?I think people thought, ?Andy?s different.? I think everyone would agree that he?s very original and thinks outside the box.?
After the publication of his third book, Chocolate to Morphine: Understanding Mind Active Drugs (Houghton Mifflin, 1983), Weil says he became ?bored with the old [drugs] subject. I felt I had exhausted that.? Also, ?It was just before the war on drugs—there was a very concerted effort to suppress that book, and there was political opposition. It seemed it might be better for practical reasons to shift my focus.?
Renewal in the desert
After returning from his travels, Weil ended up in Arizona by coincidence. His car broke down, and while waiting for the repairs, he fell in love with the desert. Eventually, he bought a ranch in a small town outside of Tucson, Ariz.
?I was still making my living primarily as a writer and investigating things on my own,? he told Frontline. ?And I was rather surprised when patients started showing up at my doorstep wanting my advice.?
Weil set up a natural and preventive medicine practice in his home, an old hacienda ?out in the middle of nowhere,? as Israelsen puts it.
?His home captures who he is,? Israelsen adds. ?There are Persian rugs on tile floors and hundreds of books, along with interesting objects he?s collected over the years. But everything is in its place—this is a guy who?s put together.?
Weil?s home helps him live the lifestyle he espouses in his books and teachings. His property boasts a swimming pool, hiking trails and a large garden.
?He?s as much fun in the kitchen as he is on stage—he?s a great cook. Just like he lectures without notes, he cooks without recipes,? says Dr. Wendy Kohatsu, assistant professor in family medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University.
?Food touches on every aspect of human life—economics, agriculture, planetary, health, environment,? Weil says.
Kohatsu, who was one of the first fellows in Weil?s Program in Integrative Medicine, says students would frequently meet at Weil?s house for dinner. ?We?d go to the garden, cut the herbs and cook them fresh. I?d never eaten like that.?
In 1983, Weil became a lecturer and eventually associate director of the Division of Social Perspectives in Medicine at the University of Arizona, teaching medical students about alternative medicine, substance abuse and mind-body interactions. ?I had no desire to be more closely affiliated ? but in the early ?90s, there was a change in the faculty,? he says. Alpert, Weil?s friend from Harvard, was named U of A?s new chairman of medicine.
Weil proposed that the university develop a discipline to train physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals about the benefits of combining traditional and alternative medicine, and in 1994, the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona was born.
For years, Weil had been interested in integrative medicine, which emphasizes health and healing rather than disease and treatment; views patients as whole persons with minds and spirits, as well as physical bodies, and considers all of these factors in diagnoses; addresses healing on all levels, including self-healing, diet, exercise, stress management and emotional relationships; and considers low-tech treatments such as dietary supplements and herbs.
Others are interested in IM, but Weil is uniquely qualified to be its guru. ?I have a really unusual background,? he says. ?I?ve got the old hippie background and attitudes toward nature, a botany and medical background, and a knowledge of other cultures that colors my world view.?
He also has credibility within the natural products universe. ?He?s never been a Johnny-come-lately. He was known to many in our side of the industry years and years ago,? says Israelsen, who is also president of The LDI Group, a supplements and functional foods consultancy in Salt Lake City. ?He understands our agenda, our world view, and he?s guided the thinking of literally millions of people who shop in natural foods stores.
?In some essence,? Israelsen believes, ?Andy?s grown up in both [the alternative and traditional healing] worlds simultaneously. Very often he?s the sensible middle ground between the extremists on both sides. He?s the voice of reason—very moderate, informed, never strident—but he will be passionate about stuff, and that?s a gift.?
Weil teaches a variety of disciplines in his PIM program, including herbal medicine, nutrition, traditional Chinese medicine, osteopathic manipulation, Ayurveda, homeopathy, hypnosis, biofeedback, guided imagery, relaxation techniques and meditation. The program includes two-year fellowships and a new online botanical certification module that discusses the history, safety, quality and legal issues behind botanicals.
Ultimately, Weil?s goal is to teach health care practitioners how to discriminate between alternative healing modes by using research data and assessing the safety of a particular practice. Although he believes there are other useful healing methods besides the ones taught at U of A?s PIM, he?s not sure he wants to take on the battle of convincing science-based doctors of their efficacy. ?Something like shamanic healing practices is valid on its own terms,? he says, but there?s not much scientific data to back it up.
Dr. Russell Greenfield, who was in PIM?s first class of fellows, says Weil emphasizes research, showing physicians how to find data on things like the safety of the top 10 or 15 best-selling herbs. ?I didn?t even know how to spell echinacea when I went into the program, let alone how to use it,? Greenfield says. ?Not a one of us came out of medical school with any knowledge of [alternative medicine], so to us it was superfluous.?
Greenfield, now medical director of Carolinas Integrative Health in Charlotte, N.C., says Weil and PIM ?teach a sense of the beauty of health care and the innate capacity within all of us to heal, which is really different from what I had been taught in medical school. We did a very good job of taking care of people on the physical realm, but many people walking around have gaping wounds emotionally and spiritually. Andy really explained that in such a nice way and in a way that made sense to people with a conventional science background.?
But despite Weil?s emphasis on research at PIM and the cachet his medical degree from Harvard bestows on the program, he still has detractors in traditional medicine. ?He?s paid a significant price,? Greenfield says. ?There are lots of arrows pointed in his direction.? Some of those arrows came from Dr. Arnold S. Relman, editor in chief emeritus of The New England Journal of Medicine and professor emeritus of medicine and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. In a 1998 article in New Republic, ?A Trip to Stonesville: Some Notes on Andrew Weil,? Relman writes, ?Yes, [Weil] thinks that all healing methods ought to be tested; and yes, modern science can make useful contributions to our understanding of health and disease. Yet the scientific method is not, for Weil, the only way, or even the best way, to learn about nature and the human body. Many important truths are intuitively evident and do not need scientific support, even when they seem to contradict logic. ?Like so many gurus of alternative medicine,? Relman concludes, ?Weil is not bothered by logical contradictions in his argument or encumbered by a need to search for objective evidence.?
In a debate with Relman at the University of Arizona, Weil said: ?I am all for refining our medical practice and making it more consistent with scientific evidence, but as Dr. Relman himself has pointed out in an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine, medicine constantly operates in areas of uncertainty, where the evidence has not yet come in.
?As a researcher,? he argued, ?You have the luxury of insisting on rigorous scientific testing, and you have the leisure to wait for results to come in. As a practitioner, you are in the trenches, working with patients who have medical needs. And you often have to guess, and you have to make use of your best medical judgment in the absence of definitive evidence.?
Andrew Weil, entrepreneur
PIM is currently funding 13 studies, totaling $3.5 million, on a variety of topics, including comparisons of the outcomes of different treatment approaches in traditional versus alternative medicine. Research is also under way on nutritional approaches to various medical problems and on the validity of botanical medicine. Coming up with the money to sponsor research is difficult. ?PIM is 10 years old and is constantly struggling for funding,? Weil says. ?I was persuaded that the way to establish a steady funding stream would be to create a foundation.?
The Weil Foundation will begin giving grants this year to support IM research, training, public education, innovations in patient care and policy reform. Weil?s goal is to raise $10 million a year for the foundation through sales of Weil Lifestyle products. He?ll donate all after-tax profits from Weil products to the foundation.
Weil?s Pet Promise natural pet food, which he developed with Natural Pet Nutrition, debuted last October. His supplements line hit stores in January, and within the next year, he plans to launch a personal care line in conjunction with Estée Lauder?s Origins Natural Resources brand. Other products in the works include a line of Weil foods and teas. He?s not sure what the food line will include, but anticipates it being available within a year. ?I?ll see what the need is, what the demand is, whether a product?s unique—for instance, certain brands of olive oil that I think are really good that meet my standards,? he says. Eventually, ?I hope to cover all products to enhance natural health and natural living, like foods, water filters, air purifiers, cookware, pet products—anything I might use,? he says.
By giving away profits to his foundation, Weil hopes to maintain his image as a reliable source who dispenses reputable information. ?It?s very tricky for me to walk the line of putting out information for both the general public and academia,? he says. He believes that by not profiting from the sale of any product he endorses, he can maintain his academic integrity. In addition, developing his own products solves the problem of recommending an item, only to find later it isn?t as efficacious as promised. ?His endorsements have come back to bite him in some cases,? ABC?s Blumenthal says. ?I think his supps line is inevitable—either he had to continue to disavow any identification with any product or develop his own.?
Weil Nutritional Supplements is based on the latest research for vitamin and supplement efficacy—the vitamin E product has all eight compounds, for example. ?I hope [the products] will pull the standards up for all dietary supplements,? Weil says. But others don?t envision that strong an impact. ?I don?t think Andy Weil?s introduction into the supplements industry is going to be a watershed mark,? Blumenthal says. However, he notes, ?his line helps underscore the legitimacy and validity of taking supplements to many people who already are, or those who are undecided.?
Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Wild Oats Markets, agrees. ?What I think is really good about this line of products is that Dr. Weil has a very good following among our core shoppers, and maybe it will encourage other customers to start thinking about buying supplements.? Wild Oats plans to begin carrying the Weil supps line nationwide in May.
Another plus to Weil Nutritional Supplements is that they?re doctor-recommended, which may make them more user friendly to conventional physicians. ?One of the challenges to practicing integrative medicine is that it?s really hard to get good-quality products; otherwise, health care professionals are not going to want to recommend products,? says Victoria Maizes, PIM executive director.
Weiling away the time
Ask Weil what he?ll be doing in five years, and he?s unsure. ?I?m 62,? he says. ?I may want more playtime,? along with more time to spend with his 13-year-old daughter, Diana, and his pair of Rhodesian Ridgebacks. He does know his newest book, Healthy Aging: Your Lifelong Guide to Physical and Spiritual Well Being, is scheduled to be published in October. He?s also in discussions about being a regular guest on a television show as an expert on healthy lifestyles and natural medicine.
And now that 118 physicians have graduated from PIM and another 100 are in the pipeline, ?at some point I want to step away from integrative medicine? because the movement will have established its own momentum, Weil says. Maizes adds, ?It used to be Andy would go around the country speaking, and people would say, ?Gee, I want a doctor like you,? and there weren?t any. But now many, many other institutions offer integrative medicine.?
Weil thinks IM will gain ground as traditional medicine implodes, and that within 10 years, the economics of health care will make IM mainstream. He believes indiscriminate use of technology and rising pharmaceutical drug prices are key drivers in skyrocketing health care costs. ?Big pharma, in a way, has overreached itself and is about to go into decline,? he says. ?There?s a lot more public reaction to expensive pharmaceutical drugs.? He believes consumers will increasingly turn to natural products and nondrug means of treating disease, such as anti-inflammatory diets. They?ll also fuel IM programs as they continue to demand more doctor-patient interaction. ?People don?t want to be looked at just as physical bodies, and that?s going to change how medicine is practiced,? Weil says.
?Alternative medicine is a very, very powerful trend driven by overall consumer demand. It?s only a matter of time before the government really backs integrative medicine.?
Weil also believes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs to step up and create a new division dedicated to natural therapeutic agents, including regulation of dietary supplements, vitamins, minerals and herbs. ?I?m in favor of increased regulation,? he says. ?The industry has proven itself not capable of regulating itself, and we need evidence of [dietary supplement] efficacy. I think we?re going to get more clamoring from the public for that.?
For now, retailers must provide much of the education about supplements, Weil says. ?Natural foods store clerks have replaced pharmacists, but the information they have comes from manufacturers and distributors. They need some kind of basic, standardized training.? Weil says one of his ?projects on the drawing board? is an online education module for natural foods retail staff. He?s also considering putting the information on computer terminals in stores.
Sorcerer of supplements
One thing in Weil?s future is certain, however. He will continue to be the ?poster child for alternative medicine,? Blumenthal says. ?He has charisma and presence, and he seems so authoritative with that very great basso-profundo voice, that bald head and that great beard.?
Despite all his media appearances and the countless seminars he conducts, Weil says public speaking doesn?t come easily to him. ?I look very gregarious and extroverted, but I came to realize in middle age that I?m probably very introverted and shy. It?s not natural for me to get up in front of a large crowd or on TV. There?s definitely a part of me that would like to be home with my dog.?
His friends say his passion for natural healing overrides his desire for privacy. ?He has the personal courage to be true to himself. He carries a heavy burden, but of course he would not admit this,? says Paul Stamets, president of the Olympia, Wash.-based medicinal mushroom company Fungi Perfecti.
?Andy?s a wizard. He?s Gandalf in the flesh. He?s a symbol of hope for a generation that believes in the natural world.?
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer. Reach her at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 36, 38, 40, 42, 44