By Lily G. Casura
Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Weil, MD, about the use of Chinese medicine in the treatment of HIV disease and AIDS. While Dr. Weil acknowledged that his experience with these cases is not wide, at the same time, the protocol he feels holds the most promise for treatment is much what he would recommend for dealing with other diseases: strengthen the body's immune system, so that it can be in a stronger position to fight illness. Because, after 40,000,000 diagnoses worldwide, 19 million deaths, (1) and not yet one cure, it seemed relevant to include Dr. Weil's comments here for our readers. And while certainly there are other physicians whose work has been very important in this arena -- doctors like Joan Priestley, M.D., and Bastyr's Leanna Standish, ND, (2) among others -- Dr. Weil's input is interesting because of his ability to get to the philosophical heart of the matter: do we treat the disease, or do we treat the patient? What follows are his comments.
Andrew Weil's commentary
"For instance, if you look at AIDS, one of the interesting things about that disease is that there is this long period of time after infection when people are relatively healthy. It looks as if there are individuals who can go for a very long time in that period. So if we can figure out how to extend that period -- if a person can have 20 or 30 years of living with the virus in their system and not be sick, that would be great. The way to achieve that is not necessarily by looking for ways to destroy the virus, but rather, through ways to increase the functioning of the immune system.
"[In the early 1990s,] if you talked about this subject [people with HIV who seem not to develop AIDS] most conventional doctors would say these cases didn't exist. They were setting up a standard view in medicine that everybody infected with HIV was going to die. Now there have been enough of these cases for the doctors to have to admit they exist. The dominant view is that these people are infected with a benign strain of the virus; it's putting all the cause on the virus. But in the past years, there has been serious speculation that host factors maybe involved; it's something about the person as well as the virus. Once you admit that, you open up possibilities of doing things for people.
"[A common denominator among those HIV-infected individuals who never get AIDS is] the commonest thing is the use of Chinese herbal medicines.... Specifically Chinese. Not necessarily one thing, but a variety of Chinese herbal therapies that are believed to enhance immunity. (In another commentary, Dr. Weil notes that "Many people I know who have lived with HIV for years have relied, in part, on herbs, together with healthy diets and lifestyles, including positive mental states. Two herbal remedies I recommend to strengthen the immune system are astragalus, (Astragalus membranaceous) and the mushroom known as maitake or hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa)." (3))
"Of the people that I've seen who have done very well, a common theme is that they've used TCM -- especially combinations of Chinese herbs. I work mostly with people who are HIV positive, who don't have symptomatic AIDS. I have worked with a few patients with AIDS as well, and I think the goal with people who are HIV positive is to keep them symptom-free as long as possible, and people with AIDS, to maintain quality of life, and to increase the chances that they can be in the group that are really long-term survivors. And I think the strategy there is to improve general health and to increase the efficiency of the immune system. And I think Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a lot of ways of doing that. The question that all these people face is whether they should go on any of the Western anti-viral drugs, and I think the new ones that are out -- these protease-inhibitors -- certainly look better than the previous generation of drugs, but I'm still not very enthusiastic about them.
"The people that I've talked to and worked with who have done very well, they haven't just relied on one thing. They've really made global changes in lifestyle. They've improved their diets. They're on good exercise regimens, they've cleaned up their sex lives, they have worked on the mind/body connection, and in addition are doing various kinds of therapies. So I think, you know, when a person is faced with a disease of that kind, you really have to work on all fronts and devote all your energies to trying to improve your general health. (Elsewhere Dr. Weil mentions massage positively: "A controlled study of 20 HIV-positive men who received a 45-minute massage five times weekly for a month showed that natural killer cells increased (suggesting positive effects on the immune system), and that anxiety, stress, and cortisol levels were significantly reduced (International Journal of Neuroscience, February 1996)." (4)
"Regarding the general strategies for dealing with infectious illness, and the two [main] approaches [to it]: the Western approach has been to try to develop weapons against the organism, and the Eastern approach has been to increase body defenses and resistance so that you can live in balance with the organism. [What interests me is] what it means to live in balance with an infectious agent.
"Western medicine's powerlessness against viral infections is clearly visible in its ineffectiveness against AIDS. Chinese herbal therapy for people infected with HIV looks much more promising. It is non-toxic, in great contrast to the Western antiviral drugs in current use, and may enable many of those with HIV infections to have relatively long, symptom-free lives, even though the virus remains in their bodies. (5)
"Is it better to put our faith in weapons against external agents of disease, or in internal resources that can make us less vulnerable? Experience with antibiotics and bacteria suggests that exclusive reliance on weapons, however effective they may appear to be at first, gets us into worse trouble down the road. The weapons themselves influence the evolution of bacteria in the direction of greater virulence, making them more dangerous adversaries. On the other hand, if we concentrate on improving host resistance, the germs stay as they are, and we are protected. So it is probably wiser to rely on the healing system than on drugs and doctors." (6)
As noted physician and humanist Albert Schweitzer said many years ago, "It's supposed to be a professional secret, but I'll tell you anyway. We doctors do nothing. We only help and encourage the doctor within." (7)
References & Bibliography
(1.) Source: The American Foundation for AIDS Research, www.amFAR.org.
(2.) Dr. Standish has a forthcoming book, entitled AIDS and Complementary & Alternative Medicine: Current Science and Practice, due out in early 2002 from Churchill Livingstone, an imprint of Harcourt, New York.
(3.) Source: Yahoo! Health's "Ask Dr. Weil," at http://health.yahoo.com/health/expert/drweil/3/19.html.
(4.) Source: Weil A, "The Healing Power of Massage," quoted in full as the feature article at www.123relax.com.
(5.) Source: Weil A, Spontaneous Healing. New York: Ballantine (2000).
(6.) Source: Weil A, Spontaneous Healing. New York: Ballantine (2000).
(7.) Source: Goldberg B, editor, Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide. Fife, WA: Future Medicine Publishing (1994).
Casura LG, "All Quiet on the Western Front: Andrew Weil, M.D., Looks East for Natural Therapies for AIDS and HIV," Common Ground. April, 1996.
Goldberg B, editor, Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide. Fife, WA: Future Medicine Publishing (1994).
Interview with Andrew Weil, M.D., by the author.
Priestley JC, "Highly Beneficial Results in the Treatment of AIDS," Explore More!, 12: 1995.
Standish L, HIV, AIDS and Complementary & Alternative Medicine.
The American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR.org)
Weil A, Spontaneous Healing. New York: Ballantine (2000).
Weil A, "The Healing Power of Massage," original published source unknown.
Yahoo! Health's "Ask Dr. Weil."
Lily G. Casura is the author of Gentle Medicine: Treating Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Successfully with Natural Medicine, which is available from Self Health Press (www.SelfHealthPress.com) and Amazon.
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