A Salute to Abram Hoffer

DRUG BUST Alan Cassels

ON MY DESK sits a book called Cholesterol Control Without Diet: The Niacin Solution by Will Parsons. Inside is the following inscription, handwritten in pen:

Dear Abram:
None of this could have happened but for you bringing the niacin idea to the Mayo Clinic where it found the way to me. It was meant to be. My best to you and Rose always. Stay well and enjoy each day!
Bill Parsons 8-1-98

Abram Hoffer lent me this book and I regret I am too late to give it back to him in person. He passed away in May, a man whose huge set of accomplishments was never fully appreciated during his lifetime. However, over time, he will likely eventually be recognized as a giant among giants.

His death prompts a reflection about the type of healthcare we’ve created for ourselves in the 21st century, where despite the craziness, the dominance of the pharmaceutical industry and the often degrading levels to which healthcare can sink, there are men like Abram Hoffer who work all their lives toward a better, kinder, more humane treatment of illness.

A few years ago, I arranged to meet Dr. Hoffer at his office – the “Orthomolecular Vitamin Information Centre” – on the third floor of a small complex on Quadra Street in Victoria. In his late eighties at the time, he had a sharp mind and eyes that sparkled with intellectual curiosity. He invited me in and offered me a seat as he hunkered down at his desk across from me. He said he liked my book Selling Sickness and I immediately warmed to him. He wasn’t practising medicine anymore, but he kept an office to do nutritional consulting for patients. I admitted to him that I was on a sleuthing mission. I wanted to find out why orthomolecular medicine, or the use of high dose vitamins in the treatments of disease, was having such a hard time being accepted by mainstream medicine. (I wrote about this in "Monopoly Medicine Squashes the Alternatives," August 2006, Common Ground. See Archives at www.commonground.ca.) I came there to ask a simple question: Why has vitamin therapy – the use of mega-doses of vitamins as the cure for a variety of diseases – never really taken off?

If anyone knew the answer to this question, it was Abram Hoffer. He was a pioneer in this field, his work extending as far back as the 1950s when he was testing the uses of high doses of vitamin B-3 (as high as three to 12 or more grams daily) in treating schizophrenia. He also experimented with the use of vitamin C, vitamin B-6, zinc, vitamin B complex and selenium. Along with medications, he used these vitamins to treat a range of illnesses. The one thing about Hoffer that definitely labelled him "Old School" is that he spoke of curing people and curing diseases. Today, that language seems almost quaint when contrasted with current medical industry rhetoric that studiously avoids the notion of "cure." The best we can hope for from pharma-dominated medical care is palliation of symptoms. Nobody speaks of cures anymore – cures are not profitable; cures are passé.

Fifty years after he started his research, Hoffer was still talking about cures. He coined the term "pandeficiency disease," which he said was disease that could be cured by addressing a multiple deficiency of vitamins. In a paper he sent me after my visit, he said that to understand mental illness one needed to understand "pandeficiency disease" and for him it was essential to study nutrient deficiencies in treating all kinds of illness, not just mental illness.

The modern way of treating psychiatric illnesses troubled him deeply, "The diagnostic scheme [in psychiatry] is so awful I have discarded it entirely," he wrote to me. He added, "Patients today would do well to avoid psychiatry like the plague and instead if they agree to experiment upon themselves, which is what their psychiatrist will do, to try each drug one after another until they find one that has no side effects and does help them. Unfortunately they won’t find many."

In our visit, Hoffer told me how using large doses of vitamins to treat people with mental illness was not only safe, but often successful. He said that of the thousands of schizophrenic patients he had treated, 85 percent were "normal" after two years of treatment. By "normal" he meant that his patients were returning to productive lives within society, able to do productive work and have relationships and so on. You certainly can’t say that of the current batch of popular anti-psychotics – drugs like Zyprexa, Risperidal or Seroquel – being prescribed like candy today. In fact, those drugs likely do the opposite; they ensure you will never return to your relationships or work. Hoffer’s work is full of case histories dating back to the beginning of the 1960s. They are described in more than 30 books and 600 publications in both the establishment and alternative press. Much of his work is published in The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, which he started. Unfortunately, this journal is not indexed on Med Line, the world’s premier medical indexing agency, and proponents of orthomolecular medicine, like Hoffer, call this a form of official censorship orchestrated by the anti-orthomolecular establishment. I say it’s just another example of how hard it is for rebels to penetrate the medical orthodoxy.

Orthomolecular medicine is a field that has essentially been sidelined and marginalized by orthodox medicine, despite the work of profile researchers like Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel Prizes. Just ask anyone who treats cancer patients or schizophrenics whether they would consider using high-dose vitamin therapy and they will likely look at you as if you’re some kind of quack. Hoffer admits that most physicians believe nutrition plays a large part in the healing arts, but nutrition is largely not taught in medical school (except if you study naturopathy where maybe 30 percent of your education goes to studying nutrition). Modern medicine will say – without a hint of deviousness – that there’s no evidence for those therapies. End of story.

To counter this, Hoffer could point to double-blind placebo studies that are five decades old, using vitamin B-3, also known as niacin (three grams per day) which he was testing – and found effective – in treating schizophrenia in 1952.

Unfortunately, Hoffer began this research at a time when the new forms of powerful psychiatric drugs were just being developed by pharmaceutical firms and enthusiastically embraced by psychiatrists as the "modern" way to treat severe mental disturbances. In my telephone interview with Andrew Saul, assistant editor of The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, he confirmed that Hoffer was considered an early threat by the pharmaceutical establishment and that as he started to publish his research, the psychiatric profession basically closed ranks behind him.

"They wanted to make sure that this upstart wouldn’t produce any conflicting treatments," Saul told me, adding that although Hoffer’s early research was published, "he was warned from psychiatry that he would never publish again." Hoffer then began his own journal.

If Hoffer had been taken seriously, we would not currently see drugs like Lipitor, the biggest selling drug in the history of the world. (Pfizer sold $14 billion worth of this cholesterol-lowering drug last year.) Fifty years ago, Hoffer produced scientific evidence that niacin lowered cholesterol levels (and, incidentally, does so without the cost or safety issues associated with statins – drugs like Lipitor). Abram Hoffer managed to convince Dr. William Parsons, the senior resident at the Mayo Clinic, to study and confirm his findings, which he did. I’m holding Parson’s book in my hands as proof.

As Hoffer wrote, "In spite of the fact that there have been no negative studies and thousands of positive reports, even today niacin is not used, as it has no advertising to promote it. Drugs today are made popular, not by the quality of their activity and freedom from side effects, but by the size of the advertising budget (think Vioxx)."

Somewhat of a visionary, Hoffer conceded that it would take time for his theories to penetrate modern medicine. "I have for many years predicted that it would take about 40 years before megavitamin therapy would become widely accepted. I had started the clock at 1957 when we first published our paper describing the use of large doses of vitamin B3 for the treatment of acute schizophrenia. I assumed that by the year 1997, this would become the recognized best treatment," he wrote.

Sadly, it isn’t and it probably isn’t even on the radar of most psychiatrists who treat severe mental illness. I don’t know if Hoffer’s research will stand the test of time, but I do know the pharma-dominated world we live in tends to detest rebels like Hoffer. Near the end of his days, I saw that Abram Hoffer was sad and perhaps a bit resigned to the current range of treatments for the mentally ill at this dawn of a new millennia. Irrational, inhumane and exuberant prescribing of toxic drugs is de rigueur, led by a psychiatry profession embarrassingly monopolized by the pharmaceutical industry. He shook his head at the ignorance of a medical profession that nonchalantly over-drugged energetic children with stimulants, mildly unhappy people with antidepressants, and the elderly and mentally ill with ineffective and toxic antipsychotic drugs.

Once we are through this period of craziness, I think there will be a reassessment of the work of people like Abram Hoffer. At the very least, he will be recognized as one key voice of reason – someone who recommended compassion and respect for the mentally ill, offering effective, supportive environments with modest doses of effective drugs and high doses of various vitamin therapies. It may take another half-century before medicine fully appreciates the work of Hoffer and starts to embrace and test his vitamin theories, but I hope not.

Maybe his death will at least galvanize some serious medical attention to his theories and help steer current medical practice towards the kinds of honourable, first-do-no-harm-type medicine that characterizes the best that medicine can offer.

*Frances Fuller, an orthomolecular consultant who received her training from Dr. Hoffer and worked with him for many years, is now running the Orthomolecular Vitamin Information Centre and seeing clients. Suite 3A-2727 Quadra Street, Victoria, BC, 250-386-8756, ffuller@islandnet.com www.orthomolecularvitamincentre.com.

For more information about orthomolecular medicine, visit www.orthomed.org

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and author of The ABCs of Disease Mongering.

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