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Dr. Andrew Weil on Living Healthier

Andrew Weil, M.D., is a world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine. He’s also the founder and director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Dr. Weil has written a number of books, including 8 Weeks to Optimum Health: A Proven Program for Taking Full Advantage of Your Body’s Natural Healing Power and Spontaneous Healing: How to Discover and Embrace Your Body's Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself. His most recent book, Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, debuted at number two on The New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2005. He’s the author of the Self Healing newsletter, health blogs for Prevention.com and Yahoo Health and the editorial director of DrWeil.com, a leading online resource for healthy living based on an integrative-medicine philosophy. Here, Dr. Weil defines how one can truly live a healthier lifestyle.

What does it mean to live healthier?

I think it means being more in balance so that you’re able to move through life and not be thrown off by all the things you encounter out there.

What are the biggest obstacles to living healthier?

There are a number of reasons people don’t live as healthfully as they could. For some, it’s being around people who have unhealthy habits. For others, it is inertia and laziness, not having the motivation to pursue and maintain a healthy lifestyle. And a lot of people don’t have the appropriate information.

What do people most need to hear about their health?

People have to realize that improving health means working on all fronts. A healthy lifestyle involves many aspects: how you eat, how you exercise, how you relax, how you have fun and how you sleep. You really have to work on all areas.

How do nontraditional influences and wisdom affect people’s views of health?

There are many beliefs about mind-body health, some of which come from the East. I think there’s a lot of information that’s not generally known: For example, I recommend breathing techniques to people, which are very effective for stress reduction. There’s a lot of confusing information about food, supplements and exercise, and this comes from a lack of education and dissemination of scientific knowledge. You need to seek out reliable sources of information.

What’s the worst thing we do when it comes to health?

We take our health for granted, not doing anything about it until it’s threatened. If young people realized early in life that they had to protect and enhance their health, people would be a lot better off.

How do you convince people, especially people who do not believe there is a relationship between the mind and the body, that they need to take care of both?

One way is to tell them stories or present case histories or point them to research information. Get them to look at their own experience and how changes in the mental and emotional state correlate to changes in the physical body. You can try to get them to experiment with simple techniques, like breathing, so they can see how to change their mood and body. I think, as a whole, the culture is moving in a direction that’s more accepting of mind-body influences.

When it comes to women and men, are there any differences in how each gender should start getting healthy?

I think women are more willing to seek help and are more open to natural medicines and alternative methods, which I support. Men often have to wait until they get some really strong wake-up call that scares them into making some changes. At the same time, women are often under more stress and are more stretched by being both caregivers and wage-earners, as well.

What role do love, happiness and spirituality play in a healthier lifestyle?

I think it’s very important. Most important is to be connected and not live in isolation or disconnection. That can mean connection with friends, family, nature, pets, plants or a higher power. When people are disconnected, they go through life in an isolated manner and are much more vulnerable to poor health.

What would you recommend to people who are just starting to incorporate beneficial health practices into their lives?

First, get good information. Second, take small, incremental steps; it doesn’t have to be global changes overnight. I think it’s worth seeking out people who have health habits you would like to develop and spending more time with them.

What about people who need to start losing weight in the first 30 days?

Again, I would urge people to take small steps: Increase physical activity and make modifications in eating patterns that are doable. I think people should set realistic goals. Move through the changes slowly, try to modify your lifestyle in ways that you can stick with, rather than starting on a diet that you’re going to abandon at some point.

Do you believe that certain foods are good and some are not?

Yes. I think that everyone needs to have sources of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, whether through fish or supplements. I think that everyone should eat a great variety of fruits and vegetables, especially vegetables. The more I look at fruits and vegetables, the more I see so many things in them that protect our health. Not including enough vegetables and fruits is one of the biggest mistakes people make. Try to avoid refined and processed foods in general, but definitely stay away from fast foods. Products made with partially hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup are the biggest ones to stay away from.

What are the worst myths we buy into?

Anti-aging, which is huge at the moment. I’m writing a book about this. It’s not anti-aging; that’s not the goal. The goal is healthy aging. I also hear young people say that it really doesn’t matter what you eat and that everything is bad for you, which is absolutely not true. I think another one is people say it’s too late to change, which is definitely not true either. When you make a positive change at any point in your life, you reap the benefits.

How do you help people deal with the stress within their lives?

I ask people to look at and identify the sources of stress in their lives and figure out what they can change and that they can’t. I tell people that addictive use of caffeine often makes stress worse. The noise you are exposed to can feed into stress. It’s very useful to have one or a couple of techniques of stress neutralization in your toolbox. These are often very simple things that you can learn, such as breathing techniques, mediation or guided relaxation, listening to relaxing music, soaking in a bathtub or doing yoga. There are endless, endless methods.

Is breathing an important component of healthier living?

I have written extensively about breathing, and you can find more information on my web site and on my CDs. Breathing is a very powerful tool for controlling the mind and the body. Some basic techniques are to make your breathing deeper, quieter, slower and more regular. Another method is to increase the period of exhalation to make it more equal to the time of inhalation. Those are some of the fundamentals of breathing practices.

What are your views on fasting and other detoxification methods?

The most important way to protect yourself from toxins is to stop putting them in your body. Learn about the source of toxins that you’re exposed to and then take steps to protect yourself. That could mean anything from getting a water filter, buying organic produce, putting an air purifier in your home or even moving. There are natural ways to detoxify that people often don’t think about, such as sweating and increasing urination. If you want to do some kind of a cleansing regiment, there are all sorts of ways. I’m not opposed to people doing that.

Should traditional medicine and alternative medicine work together?

Having them come together is certainly a trend that will accelerate as the healthcare crisis gets worse and people realize that many of these methods can save money and produce equally good outcomes. I think conventional medicine has its place, but more and more for the treatment of crises, emergencies and very severe kinds of illness, while alternative medicine is often better at managing routine day-to-day complaints and the things that don’t really require drastic methods.

What do people underestimate and overestimate when they start to change their health?

People overestimate how hard it will be to make changes but often underestimate the amount of time it takes to see change. People really need to be patient when they make lifestyle changes; it may take two months before you see a change.

For more information on Dr. Weil, visit www.drweil.com.

Posted: 12/29/07