Microdosing: The Scientific Guide to a Growing Trend

Recently, microdosing has gained popularity as a potential mental wellness tool. Advocates claim benefits from enhanced mood to sharper cognition, but what does the evidence say? We sift through the science to assess how safe and effective this practice is.

What is microdosing?

Microdosing is the emerging practice of taking low doses of psychedelics — typically LSD or psilocybin — daily to improve wellness, mental functioning, and creativity. The current wave of interest in microdosing started after James Fadiman’s The Psychedelic Explorers Guide was published in 2011, quickly gaining traction amongst Silicon Valley workers looking to find a professional edge and an alternative to drugs like Adderall. Normally, psychedelics cause acute, obvious changes in perception, vivid imaginative experiences, and intense emotions — not ideal or helpful for improved performance. However, proponents of microdosing aim to take such a small amount that there’s no high or significant shift in perception while aiming to enhance day-to-day functioning.

How much is a microdose?

We now know that the core aim of a microdose is to take a dose that produces measurable effects but not so high that it causes hallucinations. With that in mind, how much is a microdose? And how much is too much?

Microdosing isn’t an exact science, and there’s no universally accepted definition of how much a microdose is. According to one paper published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, the most accepted definition is a dose between approximately one-tenth and one-twentieth of a typical recreational dose. However, even this is imprecise by medical standards, and there are several reasons for this.

  • Microdosing involves unregulated substances. This makes it difficult for users to ensure the quality and quantities being taken. In particular, the concentration of psilocybin can vary by 400% within the same mushroom, which can lead to inconsistent doses and even 'surprise trips' with hallucinations and other unwanted effects.
  • Different drugs affect different people differently. Each psychedelic has its unique profile. This makes it hard to gauge individual responses, as many factors are at play. Determining equivalent dosages across different psychedelics, varieties within the same class (different strains of mushrooms), and from person to person is complex due to the subjective nature of the effect.
  • The expected effects of microdosing aren’t clear. The idea of microdosing being 'sub-perceptual' is widespread, suggesting that doses shouldn't produce noticeable effects. Despite anecdotal reports supporting this, some scientific studies have recorded that people report subtle changes in consciousness. This raises questions about the true nature of microdosing, which may not be below the threshold of perception but rather offers a mild alteration in mental state without intense visual and sensory hallucinations.

Why do people microdose?

People microdose for a range of reasons, with goals ranging from sharpening their performance to lifting their mood or simply out of curiosity. Some studies report its use as a self-managed treatment for certain mental health conditions, a path to self-improvement, or a means to better cope with life's challenges. Others seek to enhance their mental health, pursue personal or spiritual growth, or boost cognition. Many individuals report that microdosing helps them achieve these objectives, and there is some evidence to suggest they might be right.

What does the science say about microdosing?

Given the level of public and scientific interest in microdosing and the easing of restrictions on the use and research of psychedelics, there has been a surge in the number of studies in recent years; however, these vary widely in design, quality, and reliability.

Possible effects of microdosing

There have been dozens of studies looking at the potential benefits of microdosing. However, while there have been positive indications, these are only preliminary results. The quality of these studies makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions or recommendations, but they do provide a basis for further research into microdosing.

Mood and mental health

Numerous studies have found that microdosing is associated with improved mood. Studies evaluating results from surveys suggested that for some, microdosing has lowered depression symptom scores, while others reported the opposite effect, with depression worsening with microdosing. Other studies, however, have found that microdosing did not have an immediate effect on depression or mood.

Similarly, outcomes on anxiety and stress levels are mixed, with some studies reporting improved calm and well-being in over 25% of microdosers; others found that 20 ug of LSD led to slight increases in anxiety. Some studies have even found that anxiety severity can go either way, with different doses of LSD causing individual variations, with some finding increases in anxiety severity and others experiencing symptom relief.

In a 2021 review of microdose research, the authors warned that any positive effects reported in study papers should be interpreted with caution, as potential biases in study design, recruitment, and the effects of participants' expectations could skew the results.

Well-being

Several overlapping studies found that microdosing might be associated with an increase in well-being, self-fulfillment, self-efficacy, and resilience. A 2021 study published in Nature followed 81 participants over a 4-week period, finding that microdosing was linked to improved well-being and resilience on a self-reported questionnaire, although researchers noted that the participants’ expectations of an effect were partly responsible for the results.

Creativity

Microdosing may improve creative thinking. In one experimental study, a single microdose of truffle with psilocybin was linked to increased performance in a creative thinking task, although this was quasi-experimental, and participants knew that they were taking a microdose, which could have affected the outcome. Other studies in which participants self-reported their responses, such as this analysis of the content of discussions in online forums, reported increases in creativity after microdosing.

Other surveys found that microdosing was not associated with any change in creativity, and a clinical study reported that subthreshold doses of LSD were not linked to any acute changes in cognition or creativity.

Cognitive function

Several studies have discussed possible changes in neurocognitive behavioral tasks following microdosing. Some randomized controlled clinical studies suggest that microdosing substances like LSD may alter time perception, making time seem to pass more quickly.

The impact on cognitive functions such as attention and memory is unclear. For instance, slight improvements in selective attention were discussed in one study, yet the same study also reported reduced performance on memory and concentration tasks. Some self-reported measures suggest enhancements in attention and mindfulness, but these subjective reports are at odds with some controlled clinical studies' undetecting impacts on cognition.

Potential negative effects of microdosing

As we have seen, microdosing has potential benefits for mood and creativity. However, it's not without risks. A 2020 review of the safety of microdosing found that worsening psychiatric symptoms, disrupted sleep, gastrointestinal issues, and temperature dysregulation were reported in different studies. Cognitive interference, like distractibility, decreased performance on tasks, and increased anxiety, have also been noted across several studies.

A significant number of users experienced adverse effects, with increased anxiety and insomnia being the most prevalent. Clinical trials have flagged increases in blood pressure and headaches as well, and there are questions that chronic psychedelic use may even affect heart valve health.

Pitfalls in the research on microdosing

The research on microdosing psychedelics is in its infancy, with existing studies providing an unclear picture of safety and effects. A recent review in Frontiers in Psychiatry underscored some key issues, including a lack of standardized dosing and a lack of diverse participant samples, which can skew results.

Often, the research tools used aren't validated for such low doses, leading to inaccuracies in measuring microdosing effects. All these factors contribute to a body of evidence that is intriguing yet largely preliminary.

With microdosing, the message is one of cautious optimism, with an emphasis on caution. The intersection of psychedelic science and self-improvement is still being mapped. Microdosing is an alluring shortcut to enhanced mental acuity and emotional balance, but the research remains preliminary, and results are often contradictory.

Encouraging findings regarding mood, creativity, and cognitive function must be weighed against reports of increased anxiety and physiological side effects. This underscores a vital need for more research before it’s a safe or effective option. The potential of microdosing could be significant, but so is the responsibility to pursue its understanding through rigorous research.

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