Andrew Weil Interview

Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of Andrew Weil, M.D., who is an internationally recognized expert on Integrative Medicine, which combines the best therapies of conventional and alternative medicine. Weil’s lifelong study of medicinal herbs, mind-body interactions, and alternative medicine has made him one of the world’s most trusted authorities on unconventional medical treatments, as his sensible, interdisciplinary medical perspective strikes a strong chord in many people.

Andrew Thomas Weil was born in Philadelphia in 1942, and he grew up as an only child. His parents operated a hat-making store and were Reform Jews. In 1959, Weil graduated from high school, and he was awarded a scholarship that allowed him to study abroad for a year, living with families in India, Thailand, and Greece. As a teenager, he was deeply influenced by Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, about the author’s visionary experiences.

In 1960, Weil was admitted to Harvard University, where he studied biology, with a concentration in ethnobotany. Weil had an interest in psychoactive drugs, and while at Harvard, he met with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and wrote about their research, as well as some of their extracurricular exploits, in a series of articles for the school paper, The Harvard Crimson, which stirred up considerable controversy.

In 1964, Weil graduated “cum laude,” and he entered Harvard Medical School, “not to become a physician but rather simply to obtain a medical education.” Weil received his medical degree in 1968 after the Harvard faculty threatened to withhold it because of a controversial cannabis study that he helped conduct in his final year.

After Weil received his medical degree, he moved to San Francisco and completed a one-year internship at Mount Zion Hospital. During this time in San Francisco from 1968 to 1969, Weil volunteered at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. Weil then spent a year attending a program at the National Institute of Health, before taking a position at the National Institute of Mental Health to pursue his interest in psychoactive drugs.

In 1971, Weil experienced opposition to his line of inquiry at the National Institute of Mental Health, so he left for his home in rural Virginia, where he began to experiment with different health-enhancing practices— such as Yoga, meditation, and a vegetarian diet— and he began writing a book. In 1972, his book The Natural Mind was published, which is an investigation into the relationship between drugs and higher consciousness, and has sold over 10 million copies to date.

From 1971 to 1984, Weil was on the research staff of the Harvard Botanical Museum, where he conducted investigations into medicinal and psychoactive plants. Then from 1971 to 1975, as a Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, Weil traveled throughout Central and South America, collecting information and specimens for this research. These explorations— where he not only studied plants but indigenous peoples, their medicine, and pharmacology—were to have a profound effect on Weil’s medical career.

In 1994, Weil founded the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, where he serves as director to this day. Weil is also the founder of True Food Kitchen, a restaurant chain serving meals on the premise that “food should make you feel better.” There are currently 44 restaurants in this chain.

Weil has had a life-long talent for blending the conventional with the unconventional, and he has been interested in altered states of consciousness, and how the mind affects health, since before he began studying medicine. He has written extensively about this interest, and about how his early psychedelic experiences profoundly influenced his views on medicine. Because of this interest in altered states of consciousness, Weil has been honored by having a psychedelic mushroom named after him— Psilocybe Weilii— which was discovered in 1995.

Weil is the author of more than twenty popular books, including The Marriage of the Sun and Moon, From Chocolate to Morphine, Natural Medicine, Spontaneous Healing, and Healthy Aging. In addition to being the Director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine, Weil also holds appointments as a Clinical Professor of Medicine, Professor of Public Health, and the Lovell-Jones Professor of Integrative Rheumatology.

Weil has been a frequent guest on many television shows, such as Larry King Live, Oprah, and The Today Show. He has also appeared in three videos featured on PBS: Spontaneous Healing, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, and Healthy Aging. Many of his books are New York Times bestsellers, and he has appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice, in 1997 and again in 2005. USA Today” said, “Clearly, Dr. Weil has hit a medical nerve,” and The New York Times Magazine said, “Dr. Weil has arguably become America’s best-known doctor.”

I interviewed Andrew Weil in 2006. We talked about some of the most important lessons that physicians aren’t being taught in medical school, why conventional Western medicine needs to be more open-minded about alternative medical treatments, and how the mind and spirituality affect health. This interview appears in my book Mavericks of Medicine. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

David: What role do you see the mind and consciousness playing in the health of the body?

Andrew Weil: I think it’s huge. This is an area that I’ve been interested in, I think, since I was a teenager— long before I went to medical school— and a lot of my early work was with altered states of consciousness and psychoactive drugs. I reported a lot of things that I saw about how physiology changed drastically with changes in consciousness. I just reviewed a paper from Japan; one of the authors is a doctor I know. This is a group of people looking at how emotional states affect the genome. They have shown, for example, that laughter can affect gene expression in patients with Type 2 diabetes. Now that’s really interesting stuff, and I think that this is the type of research that is generally not looked at here. I think that our mental states— our states of consciousness— have a profound influence on our bodies, and even our genes. And I think they have a lot to do with how we age.

David: What role do you think that spirituality plays in health?

Andrew Weil: Again, I think, large, but it’s hard to define spirituality. For me, I make a very sharp distinction between spirituality and religion. Religion is really about institutions, and for me, spirituality is about the nonphysical, and how to access that and incorporate it into life. In “Eight Weeks to Optimum Health,” I gave a lot of suggestions each week about things that people can do to improve or raise spiritual energy, and they are things that at first many people might not associate with spirituality. But they were recommendations like having fresh flowers in your living space and listening to pieces of music that elevate your mood. Some of the other suggestions included spending more time with people in whose company you feel more optimistic and better, and spending time in nature. I think that I would put all of these in the realm of spiritual health.

by David Jay Brown