The wild Weil world of woo

Dr. Weil is often seen as the smiling “mainstream” of alternative medicine. He’s a real doctor (unlike, say, Gary Null), and much of what he advocates is standard and uncontroversial nutritional advice. But Weil illustrates the two biggest problems with so-called alternative medicne: once you’ve decided science is dispensible, the door is open to anything, no matter how insane; and no matter how altruistic you may start, sooner or later you start selling snake oil. Most doctors out there are working hard to help their patients prevent and overcome disease use the available evidence.  Others decide that science is too constraining and start practicing at the periphery of knowledge, throwing plausibility and ethics to the wind.

The fact that Weil claims to donate to charity all of his ill-gotten gains does not mitigate the harm he causes.

The flu pandemic has been challenging to all of us who practice medicine.  We try to keep up day to day with the latest numbers, evidence, and best practices, while trying not to worry about getting ill.  And since the vaccine isn’t widely available yet, we also worry about our family’s health.  So we go about our work every day, wearing masks when appropriate and washing hands frequently.  If the numbers reach a certain threshold, we will implement sophisticated pandemic plans.

All of that is rather hard, though, so perhaps we should just throw caution to the wind and start selling flu snake oil just like the smiling Dr. Weil.

The FDA and FTC have let Weil know in very clear terms that his fake flu remedies are being marketed illegally.  Weil has taken the site down, but here’s a relevant screen shot.

If you’ll recall, quacks are allowed to market just about any health product as long as they use their “get out of jail free card”, the Quack Miranda Warning.  The warning itself is a travesty, allowing any kind of absurd claims.  But Weil apparently forgot to use it recently. The FDA’s letter, dated October 15, 2009, states:

This is to advise you that the United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and the United States Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) reviewed your website at the Internet address on October 13, 2009. The FDA has determined that your website offers a product for sale that is intended to diagnose, mitigate, prevent, treat or cure the H1N1 Flu Virus in people. This product has not been approved, cleared, or otherwise authorized by FDA for use in the diagnosis, mitigation, prevention, treatment, or cure of the H1N1 Flu Virus.

That’s bad. What language did they object to?  The CDC has asked the FDA and FTC to help protect consumers from medical fraud due to flu fears.  The letter lays out all of the specifics, but  basically Weil claimed that some particular supplements that he sells will prevent the flu.

Worried About Flu? Dr. Weil’s Immune Support Formula can help maintain a strong defense against the flu. It contains astragalus, a traditional herb that boosts immunity. Buy it now in one click, and start protecting your immune system against flu this season.


[L]earn more about Dr. Weil’s Immune Support Formula, which contains astragalus – an herb Dr. Weil recommends to help ward off colds and flu.

This is bad. The altmed folks often complain that the medical community doesn’t have much evidence to support some of our flu claims. One intervention frequently targeted is the use of masks, for which data is limited. But why be picky about masks, vaccination (for which data isn’t limited) and oseltamivir, while at the same time boosting a botanical with no evidence behind it’s use? There are two reasons. One is financial. The multi-billion dollar alternative pharmaceutical industry like it’s profits, and uses them to protect their market share through the support of such friendly officials as Tom Harkin and Orrin Hatch.

The other is religious.  The altmed community believes in this stuff.  They take it on faith that various botanicals will be effective, whether or not testing confirms this.  They object to the modern approach to health that eschews shamanism and demands professionalism.  They see it as elitist, exclusionary, and unfair. They want personal wisdom to be taken seriously as an alternative to science-based medicine. This wisdom can and is taken seriously.  That’s how we come up with hypotheses to test.  But if an hypothesis doesn’t pan out, it’s time to move on.

Or, you can just ignore the evidence and use a current health scare to promote your beliefs and sell a product.  Bravo, Dr. Weil, and welcome to the Dark Side.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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20 thoughts on “The wild Weil world of woo

  1. DVMKurmes says:

    Astragalus is listed in my poisonous plant notes from veterinary school as a selenium accumulator and containing alkaloids that can cause fetal deformities and abortion in animals. I am sure cattle and sheep will eat more than the dose in those supplements, but still.
    I bet the selenium dose and the possible side effects of birth defects and miscarriage are not listed on the bottle.

  2. Adam_Y says:

    I think the scary part is that they believe this to the point where they can’t even figure out contradictions in their argumens. I was reading Mike Adam’s whine about the toxic dangers of chemotherapy all the while ignoring that selenium, and oxygen therapy can be equally toxic.

  3. nitpicking says:

    Wouldn’t an alt-med type claim that the selenium is boosting the immune system?

    Of course, as Dr. Crislip has pointed out, boosting the immune system is both bad and meaningless.

  4. yeahsurewhatever says:

    Weil has an MD, at any rate. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s a real doctor. Aside from Deepak Chopra, nobody has done more in the modern world to dismantle scientific medicine besides Weil.

    There’s no precedent for revoking a degree based on anything but pre-award misconduct, but there’s also nothing saying that Harvard couldn’t revoke it. If ever there were a post-award misconduct candidate, it would be Weil. It seems to me that a degree isn’t a prize that means “I earned this once” but rather a statement by the university to the effect of “we continue to have full faith in the abilities of this person”.

  5. Adam_Y says:

    Yes but there is a dangerously thin line in between medical supplement and poison in the case of selenium.

  6. There’s no precedent for revoking a degree based on anything but pre-award misconduct, but there’s also nothing saying that Harvard couldn’t revoke it. If ever there were a post-award misconduct candidate, it would be Weil.

    Although it is vanishingly unlikely that any institution, especially Harvard (mustn’t air one’s dirty laundry, what?), will ever revoke a graduate’s degree because of subsequent crimes, it is amusing to consider a list of nominees deserving of that distinction. Weil may be HMS’s most famous example, but he’s by no means the only one, nor the only famous one, nor even the most deserving.

    Lookit these guys:

    James Gordon, Chair of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy

    Elmer Cranton, chelationist extraordinaire.

    Hard to beat’em, but I’m sure there are more.


  7. DVMKurmes says:

    Oh, and even better, Astragalus and some other related plants can affect the nervous system when consumed in large amounts, hence the common name among shepherds and cowboys of “locoweed”.
    I wonder why Weil is not using the more “culturally sensitive” name of “locoweed” on his supplement. ;)

  8. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Astragalus is being touted as a “telomerase activator”. This is popular now as the recent Nobel Prize was awarded for work in telemerase.

    Telomeres are found at the end of chromosomes and are not replicated all the way during mitosis. Telomerase is an enzyme that corrects for this. However, over time, the length of the telomere shortens. This has been implicated in the aging process. A drug that induces telomerase could, conceivably, work against aging. It could, more likely, allow for tumor growth and cancer.

    There is no evidence what-so-ever that Astragalus does this. And what does this have to do with H1N1 anyway? Weil’s claim here is total BS (Bad Science).

  9. yeahsurewhatever says:

    Do you suppose it’s a coincidence that Cranton (1964), Gordon (1967), and Weil (1968) graduated from HMS within 5 years of each other, all in the 1960s?

  10. yeahsurewhatever says:

    A “telomerase activator” ? That sounds suspiciously like a carcinogen to me. I don’t think they’re giving a lot of thought to this claim.

  11. daijiyobu says:

    Hey, I know your problem, Pal.

    You are not STONED: .

    See, you’re thinking straight.


  12. Jeff says:

    There is one study showing an astragalus extract can slow telomere shortening on CD8 T-cells:

    “In a study described in the November 15, 2008 issue of the Journal of Immunology, Dr Effros and her colleagues tested a compound known as TAT2, originally derived from the Chinese herb astragalus, on CD8 T-cells from HIV-infected individuals. They found that TAT2 retarded the shortening of the cells’ telomeres as well as improved their production of chemokines and cytokines that help inhibit HIV replication.

    “The ability to enhance telomerase activity and antiviral functions of CD8 T-lymphocytes suggests that this strategy could be useful in treating HIV disease, as well as immunodeficiency and increased susceptibility to other viral infections associated with chronic diseases or aging,” the authors write.

  13. apteryx says:

    Given that livestock necessarily eat plants, one would hope that a veterinary degree required at least the tiniest actual knowledge about plants. Astragalus is a genus with almost two THOUSAND species, found worldwide. Some are toxic in excess to livestock. Some are highly valued fodder. Some are eaten by humans – though not Western white humans, so perhaps they don’t “really” count. The medicinal Asian species and the species that accumulate selenium in the western U.S. are totally different plants. Every time I come back to this site I am reminded of why I stopped reading the last time – smug, proud ignorance masquerading as knowledge, FUD masquerading as medical advice. It never changes, does it?

  14. DVMKurmes says:

    @ apteryx;

    Sorry you can’t handle sarcasm, but Andrew Weil practices in Arizona, not China, and I have no idea where his Astragalus comes from, and given the history of herbal products from China, he probably does not know either. Weil does not seem to care about the well known problems associated with herbs-unknown concentrations of active chemicals, easily confused species, and variations in active chemicals and toxic compounds depending on the weather and growing conditions, part of plant collected, etc.

    Here in the southwest US there are several genera of legumes including Astragalus, Oxytropis, and Lupinus that can look very similar to each other, and can all be teratogenic or cause “locoism” depending on the amount consumed and other variables. I stand by my statement that Weil probably does not list teratogenicity or neurologic effects as possible side effects, and I would be surprised if he knew the exact concentrations of compounds in every batch of supplement, given his attitude that herbs are much safer and better than standardized pharmaceuticals. Last time I checked, “loco” was an Hispanic term, not a “western white” term, so at least in this part of the world, there is a traditional recognition of the toxicity or these plants in animals.

  15. yeahsurewhatever says:

    “Sorry you can’t handle sarcasm, but Andrew Weil practices in Arizona, not China, and I have no idea where his Astragalus comes from, and given the history of herbal products from China, he probably does not know either.”

    Given that Weil’s undergraduate degree is in botany, I would think that he ought to know where it comes from. Botany is actually the only thing he knows how to do, besides con-artistry.

  16. DVMKurmes says:

    I am sure he knows where they come from in general, but I mean the actual herbs in his supplements-I doubt he picks them himself, and the reliability of herbal products from China or anywhere else is questionable. Add to that a plant with a lot of look-alikes, and the natural variations in active ingredients and toxins, and the risks go up. Saying that a plant is used as food and forage in China does not mean much-forage for what animals at what time of year? What parts are safe to eat and what parts may be toxic? Are the people who pick Weil’s herbs careful, or are they paid by weight?
    All I see on the altie sites about astragalus are a lot of unproven claims with no or very little mention of risks. Sorry if I don’t trust Weil’s “stoned thinking” to consider these questions. He may be a good botanist, but I know a lot of good botanists who are fairly clueless about medicine. I know an expert mycologist who ended up in the hospital after eating a “safe” mushroom-just an accident, but it is not always easy to distinguish safe plants and fungi from toxic ones, and sometimes even the safe ones are not. If Weil wanted to experiment on only himself I would have no problem, but he is selling unproven products to gullible, trusting people.

  17. kill3rTcell says:

    ‘A “telomerase activator” ? That sounds suspiciously like a carcinogen to me. I don’t think they’re giving a lot of thought to this claim.’
    Telomerase activation is useful for lengthening the lifetime of cell-lines (which usually have a limited life-span, cut short with each replication. Telomerase does have use in allowing tumour cell lines (useful for research purposes) to be immortalised, and I do believe that telomerase activity has been implicated in some form of cancer. More research will no doubt be required and there will likely be another Nobel Prize in there with the implications/applications of telomerase research.

  18. backer says:

    although i do agree with the tone of this article i must disagree with the underlying message. I do think alternative medicine has its place and cannot simply be dismissed. i havent seen the CDC recommending the use of Sambucol to fight the flu, even though it DOES have studies to back its claim (albeit small).

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