The relationship of Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, with niacin therapy is controversial. I first became aware of Bill W. and A.A. in Dr. Abram Hoffer’s book How to Live with Schizophrenia. ‘PASS IT ON’ the biography of Bill Wilson also discusses this chapter in A.A.’s development.
Dr. Abram Hoffer used megadoses of niacin to treat his schizophrenic and alcoholic patients because his research indicated that they were suffering from a vitamin B3 deficiency, similar to what is seen with pellagra. Pellagra is cured by introducing B3 into the diet just like scurvy is cured by ingesting vitamin C. One indication of a possible vitamin B3 deficiency is nicotine or alcohol addiction, another is severe acne.
I wish I had known about vitamin B3 when Chris developed severe acne as a teenager. Instead, I put him on medication. There may be no causal connection whatsoever, but within a few months of going off the medication, Chris was starting to develop psychosis. He may have already been developing early signs of psychosis due to the acne.
Vitamin B3 also lowers blood cholesterol. I can personally attest to this. I take 3 grams of niacinimide every day and six grams of vitamin C, along with a B complex vitamin. Every two years I see the company medical service for a check-up. The doctor remarks that while my good cholesterol is somewhat elevated, my “bad” cholesterol readings are the lowest she has ever seen.
I am a big fan on megavitamin therapy because I have personally experienced the results. So it is a bit troubling to read that Bill W., who also found niacin therapy very helpful in treating his addictions, parted ways with A.A. over niacin.
‘PASS IT ON’ describes the rift that developed over Bill W. endorsing a product or ethos that was outside of A.A.’s considered mandate. Now, apart from the fact that Bill W. may have been overzealous in trying to convert others in the organization to the benefits of niacin, I question why an organization dedicated to helping people with alcohol problems wouldn’t be more open-minded on the subject of vitamin therapy. Vitamins are not patented. You can buy whatever brand of niacin and vitamin C you choose, and they will all be more or less the same. Bill W. didn’t appear to be saying that A.A. should be aligning itself with a certain vitamin producing company or brand of vitamins. He was saying that A. A. could be aligning itself with the belief that alcoholics could also improve their health with niacin.
Having read both Dr. Hoffer’s and A.A.’s book, I now understand how the alcoholism came to be viewed as a disease. Prior to the vitamin research done in the 1940s, alcoholism was viewed as a moral weaknesses. The beginnings of A.A. grew out of the Oxford Group, which took a more Christian attitude to the problems of alcoholism. Indeed, it was Carl Jung who advised Roland H. to find a religious experience if he was ever going to beat this. Bill W. got quite far in his recovery from alcoholism by subscribing to the A.A. 12 steps, but he also became interested in the biochemical model of alcoholism when he met Doctors Hoffer and Osmond, who had initially introduced him to LSD. He felt that the LSD experience was beneficial, and he further benefited from the niacin work done by the same doctors.
To me, Bill W. was doing what responsible people should when it comes to their own health, which is to be open-minded to more than one intervention. A.A. embraced the alcoholism as disease concept, but fell short of presenting further information to its members about vitamins that they could choose to follow or not. There is a lesson here about organizations and your freedom to choose. Take the best of what they can offer, but keep in mind that your allegiance is to your own health. There will often be a conflict.