In her new memoir, Ayelet Waldman says taking tiny amounts of the psychedelic drug saved her life. Here's what to know about the controversial (and illegal) practice.

By Lauren Oster
Updated January 30, 2017
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Earlier this month, novelist Ayelet Waldman made headlines with the release of her memoir, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. After secretly consuming a miniscule amount of the psychedelic drug LSD once every third day for a month, she reports that the tiny doses “jump-started [her] out of a pretty significant depression.”

Profiles of Waldman appeared this month in The New York Times ("How LSD Saved One Woman's Marriage"), The New Yorker ("How Ayelet Waldman Found a Calmer Life on Tiny Doses of LSD"), and other outlets, but so-called "microdosing" has been generating buzz since at least 2015. That's when the influential podcast Reply All devoted an episode to it, and Rolling Stone reported the rising trend in Silicon Valley, where biohacking (or adjusting the "inputs" to your body to “yield a better you”) is all the rage. There is also a microdosing subreddit and other online communities dedicated to the controversial practice.

Proponents of microdosing argue that it's an exciting new mental-health frontier, that it can enhance creativity and productivity, and that it provides a ray of hope to people who suffer from depression or anxiety and don’t experience relief from traditional pharmaceuticals, or those who can’t handle the sometimes-significant side effects of those prescription drugs.

Should the mainstream medical community have a more open mind about acid? Should you?

First, some history: Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who first synthesized LSD (which stands for lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938, might have been the first microdoser. For the last few decades of his life, Hofmann ingested extremely small doses of acid. It did not trigger the 8- to 12-hour acute alterations in mood, perception, and cognition associated with full-fledged acid trips; instead, he claimed it relieved his depression and made him feel euphoric.

A kaleidoscope of studies in the 1950s and 1960s investigated LSD’s possibilities as a treatment for everything from alcoholism to end-of-life anxiety. One of the best-known potential uses for microdosing—improved problem-solving performance—began and ended with a pilot study in northern California in 1966. Researchers saw evidence that taking tiny amounts of LSD could have those effects, but later that year, the United States government made LSD illegal, and most research on its effects ground to a halt.

Decades later, scientists in America and abroad are once again pushing for authorization to conduct larger, double-blind, peer-reviewed investigations into LSD’s effects on human subjects. One of them is Bay Area psychologist James Fadiman, PhD, one of the authors on that 1966 pilot study. Today, to get around legal research roadblocks, he collects and analyzes independent, anecdotal reports about microdosing via a confidential form on his website.

Fadiman strongly believes LSD deserves to be examined more thoroughly. He claims his own research shows that microdosing the drug “has no psychedelic effects, has proved helpful for a variety of conditions, and seems to help healthy people function better as well,” he told Health. Fadiman, along with fellow researcher Sophia Korb, PhD, has collected hundreds of reports from LSD microdosers who report an array of benefits, from reduced anxiety and depression to an increased sense of spirituality and mindfulness.

Still, Fadiman's website contains a big disclaimer: “We are not able to offer information about how to obtain psychedelics, which are not yet legal in most countries.” That's an important point, and it’s why Waldman, a former defense attorney who represented drug offenders, discontinued her microdosing: She was terrified of getting arrested (“There’s no one as paranoid as a public defender,” she told The New York Times).

Legal risks aside, it’s important to note that because LSD is illegal (it’s a Schedule I drug, with “no current accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”), it lacks both FDA regulation and a significant body of scientific research on its short- and long-term effects.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that LSD is not an addictive drug, but in some cases users develop a tolerance to it, which means they have to take higher doses to get the same effect. A high dose of the drug won’t kill you, but it could result in symptoms of psychosis (and can certainly make you believe you’re dying). LSD’s effects are also notoriously unpredictable; even microdoses have the potential to produce inconsistent effects. In fact,PJ Vogt, the Reply All co-host who experimented with microdosing, said the drug made him "manic and weird," and that he would not be trying it again. Long story short: In the absence of institutional safeguards and drug trials, microdosers can’t be 100% sure of what they’re getting, and where it will take them.

That might not always be the case. Popular (and official) opinions about some once-notorious drugs are changing: The growing body of evidence that marijuana has medical benefits—and its ongoing legalization—are starting new conversations about now-illegal drugs. In November 2016, for example, the FDA approved trials for MDMA, or ecstasy, as a treatment for PTSD.

So what’s next? As those children of the '60s might say, stay tuned.