Q&A: Integrative Medicine Guru Dr. Andrew Weil

In town for his Forever Young event, Dr. Andrew Weil chats about juice cleanses, foods to avoid, and Philly's biggest weakness when it comes to good health.

This weekend, world-renowned integrative medicine pioneer, Dr. Andrew Weil, will be in town for his Forever Young event at the Sheraton Philadelphia. The event’s geared toward the over-40 crowd, but I figured there’s a lot anyone at any age can learn about how be healthy and well for the long haul. Besides, how could I pass up the opportunity to talk to the man himself—the Harvard-trained doctor (who’s originally from Philly, by the way—hollaaa!) who has spent his career championing a holistic East-meets-West approach to medicine that has body, mind and spirit at its center?

Over email, Dr. Weil answered my questions about the importance of integrative medicine, how we can be healthier right now with a few easy lifestyle changes (hint: lay off the Internet—oops), the low-down on juice cleanses and lots more. Read on for his answers below, then hear from Dr. Weil yourself on Sunday at the Forever Young expo.

Why is integrative medicine important?

I define integrative medicine as healing- oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person (body, mind and spirit), including all aspects of diet and lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between patient and healthcare provider, and makes use of all appropriate therapies, both conventional and complementary. The focus is on health promotion and disease prevention, and it promises to reduce costs by utilizing less expensive treatments with good outcomes.

Our present healthcare system is far too expensive, emphasizes disease treatment over disease prevention, does not keep us well, and offers little motivation for people to take good care of themselves. Integrative medicine, with its focus on diet and lifestyle measures to prevent disease and promote health, is the most practical way to transform our healthcare system and bring lower-cost, health-enhancing treatments into the mainstream for all to benefit from.

What can Eastern medicine learn from Western medicine, and vice-versa?

Eastern medicine is recognized in part for its honoring of the innate healing capacity within each of us, and the impacts that diet, lifestyle and environmental factors have on health and healing. On the other hand, Western medicine excels at the treatment of urgent and emergent medical and surgical conditions, as well as public-health initiatives such as clean water and vaccines. Both are necessary—the best available therapies, conventional and complementary, should be offered alongside one another and used to support health and wellbeing. This is already happening in some parts of the world. For example, in 2010 I had the opportunity to lecture in China where I witnessed firsthand how Eastern and Western medical practices can be offered together under one system of care.

Are diet and exercise the only things we should be worried about in terms of our health and wellness?

A healthy diet and daily exercise are core components of an optimal health program. Other areas that should be attended to include appropriate stress management, getting adequate sleep, maintaining a strong social network of family and friends, and limiting exposure to environmental toxins, including cigarette smoke.

What are four specific things you think every person should be doing to be their healthiest, happiest selves?

1. Follow a satisfying, nutritious anti-inflammatory diet.

2. Take a brisk walk outdoors (weather permitting) every day. Start slowly and work your way up to 45 minutes of walking at a time.

3. Practice breath work.

4. Limit your time on the Internet. It encourages social isolation, which is incompatible with happiness.

In your opinion, what are some of the least healthy or damaging habits Americans have?

The worst habit Americans have is eating too much highly processed, manufactured food (including fast food). People in this country are also too often sedentary and, as mentioned earlier, spend too much time on the Internet.

What kinds of foods should we be eating that we’re not, and which ones should we absolutely lay off of?

My anti-inflammatory diet lays out delicious and healthy food choices, including some that many people may not have considered before. One example is mushrooms; they are a good source of protein, provide useful amounts of B vitamins and trace minerals, and contain little fat. In addition, many varieties appear to possess anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing properties. Some of my favorites include shiitake, maitake, enokitake and oyster mushrooms. I recommend against eating a lot of white or “button” mushrooms, including portobellos and criminis; they are among a number of foods containing natural toxins that have yet to be fully evaluated for safety. Regardless of the type of mushroom you choose, I strongly advise against eating any mushroom raw and recommend that you cook them thoroughly before eating.

As far as foods to avoid, the list includes rapidly digesting carbohydrates and any other foods that are high on the glycemic index. Stay away from highly processed and fast food as mentioned above, products containing partially hydrogenated oils or vegetable shortening, and polyunsaturated oils such as sunflower, safflower, soy and corn oils.

What’s your opinion on juice cleanses? Is there truth to their “detoxifying” claims?

The human body generally removes toxins efficiently, but short fasts and other cleansing regimens can make you feel good, and they give you a chance to reconsider what you are putting into your body. Many people say they experience a clearer mental state and increased energy after giving their digestive system a rest by restricting food intake for a short period of time. I often recommend a daylong or weekend “juice fast” using juice together with some powdered psyllium seed husks to help keep you regular. Prepare the juice yourself; this is easiest if you invest in a juicing machine. Drink the juice within an hour of making it otherwise its nutritional value will deteriorate. If you can’t make the juice yourself, buy natural juices that don’t contain added sugar. Cleansing in this manner is generally considered safe but it’s best to consult with your healthcare provider first. You’ll also want to limit strenuous physical activity during the brief fast. And definitely do not fast if you’re diabetic, pregnant or nursing.

How can a person be “forever young” as your event promises? What do you hope your audience takes away from the event?

Many people view aging as something negative, but I see things differently. Aging is an important part of the human experience—to deny that fact and try to fight aging is to go against nature. Rather than attempting to stop or reverse the aging process and stay “forever young,” our focus should be on aging optimally well by maintaining good health throughout life and limiting development of the chronic, inappropriate inflammation that leads to age-related disease. This is the important distinction—between aging well and developing age-related illness. The best way to age well is to develop healthy diet and lifestyle habits. And it’s never too late to start.

Philly is your hometown. What are our strengths and weaknesses in terms of health in our city?

It’s a long time since I’ve lived in my hometown, but the city’s weaknesses in terms of health are probably not different from those of other large East Coast cities where obesity, childhood obesity, and Type 2 diabetes are on the rise. The strong neighborhood culture in Philly increases social connectedness, which protects health, and Fairmount and other city parks help people connect with nature. In addition there are many places to walk in Center City.

‘Fess up: Will you splurge on your diet while you’re here and indulge in any of our hometown treats, like pretzels, hoagies or cheesesteaks?


(Wow, this guy’s goooood.)