People who microdose psychedelic substances report enhanced productivity and creativity; however, the controlled studies suggest that it might be simply a placebo effect. And while microdosing is unlikely to lead to addiction, there is a theoretical risk to the heart.
The trend of microdosing to boost performance in Silicon Valley, home to top tech companies, has been widely reported. For example, Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, used LSD in his younger days to spark creativity.
Betty Aldworth, an executive at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, once said she “envisions an office of the future where the microdosing machine sits next to the coffee maker.”
There is undoubtedly a lot of enthusiasm around psychedelics, but scientists point to the lack of evidence that microdosing actually boosts cognitive performance.
Benefits are results of expectations
Microdosing is a repeated self-administration of psychedelic substances in low doses that do not impair a person's "normal functioning." According to the Beckley Foundation, it can be around one-tenth or even one-twentieth of the recreational dose. LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) are the most commonly used substances for microdosing.
Sandeep Nayak, MD, postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, says many microdosing benefits are reported in open-label studies that do not include comparison groups.
"Once you start to look at properly controlled studies that involve the placebo group, control, and comparison, it is quite hard to show that there are some demonstrable benefits," he said to Healthnews.
According to Nayak, properly controlled studies suggest that those benefits are the result of expectations. In other words, microdosing unleashes the placebo effect.
In 2019, an international group of researchers, led by Imperial College London and Maastricht University, came to similar conclusions in their review paper on whether microdosing enhances mood, creativity, and productivity.
"Despite so much interest in the subject, we still don't have any agreed scientific consensus on what microdosing is – like what constitutes a 'micro' dose, how often someone would take it, and even if there may be potential health effects," then said Professor David Nutt at Imperial College London and senior author of the review.
A self-blinding citizen science study on microdosing from 2021 also suggests that the benefits of microdosing, such as improved mood, can be explained by the placebo effect.
Potential health risks are low
Nayak, MD, says that commonly used psychedelics are remarkably safe from a physical perspective — it is almost impossible to overdose on them.
In addition, psychedelics are unlikely to lead to psychological addiction, as they do not produce the pattern of escalating use in the face of social, legal, and financial consequences.
“You don’t see people committing crimes in order to fund a microdosing habit by en-large,” he added.
According to Nayak, psychedelics do not cause withdrawal or physical dependence, which can lead people to take larger and larger doses.
“There is rampant tolerance, but it does not seem to be associated with otherwise negative consequences. It just means that people cannot take the same dose,” he said.
For example, in the case of LSD, the research shows the psychedelic experience can be reignited within less than a week of discontinuation.
Even though microdosing may not result in addiction, it does not come without risks. The theoretical evidence suggests that prolonged microdosing may cause valvular heart disease (VHD).
Nayak, MD, points out that the drug fen-phen to treat obesity was taken out of the market due to causing cardiac valve problems. And the commonly used psychedelics act on the same receptor as fen-phen.
“It is possible that psychedelics have potential effects on the heart if you take them long-term. But we don’t really know,” he said.
Despite the theoretical risks, some studies show that taking small doses of LSD is safe. For example, the authors of one of such studies at the University of Chicago Medicine measured participants’ heart rate, blood pressure, impairment, and other vital signs and did not document any negative effects.
They say this was not a surprise, as previous human and animal studies have not found LSD to be toxic, even at high doses.
Might be beneficial for some
And yet, many people who microdose continue to report benefits, whether caused by the placebo effect or not.
In a 2019 study on microdosing, published in the Harm Reduction Journal, 14.8% of participants reported improved focus, 12.9% reported increased creativity, and 11.3% a higher self-efficacy.
The world’s largest drug survey, the Global Drug Survey 2021, found that almost half of those who microdosed and were taking medications for their mental health reported reducing or stopping their medications.
Nayak, MD, says that people who report the profound benefits of microdosing are not necessarily lying.
“It could be that microdosing is actually beneficial for them, it could be that it is a placebo effect, but research does not clearly show that there is much going on there,” he said.
1. SHRM Executive Network. Microdosing May Become a More Significant Leadership Issue.
2. Imperial College London. Science of microdosing psychedelics 'remains patchy and anecdotal', says review.
4. The MIND Foundation. Tolerance to LSD — How the Brain Bolts the Doors of Perception.
5. Harvard Law School Petrie Flom Center. Safety First: Potential Heart Health Risks of Microdosing.
5. Harm Reduction Journal. Psychedelic microdosing benefits and challenges: an empirical codebook.
6. Global Drug Survey. GDS 2021 Global Report.
7. University of Chicago Medicine. Study of LSD microdosing doesn't show a therapeutic effect.