Does Microdosing ACTUALLY Work?
By Shelby Hartman
Noah Libby-Haines can’t exactly remember when his anxiety began. He’d had it since at least high school and it was never debilitating, just tiring.
Like many people, he’d get trapped in predictable thought patterns that would go round and round until he felt uncomfortable. He didn’t much care for socializing either, often finding it difficult to make conversation. Then, last year, an article showed up on his Facebook feed about microdosing.
Libby-Haines did a quick Google search and up popped an infographic. It was simple enough: take 1/10th of a full dose of psychedelics every three days for a period of four to six weeks. Soon after, through a friend, he secured some mushrooms and gave it a try.
“I could suddenly observe my thoughts, reflect on them, and then understand why they were wrong or why I should be doing things differently,” he said. Libby-Haines, a 35-year-old computer programmer who lives in New Orleans, continued to work and socialize normally, but, instead of the usual drudgery, he says he was in “a really, really good mood.”
According to pioneering psychedelic researcher James Fadiman, this account is fairly typical. Fadiman, a leading authority on microdosing, is currently analyzing 1500 reports from people who regularly take small amounts of psychedelics (LSD, mushrooms, ayahuasca, mescaline, or two compounds said to be semi-legal alternatives to LSD) to treat mental health conditions. Within the next month, he and fellow researcher Sophia Korb aim to make this trove of data available to researchers interested in closing the large gap between stories about microdosing and the science that supports them. (They’ve already been contacted by research teams from around the world who have heard of the stories emerging from their database and are interested in investigating microdosing as a treatment for conditions ranging from chronic migraines to menstrual pain.)
“We’re quite convinced that [microdosing] is remarkable for some conditions,” said Fadiman. “The problem is we just don’t know why.”
As of now, there’s never been a randomized, double-blind clinical trial confirming microdosing’s efficacy or safety. The first one, headed by psychedelic researcher Amanda Feilding, is scheduled for the end of this year.
The study will include 40 participants—20 on placebo and 20 on small amounts of LSD—who do cognitive tests and receive brain imaging scans over a period of a month. It seeks to answer some basic questions like what quantity of psychedelics should be considered a “microdose.” Feilding anticipates that this varies depending on the person.
The study also hopes to detect, through brain imaging, whether microdosing is merely having the same neurological effects as a normal dose of LSD, but on a smaller scale. The problem is there remains significant unknowns about how LSD works, even at high doses, and researchers are unsure of whether a “microdose” would be detectable in the brain using current imaging technology.
Feilding, a pioneer in the field of psychedelics since the 60s, has personally experimented with microdosing for decades. She says her experience has been that it creates “deeper thoughts, better conversations, and improves one’s relationships” with little side effects. But, she wants microdosing to be based on “science rather than folklore” and, she says, “one can’t be sure until one has tested it.”
This is a point that Ingmar Gorman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people navigate psychedelic experiences, makes to clients when they express an interest in microdosing. Gorman, Administrative Director of the Psychedelic Education and Continuing Care Program, one of the largest psychedelic drug support centers in the country, says in the last six months he’s seen a surge of people who have never taken a psychedelic before inquire about microdosing. This boom of interest has even inspired an upcoming microdosing panel (led by comedian Duncan Trussell, Hamilton Morris of VICELAND’s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, Gorman’s colleague Katherine MacLean, Paul Austin, and Korb). They’ll answer some basic questions for people on what we do and don’t know about this growing phenomenon.
When someone asks Gorman about it, he’s always straightforward with them: not much.
Gorman says one realistic concern is that a person attempting to microdose can miscalculate how much they’re taking. This, psychedelic researchers say, is an unfortunate consequence of prohibition. LSD, for example, often comes on a sheet of paper in which the drug is supposed to be evenly distributed throughout. Sometimes, however, it’s not and a person who cuts up the paper into “doses” can accidentally take much more than anticipated and end up tripping for eight to twelve hours. A solution to help safeguard against this is turning the paper into a liquid tincture by soaking it in water or alcohol. It’s not supposed to be difficult, but, it does introduce elements of variability that don’t exist when someone picks up a medication that’s been dosed for them at the pharmacy. If someone is determined to microdose, Gorman tells them: “just set up your day so that you don’t have any obligations and you’re in a safe environment.”
Trussell—a podcast host who has interviewed psychedelic luminaries from Ram Dass to Dennis McKenna—largely attributes the unknown risks of microdosing, and psychedelics more broadly, to the bureaucratic barriers researchers face in investigating illegal substances. If citizens are going to participate in something like microdosing, says Trussell, the federal government, at a minimum, should help scientists provide them with basic, reliable information about its safety the way it does with nicotine.
Still, Libby-Haines, along with countless others, are figuring out as much as they can about microdosing online and giving it a try. Its promise, they say, is too great.
According to Fadiman, roughly 1000 of the 1500 people who reported stories to his database suffered from depression and “the vast majority improved.” This includes, he says, a significant number of people with treatment-resistant depression who had tried antidepressants currently available on the market. They’ve also received reports confirming stories in the media about microdosing as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, learning disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse, among other mental health conditions. The only condition, Fadiman says, which microdosing seems to worsen is anxiety that exists on its own without any symptoms of depression.
Fadiman, who received his phD in psychology from Stanford, says they’re confident these results are reliable because of how many people have reported unanticipated and similar improvements. People consistently say that while microdosing they eat more healthfully, sleep better, exercise and meditate more, work more productively, think more creatively, and consume less marijuana, coffee, and alcohol. Most people also say that after a month they don’t have to continue microdosing regularly to receive the benefits. Instead, they generally still find their psychological and physical conditions improved, but only microdose occasionally “as needed.”
This is something Libby-Haines experienced. He microdosed for the first time on mushrooms at the end of last year, when he said he felt the most acute joy. In the Spring, he microdosed on acid. And then, by the time he tried microdosing on mushrooms again in June, he felt they were no longer altering his mood. He’s not disappointed, however, because the anxiety relief he received from his first round of mushrooms last year persists.
“I wouldn’t just say I’ve found a treatment for my anxiety, I’ve found a cure,” he says. “It’s been really important for me.”
Feilding, Fadiman, and others hope that, soon enough, their data will explain why.
The Beckley Foundation aims to conduct the first rigorous clinical trial investigating microdosing at the end of this year. (Video courtesy of The Beckley Foundation)
(Illustration by Daniel Marin Medina)