This post was authored by Ashtin Brooks as part of the 2021 pre-graduate series
In the realm of psychedelic drugs (most commonly LSD or magic mushrooms), microdosing refers to taking smaller portions of a drug in more frequent doses to avoid hallucinations while hopefully obtaining some emotional and intellectual benefits (1). With microdosing becoming more mainstream (2), the need to become informed on the current research findings is important for personal health and wellbeing. Hence, this article will explore the literature on three main points one might consider before microdosing: the benefits of microdosing, the risks associated with microdosing, and the appropriate time to begin microdosing.
Several recent studies point to some possible microdosing benefits. On the personality side, research suggests that microdosers tend to be more wise, creative, productive, patient, giving, and open-minded (3, 4). On the mental health side, microdosers tended to report better mood amongst those with or without depression, had lower self-reported substance use related problems, had less anxiety disorders, tended to experience fewer negative thoughts about themselves, and felt negative emotions less often (3-5).
While the benefits appear to be encouraging, it is important to note that researchers do not know whether the people who are naturally more creative, productive, less anxious, etc. use microdosing more often or whether microdosing causes people to become more creative, productive, less anxious, etc. Most of the researchers above used self-report surveys to collect their knowledge, and these surveys do not capture cause and effect while also opening up the possibility to personal bias in survey answers. In order to know if microdosing actually causes the benefits described above, researchers will need to give LSD or magic mushrooms to one group of people in low doses while giving another group of people a fake and harmless version of the drug (i.e., a placebo). Then, scientists can observe the changes over time between the two different groups of people to figure out if microdosing actually causes all of these benefits. If microdosing is beneficial, only the group who took the real version of the drug should see increases in benefits. This method of study is called a placebo-controlled trial (6), and to date, there have only been a few clinical trials investigating the effects of microdosing. The results of these trials have shown heightened levels of feeling unity and bliss among the microdosing group, yet also show higher levels of anxiety and higher blood pressure (8). Due to the limited number of significant results, further trials of these kinds are needed to break down research findings.
Risks and Unknowns
Just as the benefits have many unknowns, there are some possible risks to be aware of related to microdosing. For magic mushrooms, there is a possible risk of heart disease (1). In animal studies for LSD, higher blood pressure, increased number of headaches, higher amounts of aggression, less experiences of pleasure, and an over-sensitivity to sights and sounds were observed in rodents (7, 8). For both substances, some studies identified an increase of anxiety symptoms or even heightened depression symptoms (8). Also, some increased risks may exist for disorders relating to hallucinations/false beliefs (psychotic disorders) or bipolar disorder, particularly for symptoms of mania (4, 5). Of note, researchers have not run tests on the long-term effects of a repeated microdosing regimen on physical or mental health (1). As with the benefits, more types of research studies need to be completed to identify the cause-and-effect risk components of microdosing and bring insight to contradictions within the current findings (8).
Since current research holds promising benefits but noteworthy risks, it is most advisable to consult your primary care physician, therapist, or psychiatrist before any recreational or medicinal use. These professionals will use the most up to date research (as more randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trials come underway) to advise you of risks. Once research clarifies the safety regarding microdosing, then they may potentially recommend a microdosing treatment regimen to improve your mental health and quality of life.
1 Kuypers, K. P., Ng, L., Erritzoe, D., Knudsen, G. M., Nichols, C. D., Nichols, D. E., … & Nutt, D. (2019). Microdosing psychedelics: More questions than answers? An overview and suggestions for future research. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 33(9), 1039-1057.
2 Somerset, S. B. (n.d.). Psychedelic events are going mainstream, where the much-maligned mushroom industry focuses on mental health. Forbes. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarabrittanysomerset/2020/01/12/psychadelic-events-are-going-mainstream-where-the-much-maligned-mushroom-industry-focuses-on-mental-health/
3 Anderson, T., Petranker, R., Rosenbaum, D., Weissman, C. R., Dinh-Williams, L. A., Hui, K., … & Farb, N. A. (2019). Microdosing psychedelics: personality, mental health, and creativity differences in microdosers. Psychopharmacology, 236(2), 731-740.
4 Fadiman, J., & Korb, S. (2019). Might microdosing psychedelics be safe and beneficial? An initial exploration. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 51(2), 118-122.
5 Rosenbaum, D., Weissman, C., Anderson, T., Petranker, R., Dinh-Williams, L. A., Hui, K., & Hapke, E. (2020). Microdosing psychedelics: demographics, practices, and psychiatric comorbidities. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 34(6), 612-622.
6 Misra, S. (2012). Randomized double blind placebo control studies, the “Gold Standard” in intervention based studies. Indian Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS, 33(2), 131.
7 Marona-Lewicka, D., Nichols, C. D., & Nichols, D. E. (2011). An animal model of schizophrenia based on chronic LSD administration: old idea, new results. Neuropharmacology, 61(3), 503-512.
8 Ona, G., & Bouso, J. C. (2020). Potential safety, benefits, and influence of the placebo effect in microdosing psychedelic drugs: A systematic review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 119, 194–203.