What Is Microdosing, and How Can It Help Your Mental Health?
Dana Pharant, 50, a business performance coach in Ontario, Canada, has long been interested in personal development and growth. So in 2019, when she heard about microdosing—the practice of taking a minuscule dose of LSD or psilocybin, the hallucinogenic chemical that puts the "magic" in mushrooms—she was intrigued.
"I bought a mushroom-growing kit online that came with helpful instructions, and began taking about one-tenth of a true psychedelic dose one or two days a week," she says. "It makes me relaxed but heightens my senses. It also helps me feel more focused, open, and creative, and makes the world seem like a nicer place. Everything feels a little lighter and brighter."
In the past decade, the micro-dosing trend has spread from Silicon Valley professionals looking for a competitive edge to up-for-anything 20-somethings to people like Pharant, women in midlife who just want to get through the day with a little more energy and equanimity.
You may have heard some of the buzz about recent research showing that psychedelic drugs can successfully treat depression and anxiety. That research looked at higher doses, says Richard A. Friedman, MD, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian in New York City. "We know much less about microdosing," he explains.
Indeed, the research on tiny doses consists mostly of surveys of people who have tried microdosing—not rigorous, randomized-controlled trials that eliminate human bias. Even so, the results are intriguing.
In 2018, for instance, a group of international researchers surveyed 1,533 people around the world who had microdosed. About 65 percent of the participants reported that microdosing made them feel happier than usual, while around 60 percent said it made them more self-confident, clearheaded, connected to nature, and connected to themselves. More than 50 percent said they were less stressed, anxious, and irritable and more empathetic, focused, and creative.
Some participants experienced unwanted effects, such as difficulty concentrating, anxiety, irritability, or trouble sleeping. But those effects occurred infrequently in all but a handful of the participants, the researchers reported last year in their study in the International Journal of Drug Policy.
"The most common reason for microdosing in our survey was as an alternative therapy for mental health. And a majority reported that they found it was as helpful or more helpful than psychiatric medications," says Toby Lea, PhD, lead study author and a researcher at the Centre for Social Research in Health at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Researchers from the Netherlands reported similar findings in a 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychiatry. When they surveyed 3,590 microdosers who had at least one mental or physical health disorder, participants reported that self-medicating with microdoses of psychedelics was more effective than conventional treatments for depression, anxiety, ADHD, and certain physiological disorders like migraines or chronic pain.
But there are some people who definitely shouldn't microdose, says Dr. Friedman. Anyone with a personal or family history of a mental health issue that can cause psychotic episodes, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, should steer clear. Those with substance abuse issues should avoid the drugs as well.
There is a potential biological explanation for how even very low doses of psychedelics could have a positive impact on mood: "They bind to and activate the brain's serotonin receptors, and grow neurons in the prefrontal cortex—neurons that tend to atrophy in people with depression and other stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders," explains David E. Olson, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular medicine at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine. In 2019, Olson and his colleagues gave rats microdoses of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic substance that's similar to both psilocybin and LSD, and found that it had an antidepressant-like effect. "Microdosing is promising from a medical perspective because traditional antidepressants are slow to take effect, have too many side effects, and one-third of people don't respond to them. That's a huge group," says Olson.
Hopeful? Absolutely. But in another survey of microdosers, published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2019, nearly 7 percent of the 278 participants reported that the practice increased their anxiety. There's also the distinct possibility that the good vibes most people report are merely the result of the placebo effect.
In one study published this year, researchers at Imperial College London split 191 participants into three groups: One group took microdose capsules for four weeks.
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A second took identical-looking placebo capsules. And a third took microdose capsules for two weeks and dummy doses for two weeks. After analyzing the daily surveys participants filled out, the researchers found that those taking the placebo capsules reported the same positive effects as those taking the capsules with the tiny doses of hallucinogens.
"Humans are suggestible," says Dr. Friedman. "By now, most people have heard all these great things about microdosing, so when they try it, they tend to feel good things, too."
The Legality Issue
There's another obvious problem with microdosing: LSD and psilocybin are illegal in the U.S.—and in much of the world. Several places, including Oakland and Santa Cruz in California, the District of Columbia, and Denver, have decriminalized psilocybin, which means you can't get in trouble at the local level for having a small amount. And in November last year, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of LSD and legalize psilocybin for mental health treatment. But because these drugs remain illegal under federal law, you can still be fined or jailed for carrying even an infinitesimal amount—and doctors cannot advise you on how to use them.
If you want to learn more, talk to someone who has experience, suggests Kayse Gehret, founder of Micro-dosing for Healing (microdosingforhealing.com), a website where she offers group coaching and consultations on using plant-based medicine, including psilocybin. You can also check out an educational platform called Third Wave, which hosts online courses in microdosing (thethirdwave.co). To look for clinical trials involving psychedelics, visit clinicaltrials.gov.
Gehret, 45, who lives in Northern California, had never used any recreational drugs before trying microdosing a couple of years ago. Now she takes a tiny dose of psilocybin five days a week. "The dose is so small I don't really feel anything," she says. "But over time I've noticed changes. My baseline mood is better. I wake up a beat higher. I feel a deeper connection with nature and animals and friends and family. In a general sense, I seem to function better. I get in the flow more easily when I'm writing and working with clients. It feels like I'm optimized."
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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