Compared to Robert O. Young, Andrew Weil looks reasonable

I never would have thought it possible, but it’s happened.

I’m sure most of you have heard of Dr. Andrew Weil, that champion of quackademic medicine who has made it his life’s mission to bring the woo into academia in the form of training programs to “integrate” quackery with science-based medicine. From his home base at the University of Arizona, he spreads the woo hither and yon throughout academia, racking up big speaking fees wherever he goes and building a multimedia empire of books, DVDs, TV appearances, and Internet presence. Not satistfied, last year in the early stages of the debate over health care reform, Dr. Weil decided to try to influence legislation with Deepak Chopra and Rustum Roy.

What’s particularly infuriating about Dr. Weil is that he is the master of obfuscation, the bait and switch. He paints himself as being all about nutrition and exercise (and who could be against that?), but he assiduously avoids telling anyone exactly what he means by “integrative medicine.” Look at his website. Look at the list of practitioners. Look at a description of the clinic. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a detailed list of what modalities are actually offered at his clinic, other than vague mentions of “nutrition” or “mind-body” medicine. When it comes to “integrating” the woo with scientific medicine, mixing them up in a purée so fine that it’s impossible to tell what’s science-based and what’s not. Knowing my low opinion of Weil, I never thought I’d be taking his side on anything, but in this case I am, albeit not enthusiastically. The reason is that Dr. Weil has met a quack that makes him seem like a paragon of hard core science-based medicine, and that quack is not happy.

We’re talking the master of acid-base woo, Robert O. Young, who has posted a hilarious “rebuttal” to something Weil wrote in one of his newsletters. I must admit that I got a case of the giggles when I saw the title of Young’s rebuttal: The Non-Scientific Statements of Dr. Andrew Weil, MD. Maybe the giggles came from the fact that that could have been a title of a Respectful Insolence post, except that I would never come up with a title that boring. Or maybe they came from the extreme irony of seeing Young accuse anyone, even Dr. Weil, of being unscientific, given his history. After all, this is a man who clams that all cancer is due to excess acid, proclaimed viruses to be “molecular acids,”, denied that sepsis is caused by bacteria, and labels cancer as not cell at all but rather “a poisonous acidic liquid.” The result has been that Young has managed to dupe cancer patients into foregoing effective treatment in favor of quackery.

I guess this is what Weil gets for actually being reasonable for a change. Basically, Young points to a newsletter where Weil debunked the claim that alkaline water promotes health, saying:

Home water ionizers, which I’ve seen offered for sale on the internet, are just the latest twist in the ongoing effort to promote the notion that alkaline water is somehow protective of your health. The underlying idea is that you can prevent disease by balancing your body’s pH. Promoters claim that alkaline water is energizing, hydrates the body more effectively than regular water, improves the taste of food when used in cooking, promotes “regularity,” helps the body absorb nutrients more effectively, and on and on. I’ve even seen claims that it can cure everything from obesity and high blood pressure to breast cancer.

None of these claims are true. Furthermore, your body needs absolutely no help in adjusting its pH.

As much as I hate to say it, Dr. Weil is correct. Except in the case of certain specific diseases, the body is perfectly capable of regulating its own pH. Indeed, the pH of the blood is tightly regulated within a narrow range between around 7.35 to 7.45, with “normal” pH considered to be 7.4. This is slightly alkaline, as neutral pH is 7, but that’s not what Young is talking about. This is:

Dr. Robert O, Young, Ph.D. states, “There are NO dis-ease or diseases without being too acidic. You cannot have loss of energy, irritation, catarrh, inflammation, ulceration or degeneration without acid. You cannot be sick and alkaline.

I had to stop right here, because this is the most utter nonsense that I’ve heard in a long time. Many are the conditions that can lead to a metabolic alkalosis, including congestive heart failure, cirrhosis, various forms of hyperaldosteronism, and others. It is quite possible to be sick and alkaline; sometimes being alkaline is a manifestation of systemic disease. In other words, Young is a medical moron. But, then, you knew that already, and if you didn’t this next passage should hammer the point home:

So if the body needs no help in adjusting its pH then why does it get sick. When we understand that the body is alkaline by design and acidic by function then we understand that the body does need help in maintaining its alkaline design with proper alkaline food, drink, exercise, thoughts and deeds. The basic knowledge that the body is alkaline by design and acidic by function is NOT taught at medical school.

If the body needs no help adjusting its blood oxygen content, then why does it get sick? If the body has no problem regulating the electrolyte content of its blood, then why does it get sick? if the body needs no help in maintaining its level of red blood cells, then why does it ever get anemic? Because shit happens, that’s why! Disease causes you to get sick, which may be manifest by any number of abnormalities and derangements in physiology, one of which can be, depending upon the disease, a metabolic acidosis. Even in that case, though, the body is quite good at compensating through a respiratory alkalosis. These compensatory mechanisms only break down when the insult due to disease is so great and/or persistent that the body’s ability to compensate fails.

As for the complaint that the “basic knowledge” that the body is “alkaline by design and acidic by function” isn’t taught in medical school, it depends on what you mean. Acid-base physiology was taught in nauseating, excruciatingly painful detail in my medical school, and, from what I know of the curriculum of my current medical school, it is also taught in mind-numbing detail. It’s such a critical topic in human physiology that I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be taught in every medical school as a major component of physiology classes. Indeed, it is impossible to understand human physiology without understaning at least the basics of acid-base balance and how it is regulated.

The only germ of truth that Young mentions is that the body does produce excess acid from its metabolic processes. But guess what? The kidneys are very good at getting rid of those excess H+ ions by excreting them into the urine, where they are bound by various proton acceptors, such as ammonia and, well, pissed into the toilet. Indeed, the tag team of the lungs and kidneys are very good at regulating bicarbonate ion concentration through a combination of respiration (which regulates it within minutes) and the ability to excrete or hold onto bicarbonate (which regulates over the long term). Thanks to these mechanisms, the body doesn’t need a constant intake of “alkaline” food or other source of alkaline. As for treating disease, routine alkalinization of the blood is not recommended except for a relatively few conditions where urine alkalinization is therapeutic, such as to prevent the formation of certain forms of kidney stones. But to Young, acid is everything:

Both steps involve H+ or proton or acid secretion from the cells of the kidney into the urine. That is why we age. Aging is actually a fermenting and acidic process. The body has an alkaline buffering system which helps to maintain alkalinity, but when this becomes compromised from an over acidic lifestyle and diet, you start having the symptoms of dis-ease and disease caused by metabolic acidic waste products. So, absolutely you should make daily attempts to increase alkalinity with alkaline ionized water and food to prevent and/or reverse dis-ease and disease.

He even makes a hilarious analogy:

You would have to do some serious alkalizing just to keep up with the body’s need for more alkalinity. But that is why we age–or should I say “ferment” from over-acidity. Which by the way, I might add, is why ALL disease or most dis-ease is a result of excess acid and NOT excess base(alkalinity). This was proven by Alexis Carrel in his chicken experiment in 1908. Carrel received a Nobel prize for this research. He was able to keep a chicken heart alive for 20 years until he decided to stop changing the alkaline mineral salts every 48 hours. What we learn from Alexis Carrel’s work is that you can keep the body cells alive indefinitely if you maintain the alkaline mineral salts daily.

I’m rather puzzled, as–surprise! surprise!–Young’s description doesn’t jibe with, oh, you know…history. In actuality, Dr. Carrel’s chicken heart cells survived for 32 years and were intentionally terminated after his death. It’s also been noted that Carrell’s experiment has never been fully duplicated. In any case, Carrel “proved” nothing of the sort. All he demonstrated was the feasibility of keeping a certain type of cell alive almost indefinitely in a defined nutrient medium.

But to Young, besides being unhealthy, “excess acid” can change one cell type to another:

The human cell cannot tolerate low alkalinity and can never tolerate ANY acid condition. The cell begins its biological transformation becoming bacteria in the first stage; then yeast in the second stage; then mold in the 3rd stage of transformation until the anatomical elements of the organized cell (microzymas) are released to become part of some other organized cell.

This is germ theory denialism, plain and simple. Basically, it’s regurgitated Bechamps. Well, actually, it’s regurgitated Enderlein, who proposed that “endobionts” that live inside the cells can change form from the Primitive Stage (microbe), to the Middle Stage (bacteria), to the End Stage (fungus). Although it might have been understandable that scientists could have mistaken these forms for being the same, but that’s what science is good at: Figuring out that they aren’t the same organisms and that human cells do not turn into bacteria; bacteria do not turn into yeast; and yeast do not turn into mold. Such a thing may have seemed plausible 150 years ago, but not today. Yet Young, and other germ theory denialist quacks, try to tell you that if you just keep your body “alkaline enough,” you are invulnerable to bacteria, which is not just a font of burning stupid, but a dangerous font of burning stupid.

Young is a perfect example of one aspect of quacks that distinguishes them from practitioners of science-based medicine. Science-based medicine recognizes the complexity of disease; it delves into that complexity, trying to make sense out of it and use that knowledge to develop better treatments for disease. Quacks choose to make sense of disease another way, and that way would be insulting to disease, if disease had feelings, in that they often tend to boil all disease down to one cause or a hadful of tightly related causes. I’ve often wondered why. It’s more than just the fact that they don’t understand the science behind disease. After all, Young appears to understand acid-base science, but he only understands it at a very superficial level, demonstrating once again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing–particularly to those reading his tripe.

In the end, my guess is that boiling down all cancer–or even all disease–servess at least one purpose, besides soaking the marks by giving quacks a patter that even the uneducated can understand. Humans crave explanations and control. If science can’t give it to them, maybe pseudoscience can. The sense of control then comes from embracing the alt-med idea that you can control everything about your help, that you will be invincible if you only eat the right foods, take the right supplements, and do the right exercises. The flip side of that, of course, is that if you become seriously ill–for instance, with cancer–it’s your fault for not doing these things.

Is it any wonder why I despise these quacks to much?