Orthomolecular Medicine: An Interview with Abram Hoffer, MD, PhD
Sheila Rogers, MS, Director of ACN: When I was developing the advisory board for ACN Latitudes, I asked a medical editor whom he would recommend as an expert in nutrition. He immediately replied, “Well, of course there’s Abram Hoffer. He’s the best. But he’s also the biggest. I don’t know if he would agree to it.” I wrote to Dr. Hoffer, and in the meanwhile did a little research on just who this doctor was. I soon learned he was the leading authority on nutritional therapy, and his groundbreaking discoveries in the field of psychiatric care have been revolutionary. (More here) The more I read, the more my hopes faded that someone of Dr. Hoffer’s stature would take the time to serve on the board of our fledgling organization. But to my delight, he graciously agreed. Since that time he was not only available for advice, but offered personal support and encouragement that has meant a great deal. Dr. Hoffer passed away in 2009 and is greatly missed.
We are pleased to share this interview with Dr. Hoffer.
Interview by Sheila J. Rogers
Would you please define orthomolecular for our readers?
The term orthomolecular, coined by Dr. Linus Pauling, describes a system of treatment that uses nutrients and normal constituents of the body in optimum amounts as the main treatment.
I understand you became interested in this medical approach in 1951, after you and Dr. Humphrey Osmond discovered that large doses of vitamin B3 could be therapeutic for schizophrenia. What has the response been from the conventional medical community?
After we published our four double-blind clinical studies on schizophrenia and B3, the response from the medical profession was negative. We were too far ahead of the time. In the 1950’s, doctors did not receive any training in nutrition — they followed USDA guidelines and felt no one needed any additional vitamins. The FDA took a very powerful position against the use of supplements. Medical licenses were actually taken away from doctors who recommended vitamins.
By 1960, one or two American psychiatrists were interested, and within the next ten years there were maybe a dozen psychiatrists and myself working together to promote this point of view. We were all interested in working with schizophrenia. We organized the Canadian Schizophrenia Foundation, of which I remain president, and the Huxley Institute of BioSocial research in the States. The Institute has disbanded now, but it did very good work while it existed. Through these organizations we trained a large number of American doctors who were then able to combine nutritional therapy with drug therapy.
Since there’s no good drug treatment for schizophrenia, I should think they would have been very excited about your findings.
Well, I’m sure you know that in medicine it takes about 40 years for a major discovery to be accepted. This timeframe is so common that it’s as if it were bred into our genes. I do think there’s an explanation for it. An account in the Bible says that it took more than 40 years to walk the Hebrews from Egypt to Israel, yet a fast walker today can do it in two weeks. So why did they march around in circles for 40 years? The reason was simple, and the Bible tells us this: Moses was concerned that since most of the population had been born and bred in slavery they wouldn’t have the right mentality to take over a new land. He decided that if he marched them around until that generation died off, he would be left with their sons and daughters. Born and bred in freedom, they would not be pre-impressed and would be open to new ideas. So after 40 years they were ready. In general, it takes two generations for new ideas to be accepted — perhaps even 50 years in medicine because of the huge monolithic medical establishment that has one mission: to preserve its own territory.
We are just past those 40 years now, and the nutritional movement is spreading quickly throughout the world. The International Society of Orthomolecular Medicine has 17 affiliated member countries, and in Brazil alone there are between six to eight thousand doctors practicing orthomolecular medicine. We started out slowly, but the momentum has picked up and I think the opposition is collapsing.
If someone seeks treatment for schizophrenia now, will they probably be told of your nutritional approach?
No. Psychiatry is even ten years further behind. What happens to the average schizophrenic in the U.S. and Canada is that they have tranquilizers thrown at them and often end up in hospitals, though I hesitate to call them hospitals. I’d rather refer to them as filling stations. Just as you take your car to a filling station to get gas, you take your chronic schizophrenic to the hospital to get tranquilizers. They used to treat a patient using the older drugs for about $25 a month; new drugs cost up to $500 a month and have fewer side effects, but they are no more effective. The average schizophrenic, in my opinion, is not treated nearly as well as he was in 1850 when we had no treatment.
In the 1850’s, in Great Britain, Dr. John Conolly was superintendent of a mental hospital and was the first physician to throw the chains off the mentally ill. He treated his patients very well and reported a fifty-percent recovery rate. Fiftypercent! What did he do? He provided them with shelter, cleanliness and nutritious food, and he treated them with dignity. In the same decade, Dorthea Lynn Dix persuaded some of the northeastern areas of the United States to build better mental hospitals. These hospitals also began to report a fifty-percent recovery, and I believe it was true. So, after 150 years of hard work we have now reached the point where conventional treatment can produce a ten-percent recovery! We have gone backward. Some schizophrenics will always need drug therapy. But when they are given only tranquilizers, it is a guarantee that they will never get well.
What attracts you to the orthomolecular approach and what’s the downside–what problems do you encounter with it?
What attracts me is the fact that I get recoveries that no one else is getting. My colleagues are doing the same — it’s not just me; it’s anyone who uses that approach. I really don’t have problems with it, but if I have to find a downside, I would say the process is slower than common medical approaches. When you start people on a good orthomolecular program you don’t get overnight recovery. Doctors are used to giving a patient a tranquilizer and seeing them stupefied the next day. We don’t see such quick results. We have to be very, very patient.
It’s interesting that the first orthomolecular therapists in the states were all psychoanalysts. That’s because they were trained to expect slow results, sometimes requiring several years of therapy. So when they put their schizophrenic patients on vitamins and saw them get well within three to six months, they thought that was fantastic.
Looking at the conditions that we focus on in Latitudes: ADHD, Tourette syndrome, autism, and learning difficulties, what advice do you have?
First of all, I pay little attention to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders put out by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s an unwieldy, useless system of diagnosis. I suggest that for any kind of psychiatric behavior disorder doctors should follow these guidelines: First, determine if there is any physical disease. Does the patient have diabetes, hypoglycemia, a brain tumor, etc. — rule out any physical condition. The next thing to tackle is whether there is a major nutritional problem. Is the person deficient, for example, in B3, B6, or zinc? Then you look at the family tree for allergy or environmental reactions. A large number of the patients I see are allergic to various foods, particularly wheat, milk, and eggs. I have seen many improve just on a four-day rotation diet. So you look at allergies. Then look to see if they are eating nutritionally sound food.
You use the same approach whether you are dealing with children or adults. I can recall a woman who brought her seven-year-old son to see me. I found him to be normal, and asked her why she brought him. She said, “Well, he was repeatedly diagnosed with infantile autism over the last several years. I heard about the importance of allergy and I asked about this at the clinic where he was being treated.” She explained that they’d laughed at her, which annoyed her. So on her own she took him off all wheat and dairy products. And he’s now normal. She took him back to the same clinic, and they at least had the grace to apologize to her.
Let’s say a child comes to me and he’s a very difficult hyperactive child. He has learning problems, the words are inverted when he reads and he doesn’t sleep well — it takes him a long time to get to sleep and he’s having nightmares. When I see a child like that, my first question is, are there any allergies? For these children we are often looking at milk and sugar. I’ve had many kids who improved tremendously just by taking them off dairy products. That’s a big group. The second group are those who need extra vitamin B3 and B6. That’s a large group as well, and these kids respond well to the optimum dose of B3 — that’s niacinamide or niacin, and also B6. After that I add vitamin C. It has just recently been found that milk prevents the absorption of zinc, so people who depend heavily on dairy products are going to be zinc deficient. At this stage, I put them on a program based on the 1,500 neurologically disordered children I’ve seen since 1960. I would say ninety percent of them are well within the first six months.
You can take this same difficult child to ten psychiatrists and come back with ten different diagnoses. But no matter what the diagnosis is, they all put him on Ritalin. Psychiatry is the one branch where the diagnosis means nothing because it doesn’t determine treatment.
How do you determine the specific nutritional deficiencies?
We do that primarily by history and physical examination. And experience helps. We don’t get all the information we need from lab work, though at times I use hair analysis or blood tests. Then, we do a therapeutic trial. It’s certainly cheaper than running thousands of dollars worth of lab tests.
How do you know, for example, if someone is deficient in zinc?
You can see white spots on the fingernails, and both men and women can have skin stretch marks. Women may have PMS. Acne is common, as well as joint pain and complaints of cold extremities. Wounds may not heal well. Depression or other psychiatric symptoms can be present. A zinc deficiency also distorts the sense of taste. There are several other possible symptoms. Of course one doesn’t need to exhibit all of them for a diagnosis.
You mentioned an optimal dose for B vitamins. What does that mean?
I define the optimum dose as the quantity that restores health without causing either unpleasant or dangerous side effects. The optimum dose required to restore health may be too high once the patient has recovered; the maintenance dose will probably be lower. The dose needs to be determined by trial and error, and I describe specifics for optimum doses for each nutrient in some of my books.
What do you think about the newer antidepressants?
I think the new ones are pretty good and I don’t have any major objection to the antidepressants. My major objection is to the tranquilizers. Of course, the antidepressants don’t help everyone. I add the antidepressants only if someone doesn’t respond to the orthomolecular approach.
It’s important to understand that not all depression is caused by nutritional factors. There are some deep-seated depressions that are metabolic diseases of unknown etiology, and they will require antidepressants. There are a small number of cases that will require combinations of antidepressants and even some which will need electro-convulsant treatment. This modern treatment, usually in a series of five to 12 sessions, with the use of anesthetics and other drugs, is remarkably safe. If a patient is deeply suicidal, it can be life-saving.
Do you see a connection between neurological disorders and chemical sensitivity?
Yes I do. There is a definite connection. I used to be puzzled by the fact that some children would respond to nutritional therapy and others would not, though their clinical symptomatology seemed to be the same. I then learned about cerebral allergies and found that the non-responders did have good results once environmental factors and food allergies were addressed.
In addition to recommending adjustments in the environment, one approach orthomolecular medicine takes to chemical sensitivity is to provide nutrients that will improve the immune system-especially vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium. To reduce allergic reactions we may also use some of the better antihistamines.
I’ve very much appreciated this opportunity to interview you. Is there any particular message you would like to leave with our readers?
Nutritional deficiencies must be addressed. If a doctor is not a good nutritionist, he cannot be a good physician.
Quotes by Dr. Abram Hoffer
- Any food allergy can produce almost every known psychiatric syndrome, from infantile autism and schizophrenia to mood and behavioral disorders.
- As with vitamins and other nutrients, for each mineral there is an optimum requirement. Too little will inhibit many important reactions in the body and too much will be toxic.
- If we do not try to improve the nutrition of our children, not only of children clearly suffering from ADD but also of almost every child in our hightech society, we can look forward to another millennium of chronic illness, perhaps so severe as to threaten the species.
- One cannot compensate for a poor diet by taking huge quantities of supplements.
- I would support the idea that all dairy products be labeled with the warning sign applied to cigarette packages, something like Warning, This Product May be Hazardous to Your Health.
- The decade 1970 to 1980 marked the beginning of the mega-vitamin decade. The following decade saw the introduction of mineral supplements on a larger scale. The 1990s could be called the essential fatty acid decade.
—from Hoffer’s Laws of Natural Nutrition