By Tessa Eskin
Microdosing has officially hit the mainstream. The trend spread like wildfire across Silicon Valley, with tech professionals integrating minute doses of psychedelics into their daily biohacking routine. Fueled further by online communities and devoted subreddits, microdosing has gained widespread popularity around the world.
Although many are casually ingesting sub-perceptual doses with their morning vitamins, the trend has sparked an inevitable sprinkle of controversy. The psychedelics most commonly used—LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline—are still Schedule 1 substances under US federal law. And despite multiple studies proving the positive benefits of psychedelic therapy for PTSD and many other mental health issues, the science is still out on microdosing.
Still, recent surveys and anecdotal reports suggest benefits like increased productivity, openness, creativity, and enhanced social ability. It’s no wonder the professional sphere has dipped its proverbial toe into psychedelic waters. In a world of heightened competition and professional burnout, microdosing appears to keep many happily motivated and creatively inspired at work.
The practice involves ingesting sub-hallucinogenic amounts of psychedelics daily, around 5-10% of a normal dose. The walls won’t melt, but you may feel slightly more stimulated. Many report enhanced creative problem solving, higher openness and optimism, and a decrease in depression and anxiety. Other benefits include increased focus, improvement in quality of life, and pain reduction.
The question for researchers now lies in determining whether microdosing has a biological effect, or whether it’s simply a fantastic placebo.
There are, as of yet, no completed controlled trials testing the therapeutic benefits of microdosing against placebos. The information we have comes mostly from those experimenting with different doses and substances from home.
A recent online survey questioned 1,102 people who habitually microdose, or have in the past. 85% of respondents had received treatment for mental health issues, with half having tried and quit antidepressants. The implication is that many are turning to microdosing as a replacement for traditional therapy and psychiatric medication. A majority had been microdosing for quite a while, suggesting the ‘treatment’ might actually work in the long term.
A second survey of 278 respondents delved further into the specific benefits of microdosing LSD and/or psilocybin. The highest reported benefits were largely mood-related: improved happiness, well-being, outlook, spiritual insight, and a willingness to be in one’s feelings. Other benefits included mental health improvements, such as a reduction in depressive symptoms and anxiety. Microdosers reported enhanced creativity and “meta-creative processes”, related to higher openness and curiosity. This matches research studies showing increased openness after a full dose of psilocybin.
The Placebo Question
More trials are still needed to discern whether microdosing has a true biological impact or not. Still, a few studies have started to tackle this question. One trial measured participants’ beliefs and expectations about microdosing, finding that actual effects did not match their preconceived notions. This presents a decent argument against purely psychological effects, although we have yet to measure neural activity under a microdose.
Researchers at UC Davis have explored further with animal studies. They administered microdoses of DMT to rats and found their responses similar to those of antidepressants. The researchers placed microdosed and non-microdosed rats in a pool of water with no escape. The un-dosed rats quickly gave up and just floated, while the dosed rats kept swimming, suggesting enhanced optimism and resilience. The ‘treated’ rats also seemed to forget fearful memories more quickly than their untreated comrades. Although we can’t exactly equate animal testing with human responses, it does appear a minuscule dose of DMT has a biological effect.
Researchers have linked the antidepressant effects of psychedelics to neuroplasticity, which builds connections between neurons. A leading theory for the cause of depression is high cortisol levels, which is believed to destroy brain cells. Many psychedelics not only promote neuroplasticity, but trigger neurogenesis, making them an effective cure for depression and anxiety.
The theory is that microdosing affects the brain in a similar way to a full dose of psychedelics, just less intensely. Much effort has gone into finding a way to use psychedelics as a mental health treatment without throwing patients into a full-on hallucinogenic trip. Microdosing could very well be the answer.
Whether placebo or not, there’s no doubt that countless people have benefited from the practice. And with current research still in the works, we may soon have a clearer grasp on the biological factor. Researchers in Australia are utilizing neuroimaging to observe the effects of microdosing on the brain. Meanwhile, researchers in the Netherlands are hoping to investigate potential benefits for those suffering from ADHD and Parkinson’s in the near future.