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The Interview

Uplift Rx: Call Doc Woody

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Achamomile poultice.

That's what comes to mind in the company of Woodson Merrell.

"People call me Woody," says the celebrated New York doctor of integrative medicine, who sits across from me, calm and ready to soothe.

In his new self-help book on holistic health, The Source: Beat Fatigue, Power up your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger, Dr. Merrell, whom New York magazine named "a leader of the new millennium," discusses the merits of meditation, moderate exercise, sleep, herbs and his natural 21-day diet plan that has helped rejuvenate his high-profile patients, including Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford.

The chairman of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and a professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons has helped bring alternative practices into the mainstream medical system in the United States.

Now he wants to empower more people to make a change in their lives with simple advice and remedies.

"I said to one patient, who was fanatical about her exercise and diet, that for the next two weeks I wanted her to do one less hour of exercise per day and get an hour and a half more of sleep per night. She was having trouble dropping weight. In two weeks, she had lost three pounds."

He smiles softly from across the table.

"Sometimes, it seems like what I'm recommending is something your grandmother would tell you. People don't think it's important, but evidence now shows that it is," he says.

His hands, when I greeted him, were warm and welcoming as muffins, and about his kindly, boyish face there is the suggestion of a 19th-century country doctor who may drop by in his horse-drawn carriage to sit on your porch and ask how your ailing back is.

"Before the electric light bulb was invented, the average hours of sleep we got was 10.2," he continues from behind his small glasses. "Now it's 6.9." Dr. Merrell recommends eight hours of sleep a night.

"You not only need sleep for adequate energy during the day," he says. "If you don't sleep enough, the body retains fat tenaciously and elevates cortisol," a stress hormone that is linked to weight gain.

Dr. Merrell is a perfect messenger for his message. "I'm one of the good old boys," he says in reference to his preppy, elite education at Amherst College in Massachusetts and Columbia University medical school. Dressed in an open-collared shirt, dark blazer and grey flannel pants, he brings traditional authority to non-traditional medicine.

There is nothing woo-woo about him.

He has come to none of his recommendations casually, and he calmly pats down any burning skepticism with a measured reassurance about his life-long pursuit of scientific proof for alternative health practices.

"I didn't go to medical school to become a doctor," he explains. "I went to medical school because in the sixties I was doing a lot of meditation and yoga, and instructors would often discuss the health implications. I wanted to see if I could put together Asian health practices and metaphysics with Western science. But in the early seventies, there wasn't any science to put those together."

After graduating from medical school, he set up a practice in Manhattan as a general internist, "but I realized that I couldn't help most of my patients," he says. "They weren't sick, but they weren't well. It's almost like they were working on getting sick, because of their lifestyle. Or they had functional issues. At that point, it became clear that I needed other approaches, so I went back to my roots. By the early eighties, some evidence [about alternative medicine] had come in."

He became licensed in acupuncture and trained in nutrition, botanical medicine and homeopathy. Dr. Merrell carefully scrutinizes studies on the performance of natural remedies. "You have to look at the quality of the studies. We look for the gold standard [of traditional medical studies.]"

Still, even if some remedies are not backed by widespread, conclusive studies, he recommends that his patients try them.

"If someone has early-onset arthritis and they don't have severe problems and don't need any drugs except maybe the occasional Advil, why not try glucosamine sulfate if they have no other health risk? Do they need 50,000 [people and] multi-centre trials to prove that it works? There are a couple of studies that show it has some benefits."

He will not endorse some popular practices, such as colonics, and acknowledges that the alternative market is vast and potentially misleading for consumers.

"If it doesn't have a reasonable evidence basis, it's really what we consider alternative, such as ozone therapy and iridology."

One of Dr. Merrell's initiatives was to participate in founding the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (http://www.imconsortium.org) that works with medical schools in the United States and Canada to develop integrated practices in their institutions. They also provide a list of professionally trained practitioners.

Spirituality and quantum physics also inform Dr. Merrell's medical philosophy. He refers to Richard Feynman, the famous American physicist, in a discussion about the power within human beings to heal themselves.

"In one of his books, he said that there is enough energy in a cubic inch of outer space to boil all the oceans on the Earth," he explains, smiling calmly again. "Energy is everywhere. We are all energy. Every system of health care on the planet except for Western medicine recognizes energy as a core concept."

But if he is willing to get a little "alternative" in some of his discussions, Dr. Merrell always returns to the comfortable image of a sensible, reassuring doctor.

"I carry trail mix with me when I travel," he offers at one point. Bed most nights is at 10, explains the father of two, whose wife Kathleen co-authored the book. One of his greatest accomplishments? Another smile: "My daughter raves about kale."

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