A co-worker told my wife that deep breathing would help prevent swine flu, and that he learned this fact from Dr. Andrew Weil. He went on to point out that Dr. Weil had appeared on Oprah (a talk show known to promote alternative medicine and celebrity quackery).
It turns out that Dr. Weil, with his twinkling eyes and powder puff beard, is a man easily mistaken for Saint Nicholas. To his credit, he graduated from Harvard, but then he slipped into woo-woo land when he started experimenting with psychedelic drugs and “finding himself” in Native American sweat lodges. Somewhere along the way, he decided that medicine was intuitive, that pathogens were a manifestation of evil, and that mushrooms were super foods.
He also sells all manner of supplements and accessories with his name and face (it’s all the rage) on his web site. But, don’t worry. The profits from those supplements go straight to his foundation dedicated to the promotion of integrative medicine. If we’re looking for a red flag, it might be that the FDA recently slapped him with a warning for selling a product, the Chinese herb “astragalus”, that he claimed could cure swine flu. He also mentioned astragalus on Larry King Live, stating that it had “antiviral effects” and “immune boosting effects”. Oops. Isn’t that’s the very reason why alternative medicine should stay segregated from traditional medicine? So we don’t have doctors providing cures that have not been thoroughly tested?
And what of these claims by my wife’s co-worker that breathing helps prevent flu. He doesn’t specifically mention breathing on Larry King, but he does say that there are “mind/body” interventions that should be considered. I did find an essay by Dr. Arnold Relman, professor emeritus of medicine at Harvard, that criticized Dr. Weil’s beliefs. This essay mentioned how breathing is a core part of Dr. Weil’s health philosophy; it also pointed out that Weil’s claims on breathing have never been supported by science:
“Breathing” is an important and recurring theme in Weil’s prescriptions for health and healing, and it holds a prominent place in Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, which appeared in 1997. As far as I can see, his opinions on this subject are largely nonsense. There is not the slightest medical evidence that “improper breathing is a common cause of ill health.” All the clinical and physiological evidence points to exactly the reverse relationship. It suggests that many types of disease and physiological dysfunction can affect breathing. Sometimes this secondary change in breathing can be serious enough to change the normal intake of oxygen or the normal elimination of carbon dioxide in ways that further impair health; but the primary causes of the problem are the diseases or the physiological disturbances that cause the abnormal pattern of breathing, not the breathing itself.
While it is true that conscious attention to breathing can help individuals to relax, there is no evidence that the breathing exercises Weil advocates have any special advantage over any other techniques for relaxation, or that they have any special therapeutic powers. Like so many of his other pronouncements, Weil’s claims about breathing come ex cathedra from his own self-asserted authority as guru and healer. Much of what he has to say about health and healing in this book and in his later works is just like this fanciful section on breathing — a bald assertion without any credible rationale or supporting objective evidence.
What about Dr. Weil’s beliefs on vaccines? Is he another antivaccine foot soldier in the war against science? Oddly, no. Dr. Weil supports vaccination, despite the fact that this has become a wedge issue among his peers in the alternative medicine crowd. Unfortunately, he also supports homeopathic remedies, which as we all know by now, are nothing more than sugar pill placebos.
For a thoughtful, reasoned argument against Dr. Weil, you should take the time to watch this video. It’s an interview/debate between Dr. Weil and Dr. Steven Knope. In my opinion, Dr. Knope deserves kudos for his rebuttal to Weil’s brand of integrative medicine. It may even be worth it to visit amazon and buy Dr. Knope’s book, Concierge Medicine.