Key takeaways:

  • Hallucinogenic drugs are difficult to study because they aren’t legal, and therefore can’t be used in standard drug trials, but certain universities have been conducting trials in recent years
  • While some people have positive experiences, there are also those who report negative ones as well. It is possible to have a ‘bad trip’, especially if a person accidentally takes too much of a drug when microdosing
  • As hallucinogens such as LSD and magic mushrooms produce euphoric effects, even in fractional doses, by activating the 5-HT2B serotonin receptor, they are impacting the neurotransmitters in the brain associated with pleasure

A new form of substance abuse has become increasingly popular in recent years: microdosing, or taking very small doses of a hallucinogenic drug like LSD or mushrooms.

Understanding microdosing

The term microdosing refers to taking a small, sub-hallucinogenic amount of a psychedelic substance. Popular psychedelics used in microdosing include LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, and usually involve taking a twentieth of a “normal” dose. [4] When taken in these small doses, people normally do not hallucinate, but may experience a slight change in the way they think, feel, and behave. 

Hallucinogenic drugs are difficult to study because they aren’t legal, and therefore can’t be used in standard drug trials, but certain universities have been conducting trials in recent years. Their goal is to establish whether psychedelic drugs like LSD, MDMA, psilocybin (mushrooms), and even marijuana may have therapeutic qualities that can help with different physical and mental health issues. These universities have been able to demonstrate some success in using these drugs to treat conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and even end-of-life anxiety for people with terminal illnesses, but more research is needed to back these claims up. 

Most people are not able to access psychedelic treatment because of the illegal nature of these drugs, but a growing number of people have decided to trial these drugs on their own. Some people who decide to experiment on their own with psychedelics have tried microdosing to treat health or mental health problems they struggle with. 

There is not a known risk for lethal overdose with most psychedelics, but those who experiment on their own are taking a risk because most are unable to verify what drug they are taking and how much they are taking. It is not uncommon for someone to accidentally take too much of a drug when microdosing and then report hallucinating or having unwanted effects. 

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Microdosing psychedelics: divided opinion

In recent years, the public sentiment towards psychedelics has shifted, with more people reporting being open to trying these drugs or being more accepting of those who do. Despite the growing positivity around microdosing psychedelics as a form of treatment for mental health issues and well being, users and experts are still divided on the potential benefits. 

A 2019 Guardian article [2] spoke to people who used microdosing as a way of maintaining mental well-being as well as clinical experts to get their opinion on the pros and cons of microdosing. 

In the article, one woman who was interviewed began taking 1-propionyl-lysergic acid diethylamide, or 1P-LSD, during her doctorate in education. She described finding 1P-LSD, a psychedelic drug with effects almost indistinguishable from LSD, rather late in life but that it was a revelation to both her doctorate and working life. “It was as if a whole new world opened up for me. Psychedelics, combined with my doctoral study, really broadened my mind.” [2] 

She decided to experiment by taking a tenth of a full 1P-LSD dose every third day for a month. She found the effects so rewarding that after a month she tweaked the dose days so that they were when she would be engaging in social events, such as visiting family. [2] 

“I enjoyed playing with the kids more when I was microdosing. Likewise going to weddings – I found it easier to be interested in people.” [2]

In the same article, Barbara j Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge’s Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, was less sure about the positive effects of microdosing. “Some people would prefer to take a drug ... rather than consider other means of enhancing cognition, like exercise or cognitive training, which take time and require effort,” “Rather than taking short-term, inadequate solutions, such as microdosing, to long-term problems, it is time for people to consider how they can best improve their health and wellbeing.” [2]

While some people have positive experiences, there are also those who report negative ones as well. It is possible to have a ‘bad trip’, especially if a person accidentally takes too much of a drug when microdosing. Bad trips can involve feelings of fear, paranoia, self-consciousness, or other disturbing thoughts and feelings that can last for several hours. In one study of people who had this experience, 62% of people reported the experience as one of the top ten worst experiences in their lives. [5]

Research on therapeutic benefits of psychedelics

Research on psychedelic drugs is still in its early stages, largely because of the many difficulties of conducting these studies. Most of these studies have been conducted on therapeutic (or full) doses of psychedelics, and not on using microdosing techniques. 

Psychedelic therapy (conducted with a trained and licensed therapist in a controlled, supervised setting) has shown promising results in treating people struggling with: [6, 7]

  • Terminal illness and end-of-life anxiety
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance use disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

While these studies are promising, it’s important to note that the research was conducted with a licensed and trained therapist, in a controlled setting, and involved therapy in addition to the drug. Also, these studies have been conducted on using the full dose of psychedelics, as opposed to using a partial or “microdose” amount of the drug. Most of the data on microdosing is anecdotal in nature, and comes from people’s first hand descriptions.

Research on microdosing

A study to measure the supposed benefits of microdosing vs the challenges revealed conflicting results. [1] During the study, 278 people who microdosed regularly (LSD-only 195, psilocybin-only 50, and LSD and psilocybin  33) [1] were asked a series of questions designed to gauge if the outcomes of regular microdosing as outlined by Fadiman had marked benefits for the user. The top percentage of results were recorded as follows:

Benefits of microdosing

  • Improved mood (26.6%, 215 reports)
  • Improved focus (14.8%, 119.5 reports)
  • Creativity (12.9%, 104 reports)
  • Self-efficacy (11.3%, 91.5 reports)
  • Improved energy (10.5%, 84.5 reports)
  • Social benefits (7.6%, 61 reports)
  • Cognitive benefits (5.8%, 47 reports)
  • Reduced anxiety (4.2%, 34 reports)

Challenges of microdosing

  • Illegality (29.5%, 178 reports)
  • Physiological discomfort (18.0%, 108.5 reports)
  • Impaired focus (8.8%, 53 reports)
  • Increased anxiety (6.7%, 40.5 reports)
  • Impaired energy (7.2%, 43.5 reports)
  • Impaired mood (6.9%, 41.5 reports)
  • Social interference (2.6%, 15.5 reports)
  • Cognitive interference (2.3%, 14 reports)
  • Self-interference (1.2%, 7.5 reports)
  • Other perceived challenges (10.6%, 64 reports)
  • Increased symptoms (other) (6.2%, 37.5 reports)

The most commonly reported benefit amongst test subjects was an improvement in mood and outlook, including improvements in happiness, well-being, peace, calm, and reductions in depressive symptoms, outlook, appreciation of life, optimism, spiritual and emotional insights, and being more in touch with emotions. [1] 

While it is not fully understood why, many people who have experimented with psychedelics also experience lasting shifts in their thinking, including a changed outlook. For many, this is reported as a significant and positive shift. [6] 

The most frequent challenge people faced was the illegality of psychedelic substances, including trusting the substance, obtaining it, and the social stigma of microdosing. Some countries do not prohibit the possession of LSD or psilocybin mushrooms, but most have strong laws around distribution and manufacturing. The report also indicated that 18% of subjects reported physiological discomfort such as disrupted senses (visual), temperature dysregulation, numbing/tingling, insomnia, gastrointestinal distress, reduced appetite, and increased migraines and/or headaches. [1]

Dangers of microdosing

The common consensus amongst most recreational drug takers, as well as some medical professionals, is that hallucinogens don’t have the same physically addictive properties as other illicit substances such as opioids or stimulants. While psychedelics are not believed to be physically addictive, it is still possible to develop a psychological addiction or dependence on a drug.

As hallucinogens such as LSD and magic mushrooms produce euphoric effects, even in fractional doses, by activating the 5-HT2B serotonin receptor, they are impacting the neurotransmitters in the brain associated with pleasure. This can lead to people developing a  tolerance for the chemical reaction and can place some at risk of developing a psychological addiction. Addiction can become all-consuming in a person’s life and holds the potential to cause great harm. 

Another potential risk of microdosing is the relatively unproven harmful and positive effects. As it is currently extremely difficult to get an FDA-approved test authorized to monitor the effects of microdosing in a controlled environment, researchers are forced to rely on the testimony of individuals who already microdose regularly or in the amount required by the test. This may lead to bias results, with little validity being put forward without a control group in place. 

King’s College London is currently running one of the biggest controlled experiments using psilocybin as a way to treat clinical depression. [5] The study, which began trials in the early part of 2021, aims to determine whether psilocybin, given with psychological support, is a safe and effective form of therapy. [5] Johns Hopkins University also has a program for psychedelic therapy trials. In the future, more information is expected from these trials which can help people to determine whether they are safe and effective.