Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Books Worth Reading: Health and Healing: The Philosophy of Integrative Medicine and Optimum Health, by Andrew T. Weil MD

There are, as near as I can determine, no books about health, although there are many titles claiming to be about health – on books about medicines and illness.  We might count books that aren't really about health, like many exercise books.  There are no diet books about health – they are all about illness.

If you want to learn about health, there are a few books worth reading.  Some of them will change your understanding of health and medicine. This is one, although it is not a book about health.

I listened to the audio book in my car as I drove from place to place – a very effective way to read a good book, although repeating specific passages of interest can be a bit tedious – and referencing them afterwards even more challenging.  This book is a comprehensive review of conventional (he uses the word allopathic) and various alternative medical systems.  It is fascinating, well written and full of interesting ideas.  Dr Weil gives an intelligent review, albeit his personal opinion, of each of the fields of medicine.

Andrew Weil has worked and studied in and with many different fields of medicine, gaining a lot of experience over the years. He provides a very scientific and interesting view of different schools of medicine.  He reviews allopathic (traditional Western) medicine, homeopathic, naturopathic, osteopathic, and chiropractic; acupuncture, holistic medicine, shamanism, faith healing, and psychic healing.

His discussion of placebos is a powerful document on the weaknesses of allopathic medicine. He points out many inconsistencies in the way conventional medicine treats placebos and the placebo concept. Specifically, they do not treat placebos scientifically. However, he neglects to discuss the concept of regression to the mean, which is an important factor in the placebo effect.  Not surprising, as this aspect of placebos is seldom recognized or discussed in medical research.  In simplest terms, regression to the mean is the tendency of things that are ‘out of balance’, or away from the ‘mean’ on first measurement, to regress to towards the mean on subsequent measurements.  To a statistician, regression is a statistical fact that has nothing to do with cures or placebos, it is simply a fact of statistics and how they work. To medical researchers, regression to the mean is easily mistaken for the placebo effect of placebos, or the placebo effect of drugs.  And it is very difficult to separate from the placebo effect, especially in cursory analysis. 

I loved the section of healing of warts – where he demonstrated beyond doubt that none of the so called ‘healers’ has a scientific approach to illness. None can heal warts effectively although all agree that warts can be healed, sometimes by the strangest of techniques; a clear demonstration of the failure of so called ‘medical science’ and of 'alternative medicine' as well.

Unfortunately, although Dr. Weil put the word ‘health’ in the title, the book would more accurately be named ‘Sick and Healing’, or perhaps ‘Medicine and Healing”. Of course it would have sold fewer copies with a more accurate title.  Dr. Weil seldom makes any true references to health except in the binary mode (you are healthy, or you are not healthy).There is no discussion of healthicine in any detail, only of medicine. 

Andrew Weil clearly demonstrates the case that medicine, as studied today is an incomplete and unscientific field of study. He has also demonstrated that the different fields of medicine are adversarial and thus weaker and less scientific than we might hope.

It is unfortunate that he does not take the next step – to suggest a study of healthicine (of which medicine is a small subset). We can hardly blame him – healthicine is not in the dictionary.

Andrew Weil has written many other books, and although I have seen a few of them, I don't think any others have real value in the field of health (as opposed to the field of medicine). He often uses the phrase 'optimal health', but completely ignores many aspects of healthiness, focusing instead on illness.  For example, his book: "Natural Health, Natural Medicine: The Complete Guide to Wellness and Self-Care for Optimum Health by Andrew Weil (Dec 9, 2004)", which might appear from the title to be about health, is according to the introduction: "a complete guide to preventative health maintenance" (whatever that might actually mean is beyond my comprehension).  It has a chapter on diet, one on exercise, one on connections - but the content could as easily have been written by anyone with a bit of common sense. That is to say - they could have been written by any normal person with a bit of knowledge and head full of some right ideas and some nonsense. It has more chapters on medicine than on health - and he even puts supplemental vitamins and minerals in the 'treatment' section of the book. You can't judge a book by it's cover.

Andrew Weil has a website where he promotes his ideas and concepts of health and medicine with the tagline "Your Trusted Health Advisor". Unfortunately the items on his website are remarkably predictable,  and not really about healthiness in any depth. The website has a clear 'medical' focus as opposed to a health focus and repeats many common misconceptions about health.

to your health, tracy
Tracy is the author of two book about healthicine: