Alcoholics Anonymous Founder Bill Wilson's Long-Lost Treatment Paradigm By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 7/13/17 - 2:32 PM

When I gear up to read a blog I invariably have the same thought: Tell me something I don't know.
In this blog I am going to fulfill that promise for my readers since I have never encountered a psychotherapist or addiction counselor who knows what I am about to share. (If you are the one in a million exception, please accept my apology.) So make yourself comfortable and let's get this party started.

Let's begin with something you do know. In the summer of 1935 Bill W (aka Bill Wilson) and Dr. Bob (actually Dr. Bob Smith, birth name Robert Holbrook) conducted the first Alcoholics Anonymous or AA group. Since this initial meeting AA has helped more individuals than any group on record.

Make no mistake about it. Bill Wilson loved AA and he believed in it with every fiber in his body. But two key factors prohibited this from being the end of the story. First, although AA helped Bill W deal with his alcoholism, it did nothing to curb his anxiety and depression. Second, as powerful as AA was it didn't work for everybody.

Now fast forward from 1935 to the year 1960. Bill Wilson decided to attend a parapsychology conference in New York City. It was there that the famed British Writer and AA supporter, Aldous Huxley, introduced Wilson to two esteemed psychiatrists, Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond.

These psychiatrists shared with Wilson a promising new treatment for alcoholics and schizophrenics dubbed vitamin B3 or niacin therapy. He was fascinated by their research.

Wilson began ingesting a bomber's load of the nutrient, 3 grams daily, only to report that his lifelong battle with depression and anxiety lifted in just 14 days! Is that amazing or what? I mean, seriously, it sounds like something right out of an infomercial airing at 2 AM after the one for Tony Robbins' self-improvement materials. Here was an ordinary over-the -counter vitamin that when ingested in the proper dosage was a fast acting remedy for alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. And, as a side effect it helped lower the so-called bad cholesterol.

Wilson took immediate action and prescribed his miracle like intervention to AA friends who were described as educated. Others were said to be celebrities. According to Wilson, the results were nothing short of amazing.

Wilson was brimming with enthusiasm and forged on to share his knowledge with the doctors of AA. These were physicians who were alcoholics and therefore attending AA groups. But here is where the gauntlet began to fall and nothing was ever quite powerful enough to reverse the pattern.

The International Organization of AA, despite the fact that the members were appointed by Bill W, and he considered them friends, were not happy campers. Wilson, as they pointed out, was not a licensed physician and thus had no business extolling the virtues of vitamin therapy.

Bill Wilson spent the last eleven years of his life spreading the word about vitamin B3 therapy as a treatment option or supplement to AA groups. Wilson tried to rally the troops by creating three powerful booklets over the years to AA physicians, but it fell on deaf ears.

So who killed vitamin B3 or niacin therapy? Why was AA embraced by millions, while B3 niacin therapy never made it out of the starting blocks?

Certainly, I don't pretend to have the answer. Scores of reasons could be cited, but here are a few that just seem to make sense. Also keep in mind that nearly everybody is a great Monday morning quarterback. Had I been in Bill W's shoes at the time I might have done exactly what he did.

Who killed vitamin B 3 niacin therapy?

  1. The niacin flush. Unlike the tiny amount of B3 included in a typical multiple vitamin supplement, in order to import a clinical impact, the dose of niacin (also known as nicotinic acid) generally has to be high enough to induce a flush replete with itching and profound warmth. The effect is so pronounced that individuals taking niacin often mistake these symptoms for a heart attack or stroke and end up in the ER or an acute care facility. In all fairness, a very small percentage of the population finds the experience pleasurable.
  2. AA traditions. Tradition six suggests AA won't endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any outside enterprise or facility. Tradition ten suggests that AA has no opinions on outside issues, hence AA cannot become involved in a public controversy.
  3. The American Psychiatric Association. In 1973 the organization revealed they could not duplicate Dr. Hoffer's data and therefore could not promote niacin therapy. Rumors surfaced that large doses of niacin caused liver problems. Hoffer, who boasted he took more B3 than anybody on the planet, remained healthy until he passed away at age 91. He denied all claims that niacin was responsible for liver difficulties and went as far as to say it promoted longevity. Before he passed away he discovered a Canadian woman named Mary MacIsaac who took massive doses of B3 for 42 years. She practiced cross country skiing at age 110 and lived until age 112! Okay, I think I'll have what she was taking. Yes, it's clearly N=1 data, but I think it's safe to say that most supercentenarians don't spend the better part of the day on a ski slope.
  4. Morbid fears related to the practice of orthomolecular psychiatry. Orthomolecular psychiatry (I'll pause while you Google it), a term coined by two time Nobel Prize recipient, Dr. Linus Pauling in 1968, is basically individualized mega-vitamin/nutrient therapy. B3 or niacin therapy fit neatly into this treatment category. The idea that patients might be diagnosing themselves and then heading for the nearest pharmacy or health food store to buy niacin on a BOGO sale just didn't sit well with mainstream psychiatrists. To be sure, the pharmaceutical companies marketing psychiatric medicinals were not overly thrilled either.
  5. Forget the doctors of AA, Bill Wilson should have taken his message to the masses. I am thoroughly convinced that Bill W pitched his ideas to the wrong population. In my humble opinion if he had penned a self-help book on the topic B3 niacin therapy might well have become a household word. This was the 1960s and early 1970s for gosh sakes and titles like I'm O.K.—You're O.K., How to be Your Own Best Friend, and Born to Win were shaping American culture, not to mention the landscape of mental health.
Today, vestiges of niacin treatment live on in the minds of longevity seekers, the alternative health movement, and nutritionally minded cardiologists hell bent on shaving another silly little point off your LDL cholesterol score using straight niacin or a modern slow release version which may or may not eliminate flushing.

Had Bill W been successful in his mission to incorporate vitamin B3 niacin therapy into AA the entire face of addiction and mental health treatment might have looked very different today.
The story goes that before Bill Wilson passed away he was asked what he would like to be remembered for in the history books. Much to the chagrin of experts and those who have benefited from 12-step groups he chose niacin therapy over AA.

Who knew?

File under: Musings and Reflections