Psychedelics have returned from the fringes and entered the mainstream in a big way, whether through successful ballot initiatives, on the stock market, or in Silicon Valley. But today, it’s not completely visual, earth-shattering trips like the ones that inspired Steve Jobs to create the iPhone that is being hyped. It’s microdosing.
Microdosing includes regularly consuming a small, sub-perceptual amount of a psychedelic substance, such as psilocybin mushrooms or LSD.
But when it’s endorsed by the likes of Joe Rogan and Gwyneth Paltrow (let’s not forget the $145,000 she had to pay for suggesting you put rocks in your vagina), it’s fair to start asking tough questions. Microdosing is popular as companies provide products for legal markets that still exist, but what do scientists have to say about it?
Preliminary Literature Suggests Positive Outcomes
Early studies, reviews, and unscientific reports suggest microdosing with psychedelics may have the potential to help with performance enhancement (including increased creativity and efficiency), symptoms of depression, greater pain relief, and even Alzheimer’s disease. While this is promising, the huge majority is based on surveys. (Only within the last few years have scientists started to explore the concept of microdosing with actual clinical trials.)
Support For Mental Health And Substance Use
In February, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology believed in the results of an international survey to find out whether mental health and substance use disorders could be improved with microdosing.
Attended in 2018, the online survey asked respondents about their use of microdosing psychedelics for therapeutic purposes, and if it led to positive outcomes. Of 1,102 participants, 57 % of which had been previously diagnosed with a mental health disorder, 39% said that improving their mental health was their main reason for microdosing with psychedelics. (It’s worth noting that of this subgroup, 85% said they had tried other medications or received counseling prior to microdosing.)
21% percent said they microdose to help with symptoms of depression, while 7% said they were self-medicating for anxiety. Another 9% had other mental health conditions they were seeking to treat, and 2% were microdosing to help them stop using other substances.
Results showed that 44% said microdosing improved their mental health significantly, with 50% saying they were able to successfully stop taking antidepressants and almost 40% saying the same about psychiatric meds. Nineteen percent said microdosing resulted in “no perceived changes” to their mental health, and just 1.3% reported that microdosing made their mental health “somewhat worse.”
What Makes A Microdose?
Another study published in the same journal and attended in a similar manner (this time with 909 participants) compared survey respondents who had microdose with LSD, psilocybin, or both with a group that had not microdose at all. Of the group of microdoses, most recorded using an average of 13 micrograms of LSD or 0.3 grams of psilocybin on a one-day-on, two-days-off schedule.
Researchers found that microdosers were significantly less likely to tell a history of substance use or anxiety disorders than those that did not microdose, while microdosers were more likely to have reported the latest recreational substance use than their non-microdosing counterparts.
Users Say Benefits Outweigh Challenges
The Global Drug Survey 2019 offered a branch of questions on microdosing to nearly 7,000 respondents who reported psychedelic use. This data was used in an October 2020 study published in Psychopharmacology, which confirmed that “the perceived benefits associated with microdosing greatly outweigh the challenges.”
Clinical Trials Are In The Works, But Are Some And Far Between
While respected institutions such as Johns Hopkins and NYU attend placebo-controlled clinical trials using larger doses of psilocybin (one ongoing trial at Johns Hopkins is looking at the effects of psilocybin on anorexia and another study on depression), trials employing microdosing are not usual.
How Small Doses Of Acid Could Influence Time Perception
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study attended at the University of London looked at how small doses of LSD affected a person’s perception of time. (A purported advantage of microdosing LSD is that it does not have the same time-extending effects afforded by a full tab of acid, which generally contains anywhere from 50 to 150 micrograms and might last 8 to 10 hours, but can feel like endlessly).
In authorized doses of five, ten, and 20 micrograms of LSD to a group of 48 healthy older adults, researchers found that “LSD conditions were not associated with any robust changes in self-report indicating perception, mentation, or concentration.”
The Safety Risks Of Microdosing LSD
A more current phase one trial considered how safe and tolerable the same doses would be in older adults. A total of 48 volunteers were given either a placebo or a set dose of LSD authorized every four days for 21 days straight.
Conclusions of the study were positive and recommended that low doses of LSD “carried no safety risk” and were well-tolerated over the three-week period. Mental effects were so minimal that researchers said doses ranging from five to 20 micrograms may have been “insufficient.” Either that or such doses of LSD, “do not have an effect on cognition in a healthy population.”
Can LSD Change The Way We Feel Pain?
In August, a trial published in Psychopharmacology used the Cold Pressor Test (submerging hands in ice water) in a group of 24 people who had received either a dose of 5, 10, or 20 µg of LSD or a pill.
Conclusions showed volunteers who had been given the highest dose were able to leave their hand submerged for significantly longer than others in the trial, and also experienced the least pain or feelings of unpleasantness.
New Programs, Startups Mean More Science To Come
A current trial from the U.K.’s Beckley Foundation examined how different low doses of LSD might positively affect mood and cognition, and the results were a mixed bag. At 20 µg, LSD boosts positive mood, friendliness, arousal, and decreased attentional lapses. But it also raises confusion and anxiety for some volunteers. The same was true for some volunteers who were only given five micrograms of the drug.
Between Johns Hopkins, NYU, the Beckley Foundation, and the newly launched research program committed to microdosing at the University of Toronto, not to mention the work being conducted by private and public companies around the world, there’s hope ongoing research can come to harder results about the latest fad.