Book Review: Spontaneous Healing

| February/March 1996

• Andrew Weil, M.D.
• Alfred A. Knopf, 201 E. 50th St.,
• New York, NY 10022, 1995.
• Hardbound, 281 pages, $23. ISBN 0-679-43607-3.

Spontaneous Healing is Andrew Weil’s fourth book devoted to natural healing. Like his earlier books, this one treats healing as a compendium of therapies, including herbs, lifestyle changes, and beliefs that hinder or help healing. Weil asserts that “the body can heal itself” and that the physician’s role is to help that healing take place. He calls upon Greek mythology to distinguish between conventional medicine and alternative healing approaches. To Weil, the differences between Asklepios, the god of medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the goddess of healing, epitomize the differences between curing and healing.

Weil is an articulate, convincing proponent of Hygeian medicine. He brings his enthusiasm for its role into the current political debate about how to cover the costs of medical care, suggesting that “there has been no argument about the nature of medicine or people’s expectations of it, only about who is going to pay for its services.”

In comparing natural healing processes to conventional treatment, Weil distinguishes between traumatic problems, such as broken bones, appendicitis, or gunshot wounds, and chronic problems—many of which have been attributed to an immune-system deficiency—such as arthritis, diabetes, stress, allergies, even cancer. He contends that while conventional medicine can’t be beat for treating traumatic problems, herbs and other alternative treatments often do a better job in treating chronic problems. He notes that in contrast to Western physicians, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine rank drugs that are effective only for specific disorders lowest of all their drugs. More highly esteemed are those that work by strengthening body functions or its resistance to “assaults of all kinds”. Concerning the recent increase in microbial resistance to antibiotics, Weil observes that “resistance does not develop to the herbal tonics used to strengthen the body’s ability to defend itself against disease.”

Even while studying conventional medicine at Harvard Medical School, Weil was interested in botanical medicine, and he spent fifteen years as a research associate in ethnopharmacology in Cambridge. He places great faith in the power of herbs to effect healing and recommends many herbs for treating specific problems. He covers twelve in depth: garlic, ginger, green tea, milk thistle, as­trag­­a­lus, Siberian, Asian, and American ginsengs, dong-quai (Angelica sinensis), ho shou wu (Polygonum multiflorum, known as fo-ti in America), mai-take (a mushroom), and cordyceps (another mushroom).

For years, Weil has collected stories about people diagnosed with fatal or disabling illnesses who were told by their physicians that they had little time to live or would have to get used to feeling miserable. When some of these people refused to accept such a prognosis and sought alternatives, they sometimes confounded their conventional physicians by experiencing a reversal of symptoms and enjoying an extended life in reasonable health. Conventional physicians call this reversal “spontaneous healing” and consider it an aberration. Weil, on the other hand, claims that spontaneous healing is a common occurrence, not a rare event. He decries many physicians’ deep pessimism about the human potential for healing, an attitude that they often pass on to their patients. Many of Weil’s stories are examples of spon­taneous healing, while others are samples of dramatic results of using herbs and other benign treatments to rebalance the body’s natural healing responses.

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