This month, Wellness Editor Dr. Karen Ho reviews Dr. Andrew Weil’s latest book, on the question To medicate or not to medicate.
Dr. Andrew Weil’s latest offering, Mind Over Meds, is a treatise on the perils of excessive use of certain medications. At a time when there are more classes of drugs than ever before, and when adverse events for the most common medications are well recognized, his call for conscientious use is most timely.
Dr. Weil is a Harvard-trained physician who practices integrative medicine. For decades, he has advocated therapeutic use of diet, herbal medicine, mind-body techniques including meditation, breathwork and visualization, as well as traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and acupuncture. Given his background, he is well acquainted with conventional medicines, and does not advise against their use. Instead, he presents an argument to examine the benefits and risks of such medications, as well as offering alternative options.
The book is divided into chapters examining the most commonly used over-the-counter and prescribed medications, including antibiotics, sleep aids, psychiatric medications, blood pressure lowering agents, cold and flu medication, steroids as well as pain medications such as anti-inflammatories and opioids. He also discusses over-medication in children and the elderly. Each chapter summarizes recent research into potential harmful effects associated with each of these drug classes. However, he also emphasizes that these same medications can be helpful, indeed essential and lifesaving for certain conditions. He offers practical suggestions in guiding the reader to choose or to avoid medication.
I particularly applaud his rationale for avoidance of medications under certain circumstances, beyond the simple potential for negative side effects. For instance, instead of reaching for antihistamine medication, he advises patients to try breathwork to manage common allergies, by tapping into the body’s inherent relaxation response that can counter immune system overactivity seen in allergic reactions.
Tuning into the breath and examining the roots of one’s stress response is far more beneficial than masking the symptoms. He is also critical of overuse of heartburn medications for treating gastric reflux disease, as symptoms of heartburn can often be traced back to poor diet choices or food combination, emotional stress or overeating. Again, cultivating awareness of these behaviours can lead to more impactful change and greater health in the long run.
Furthermore, he touches upon the detrimental effects of medications on the environment; many medications are eliminated from the body in a form that is still biologically active, landing in our soil and waterways with continual effects on wildlife and ultimately, the human food chain. Medications are increasingly expensive, both for the individual and the collective economy. The cost to our economic system is measured beyond the price tag of a drug, but may extend to greater use of healthcare resources and lost productivity from harm caused by misuse of medication.
Dr. Weil explores some of the complex reasons that medications are currently overused: sloppy and over-prescribing by doctors, aggressive direct-to-consumer drug marketing (particularly in the United States), flawed research supporting the use of certain medications, and a lack of research into non-drug options. As a result, many patients now expect medication to treat all their ailments, and some even demand it from their healthcare practitioner even when it is not warranted.
I both use and prescribe medication, and recognize the validity of drug and non-drug options depending on the circumstances. I found this book to be well-researched and wholly readable, and it presents a balanced view of the landscape. Most of all, I believe that Dr. Weil’s message is an important one in our age of casual pill-popping and pill-as-panacea: we each have a responsibility for our health, from disease prevention to treatment, to educating ourselves on the potential benefits and risks of each of our choices—whether it is to take medication, or to consume certain foods or adopt health-affirming habits, or to support practices that enhance the health of our environment. Dr. Weil’s Mind Over Meds may be a helpful tool in this self-education and journey towards whole health.
Karen Ho, MD, received a medical degree and completed her neurology residency training at Queen’s University Medical School in Kingston. She is currently in private practice in Ottawa, Ontario and also takes part in teaching and mentorship. In her free time, she enjoys the outdoors, dance and visual arts.