Mind & Body

Natural Born Leaders

Six visionaries talk about the past and future of mind-body medicine and give us their best advice for feeling fantastic right here, right now.

Natural Born Leaders
Pin it Edel Rodriguez

For many Americans, Andrew Weil is the face of natural health. A longtime advocate for alternative and traditional healing, he popularized the phrase “integrative medicine.” He is the founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the author of many seminal books, including his latest, You Can’t Afford to Get Sick: Your Guide to Optimum Health and Health Care (Plume).

In the beginning » I have always questioned things, and have had a lifelong interest in plants. I’ve been fascinated by the way the mind affects the body since I was a child. I majored in botany in college. So all these things were in place long before medical school. When I finished my clinical training in 1969, I didn’t want to practice the kind of medicine I’d been taught. It seemed to do too much harm, and it didn’t really train me to keep people well. So I dropped out of practice and found a way to travel the world, studying healing practices and medicinal plants. I started writing down my ideas when I got back in 1973, but it wasn’t until the ’90s that doctors started paying any attention to what I was saying. What we see happening now is a consumer-driven movement. People want physicians who are knowledgeable about nutrition and who won’t laugh if you ask about traditional Chinese medicine.

The power of plants » Much of my life’s work centers around medicinal plants, and it’s an emotionally charged area. Even doctors who accept things like mind-body techniques or nutritional therapy balk at the idea of giving herbs. There is a fear of nature and natural products, but in my opinion, it’s the result of ignorance. I’ve gotten terrific results using botanicals, and I’ve never seen an adverse reaction to them if they are used carefully. There’s an endless list of things that are great: Licorice extract for reflux, valerian for sleep and stinging nettles for hay fever are a few examples.

We’re an inflammation nation » I’m more convinced than ever of the importance of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. Inflammation is the cornerstone of the healing response; it gets immune activity and nourishment to the areas that need it. But it’s also important to keep inflammation in check. Chronic low-level, nearly imperceptible inflammation throughout the body appears to be the root cause of most serious diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other neurological and degenerative illnesses. Ginger, turmeric and extra virgin olive oil are all powerful anti-inflammatory agents, and everyone should take fish oil.

Protect yourself » Minimize your exposure to chemicals, pesticides and other known toxins such as bisphenol-A (BPA). Be cautious about your use of plastics. Also, limit your exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). That means not using cellphones all the time, using hands-free devices, and not sleeping under electric blankets.

What’s next » I think we’ll see an overhaul of the health care system, but it will have to come from a grassroots level. People won’t stand for the rising cost of health care so long as we have all these horrible outcomes. My hope is that the movement to change the current health care system would be spearheaded by enlightened physicians.

Christiane Northrup has been a pioneer in connecting the field of obstetrics and gynecology with mindbody medicine. Her game-changing books, including Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (Bantam), have helped women around the world take charge of their reproductive health.

In the beginning » My parents were very progressive—they did yoga in the early 1960s and had an organic garden and a compost heap. I was brought up on a steady diet of unprocessed foods, vitamin C and constant dialogue. At the same time, my father was a dentist, and his brother and sister were both medical doctors—I joke that our Thanksgiving table was like an AMA conference.

What went wrong » Women’s health has become little more than health screening, mammograms and pap smears. The medical-pharmaceutical-industrial complex is very good at making women feel that something is wrong with them. They’re always coming up with new ideas—like female sexual dysfunction or vaginal reconstructive surgery. It’s ridiculous.

What’s going right » Having spent the majority of my career documenting everything that can go wrong with the female body, I want to spend the rest of my life understanding what can go right. I teach women to savor their bodies. And I see a real movement happening, especially among 30- somethings. Women are taking back their bodies.

Your inner weather » In my experience, things never turn out as you plan when you follow conventional wisdom. It’s much better to operate from your own inner vision. If you’re not sure how you feel about something, tune in to your female erotic anatomy. We all have a barometer between our legs to let us know how we’re doing—it has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with life force. Ask yourself: “Is this turning me on?” That’s how you get more of what feels good!

Menopause matters » Our culture tells us that women fly off the handle because of hormones— that hormones make us irrational. The truth is that hormones are always in service to the soul, attempting to wake us up to a richer, more fulfilling life. We associate our 40s with loss, but it’s really not loss. It’s outgrowing. You have to let go of your idea about what life should look like.

The power of age » At menopause, the creative sap begins to rise. Women wake up. They have new ideas for businesses, they take on second careers. Around 50, things really start to get good. The mainstream media teach us that life is over once we’re no longer attractive to men. Nothing could be further from the truth. Things get better and better—it’s the best-kept secret in the world.

Back to the future » Women are either scared of hormone therapy or they have this Suzanne Somers attitude that they should take a cocktail of hormones to look like they’re in their 20s forever. The thing is, if your body is healthy, your ovaries will make hormones for the rest of your life.

What’s next » We’ve come to a fork in the road, and we’ll increasingly be divided into two groups of women. One will embrace the pharmaceutical approach to life; the other will get more interested in natural approaches. The first group will feel old at age 40; the second will feel younger at age 50, like I did. Your health is in your own hands. When we start to wake up to that, medicine will, too.

Founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Neal Barnard has long been an advocate for a vegan diet. His books include Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes (Rodale) and 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart (Grand Central Life & Style).

In the beginning » I was raised in Fargo, N.D., in a very conventional environment, and I attended medical school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. But when I finished my clinical training—and moved to New York to work at St. Vincent’s Hospital—I came to realize that all these U.S. epidemics of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure were coming from the American diet. I wanted to advocate in that area, so I moved back to Washington in 1985 and founded PCRM to do research in the nutrition area.

Greater apes » I’ve always supported a vegan diet, though it used to be that if you used the word “vegan” you might as well have had antennae and come from Mars. Americans were, and are, meat eaters. But our bodies were not designed to eat meat and cheese, and it causes a lot of health problems. If you look into the mouth of a cat or dog, you know they are carnivores—they have long canine teeth that allow them to tear flesh from bone. If you look into your mouth, your canines are no longer than your incisors. We are designed for a plant-based diet.

Eat right, feel great » When people finally eat the diet designed for their bodies, they feel so much better. The human digestive tract was designed for high fiber intake—you don’t have to go to Walgreen’s to get fiber if you’re eating plants. Energy returns, because the fat content of the blood stream goes down and blood flows better. The arteries clear up naturally.

Diet trumps exercise » To counter America’s obesity epidemic, we have to change the way we eat. The average American eats 75 pounds more meat each year than we did a century ago and 30 pounds more cheese, which is like eating pure grease. We’re also getting more sugar. There is no way we can exercise those calories away. If you eat a sixpiece chicken nugget serving, you’d have to run 3 1∕2 miles to burn it off; 20 ounces of soda, another 2 1∕2 miles. Add a small serving of french fries, and it’s another 2 miles. That’s just one meal. We serve our kids junk-food meals, then we wonder why childhood obesity is a problem. When you find out the truth, you have to speak about it.

What’s next » We’ll see more evidence that a plant-based diet works, and more mainstream acceptance of that way of eating. The American Diabetes Association states that a vegan diet has metabolic advantages—that it improves blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and reduces risk of heart attack. I think we’ll join much of the rest of the world in putting grains and vegetables at the center of our plates. Also, I’d like to see eating meat become like smoking— it used to be everywhere and it used to be cool, but now office workers have to huddle out in the cold for their smoke breaks. Eventually, we’ll wake up and realize the way most of us eat now is hurting us and hurting the planet. Then people who want to keep eating meat will have to huddle outside, finishing their chicken drumsticks.