At 88, Dr. Abram Hoffer is still dispensing wise nutritional advice and damning critiques of our health care system. On beginnings, orthomolecular medicine, psychedelic research, a revolutionary treatment for schizophrenia, and the state of present-day psychiatric care.
No Canadian psychiatrist has been simultaneously more dogged by controversy and more beloved by his patients than Victoria’s Dr. Abram Hoffer.
In an era when most psychiatrists believe in medicating for life, Hoffer has been a one-man “underground railroad” helping unchain patients from tranquillizing drugs.
Yet that’s not the reason he’s controversial.
Upon going to work as Director of Psychiatric Research for the Province of Saskatchewan in 1950, Hoffer and colleague Dr. Humphry Osmond became trailblazers.
They were one of the earliest institutional teams using psychedelics for therapy. They provided Aldous Huxley with the mescaline that led to his famous treatise, “The Doors of Perception”, which in part inspired Timothy Leary’s Harvard research and the psychedelic 60s. Hoffer also visited Prague, helping spark the 20th century’s other major psychedelic researcher, Dr. Stanislav Grof.
Teaming with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, they then became internationally renowned for research into “megavitamin” treatments, and founded “orthomolecular medicine“.
But most controversially, Hoffer and Osmond were the first to develop a biochemical theory and proclaimed cure for schizophrenia.
For all this, they’ve been attacked by fellow professionals and medical and psychiatric organizations. In the 50s, psychiatry was dominated by Freudian psychoanalysts who believed schizophrenia was caused by sexual repression-Hoffer’s vitamin experiments in mental biochemistry seemed quackery at best, and dangerous overdosing at worst. Ironically, when tranquillizing drugs became the trend, Hoffer was ridiculed for using “ineffectual” chemicals. Still today, the U.S. National Institute of Health refuses to include the Hoffer-edited Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine in its “Medline” library of medical journals–though it includes Time and Reader’s Digest.
But slowly, many orthomolecular discoveries are being verified. For example, large doses of vitamin B-3 are now standard treatment for helping lower cholesterol, and the unusual skin reactions of many people diagnosed with schizophrenia to topical B-3 is being extensively analyzed.
Nevertheless, Hoffer’s cantankerous new memoir, Adventures in Psychiatry (KOS, 2006), shows he remains an outsider. At 88, he retired from private psychiatric practice last year and now provides nutritional consultations through his Orthomolecular Vitamin Information Centre.
RW: Was there anything in your childhood in Saskatchewan that inspired your independent thinking?
H: I admired my parents. They came out to settle the land in 1904 on the bald prairies. It was a huge farm. We had 80 cattle, 40 horses, sheep, grain. We had as many as 29 men working for us, and I’d be working with them, cutting and raking and stooking. It was backbreaking work. You might have ten hours a day seeing no one-just working. You have to develop some sense of reliance on yourself. And I got to the point that I would sooner look upon things myself rather than take people’s opinion of them.
RW: You went to university to study agricultural chemistry, but became interested in nutrition. Why?
H: I got a job in Winnipeg in Purity Flour Mills. They’d just started adding vitamins to their flour. I was in charge of the control lab, testing to see if there was enough. Eventually I got a PhD in biochemistry, and I got in the public debate between those who said you should only eat whole wheat flour, and those who said you should eat white flour with added vitamins. I realized that I didn’t have an MD so no one was listening to me, anyway. So I said, okay, I’d better take an MD.
RW: And why eventually psychiatry?
H: During my internship at a hospital, I had to do histories. “Chief complaint: pain, right lower quadrant. Present: five hours. Diagnosis: acute pendicitis.” That’d take me three minutes. But then a patient comes along and says, “I’ve got pain here, and it’s bothered me for years. Whenever I do this, it gets worse.” I’d check him over, do a physical, couldn’t find anything wrong. I’d get very interested, thinking, if there’s nothing wrong, what’s he complaining about? I’d spend hours with him talking. I began to realize there’s something more to health than just the physical aspect. I wanted to combine psychiatry, medicine and biochemistry.
RW: How did that lead back to nutrition?
H: I was Saskatchewan’s Director of Psychiatric Research from 1950 to 1967. We had 5,000 inmates in the hospital, half of them were schizophrenic, and we had no treatment. An admission to a mental hospital in 1950 was a life sentence.
And the hospitals were absolutely awful. Huge ward, no rooms, concrete floors. They didn’t give them showers; they’d flush them down with the hose. They looked upon them like vermin.
Dr. Osmond had this great idea. He said that if you gave normal people mescaline, it’s very much like the schizophrenic experience.
I surveyed all the known hallucinogens, and to my utter amazement and delight, they all had a single structure called “indole”. This was an enormous clue. The body doesn’t make these very often.
Adrenalin can become an indole when it oxidizes into adrenochrome. We proved that adrenochrome was active. It’s a hallucinogen, but not a nice one. With adrenochrome, you always get a bad, horrible reaction.
Now under stress, humans start pouring out adrenaline. Adrenalin is very dangerous. Normally we get rid of it by doing something-muscles use it up. The body also uses antioxidants like vitamin C, E, and glutathione. If these mechanisms fail, there’s one final fail-safe mechanism: copper and iron in the body change the adrenaline to adrenochrome. But that creates a huge overload of adrenochrome.
RW: This might explain why psychotic eruptions often occur when people are already experiencing intense stress and not exercising, not eating well…
H: Yes, we had the first theory that logically put together the effect of stress in causing illness.
I knew from my chemistry that if I were to use large amounts of niacin, vitamin B-3, I might prevent the body from reacting to the adrenochrome. So we ran double-blind, controlled experiments using niacin, and after that I began to treat individually. I’ve treated over 5,000 patients, and the results are so much better than if you just depend upon drugs alone.
RW: If common niacin is an antidote, why is schizophrenia epidemic?
H: If I stumble and fall, what caused me to fall? There are so many factors involved. You can’t find the cause. I like to talk about the factors you can modify.
In 1800, flour millers began to make pure white flour which had no B-3 anymore. And the first clinical description of schizophrenia was made about 1800. If you were to make sure that every child in Canada started eating flour that contained enough B-3, I suspect that schizophrenia would disappear.
What I’m saying is not that revolutionary; it just appears to be. In the southeast United States a hundred years ago, every spring one-third of their admissions to their mental hospitals were psychotic because they actually had pellagra, a disease of B-3 deficiency. They were very poor and they lived on corn, salt pork, and the odd green; a terrible diet.
RW: Today’s schizophrenics don’t usually have pellagra. You believe some people have adrenochrome-pumping genes that make them need more B-3?
H: Yes. Schizophrenics have excellent genes. I wish I had them. They hardly ever get cancer. Adrenochrome kills cancer cells; I think the gene is nature’s answer to the cancer pandemic. On the psychological side, they’re brilliant: artists, scientists, poets, philosophers.
The problem is, we don’t feed these genes properly. If you have a million dollar car and you put water in the gas tank, is it going to perform very much for you?
RW: Next, you started noticing vitamin treatments were helping arthritis, high cholesterol, cancer, child behaviour problems, senility…
H: They’re all connected. Orthomolecular medicine is an advance on medicine, where we now begin to pay proper attention to food, what’s present in the food, what’s lacking, and use extra nutrients when they’re needed. We use medication, but in very small, optimum quantities.
RW: Even your critics concede not enough large-scale research has been done to adequately test your ideas. Why such disinterest or disrespect from other professionals?
H: The main reason is Big Pharma. They’re pushing drugs. They certainly don’t want to sell vitamins, when there’s no patent on them.
Also, there’s a reluctance to change in medicine. Paradigms are not easily changed. This is natural; it’s the history of innovation.
And there’s the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons; their job is to be sure any heretic gets burnt at the stake. In Washington State, they have this Quality Control Assurance Commission, and they’re attacking all the holistic doctors. Yet there were about five hundred charges of sexual offenses (against MDs), where in half of them nothing was done. And the others were just slapped on the wrist!
So they’re just protecting their turf. Why did the Catholic Church fight so hard against the Reformation? Because they’d lose their jobs, they’d lose their control. Right now they can’t cut off our heads, but they can take away our licences, and destroy our professional lives.
In 1967, the pressure from Canadian psychiatry was becoming so great that I was no longer able to speak freely because of my (prominent) appointments. I asked myself the question, ‘Who are you doing this for? For your patients? Or for the profession that doesn’t even want to look at it?’ And the answer was immediate. I went into private practice in Saskatchewan, and then here.
If I’d wanted to make a lot of money, I’d've kept my damn mouth shut.
RW: Who are your allies, then? What keeps you motivated?
H: The people. When people hear about what we’re doing, they become very excited and very interested. And when you see a patient who gets well, isn’t that great motivation? It’s fantastic motivation.
RW: What do you think of mainstream psychiatric care today?
H: It’s terrible. They don’t help anyone. In the 1800s, the Quakers developed “Moral Treatment” of the insane. They gave them good food, good shelter, and treated them with kindness and civility. No drugs. No psychotherapy. No psychoanalysis.
Half got well. Isn’t that amazing?
Also, this is the natural recovery rate in India and all these countries where they can’t afford to buy drugs: almost half the patients get well spontaneously. But guess what North America’s recovery rate is today in schizophrenia? It’s 10 percent.
You cannot ever get well if you have to depend upon drugs only. They’re good, but you have to use them cautiously, and in the right dose, and get rid of them as fast you can. They’re dangerous. Our clients are getting fat, their cholesterols and triglycerides are going up, diabetes is going way up. And you can’t be creative on drugs.
RW: Do you feel similar problems have affected our health care system?
H: The whole system is sick. One in two Canadians are sick, if you add up the people with arthritis, senility, addictions, mental illnesses, the diabetes epidemic…
It’s absolutely terrible. I connect it to the fact that the medical schools don’t teach nutrition. Also, they’ve been taken over by Big Pharma.
We had a case in Victoria many years ago where a woman in hospital for six months got scurvy. In hospital!
RW: Do you feel you’ll ultimately win?
H: Yeah. We’re gonna win. Truth eventually wins. It may take too long.
Actually, we’re starting to win now. We’ve got a big clinic in Tokyo. (Israel’s) Ben Gurion University is doing a controlled schizophrenia study like I did in 1952. University of Kansas just created a Chair of Orthomolecular Medicine. The Canadian Medical Association Journal just published a study on intravenous vitamin C that involved four highly prestigious organizations.
So we’re at a transition point. If I live another 4 or 5 years, I’ll see it. I’m really very happy the way it’s moving now.
RW: And how are you feeling physically?
H: I feel great. I could be better. I’m not physically as well as I should be. I’m getting stronger though; I do a lot of work. I have a personal trainer. Calisthenics and balance exercises and things like that. So I can now walk more or less walk correct, whereas four years ago I was developing old man’s gait. I take all the vitamins, 50 pills a day. The last time I got a cold was 50 years ago.
And of course I find life very exciting. My frustration stirs me up, so I’m always fighting.
Originally published in Focus, August 2006.