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What is Microdosing?

by Will Long

November 20, 2022
hands in a dark room, taken by a camera with a long exposure

“Microdosing” is the act of taking a very small dose of a particular psychedelic drug. By microdosing an individual is hoping to feel some of the effects of the psychedelic substance, but without the hallucinations, delusions or sometimes paralyzing symptoms. Proponents of microdosing, like author Michael Pollan, comedian Chelsea Handler or mycologist Paul Stamets, believe there may be mental health benefits from taking low-level doses of psychedelics. But the few studies that have been done on microdosing have not yielded definitive results on the benefits or overall impacts to the mind and body. 

Most people who microdose are looking for some marginal life improvement. Most microdosing is done every several days, with one or two off-days between doses. The argument by advocates is that it improves creativity, boosts energy levels, improves emotional regulation, increases performance on problem-solving tasks, and actively treats anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Does Microdosing Work?

Studies show that microdosing is more of a fad that gives credence to placebo effects. Many users of psychedelics do so because they claim it enhances their everyday performance. While it’s certainly possible that full doses of certain psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin, could help users in occasional doctor-led therapy sessions for illnesses like depression and anxiety, microdosing remains more of theory than a substantiated course of pharmaceutical therapy. There is some evidence that it does something, but researchers still aren’t sure what.

A study done on LSD microdosing by a team from the University of Chicago (UChicago), led by professor Harriet De Wit, confirms that the effects of microdosing are likely just placebo—with some notable concessions. De Wit admits that LSD, in any amount, is still a psychoactive drug that must be doing something, even if it’s poorly understood at the moment.

“I wouldn’t say it’s all placebo,” De Wit said in an interview with the New York Times on her groundbreaking research. “Clearly, it’s an active drug. We see brain changes that are a little bit like the high dose effect [on the same areas of the brain].”

Dr. Peter Grinspoon, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and specialist in psychedelic drugs, recently wrote an article stating “there isn’t yet definitive proof that microdosing is at all helpful, or even that is it safe in the long term.” Grinspoon calls for more research. 

So why do people microdose? The answer’s pretty simple, actually! One study, published in 2019, examined possible reasons why people microdose and concluded that it was mostly for perceived everyday performance enhancement:

In line with media reports and anecdotes, the majority of our respondents microdosed to enhance performance. Negative effects occurred mostly acutely after substance consumption. However, the main reason to have stopped microdosing was that it was not effective. Future experimental placebo-controlled studies are needed to test whether performance enhancement can be quantified and to assess potential negative effects after longer term microdosing.

Full-Dose Psilocybin and Therapy

Some researchers are bullish on the clinical and therapeutic potential that psychedelics show in studies. There is scientific evidence that psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, the main ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” are as effective (if not more effective than) selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs (SSRIs) like Lexapro, which is considered a gold-standard drug for treating depression and anxiety in the U.S. The most intensive study conducted on this was published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2021 with surprisingly positive results for psilocybin therapy:

…this trial did not show a significant difference in antidepressant effects between psilocybin and escitalopram in a selected group of patients. Secondary outcomes generally favored psilocybin over escitalopram, but the analyses of these outcomes lacked correction for multiple comparisons. Larger and longer trials are required to compare psilocybin with established antidepressants.

Pollan, the bestselling author of How to Change Your Mind, wrote the highly influential book to share his personal experience with and research into psychedelic drugs. His conclusion is that psychedelics, such as psilocybin, show immense promise in potentially solving some society-wide mental health issues. He also added that he thinks we should hit the brakes, per se, before going any further on legalizing or decriminalizing psychedelics. He thinks that medical experts should ensure enough research is done into their efficacy and that a proper clinical structure is put in place to manage programs where people are administered psychedelics in controlled environments. Psychedelics may eventually come to help in treating certain kinds of addiction, but only when administered in clinical settings under the right conditions and direction.

Where Are Psychedelics Legal?

Psychedelic drugs are currently decriminalized in a handful of cities and two states in the U.S. However, LSD is not included in any of these bills and is, therefore, still illegal; the only substances that are either decriminalized or legal to some degree are entheogenic plants or fungi unless otherwise stated by the law. Colorado recently became the second U.S. state to legalize psychedelic mushrooms. Oregon was the first state to decriminalize psilocybin. Colorado and Oregon don’t make it legal in the exact same ways and have very specific rules on how the drug can be possessed and used, however. Both states will set up some sort of “healing center” programs for the use of these psychedelic drugs (mostly psilocybin).

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About the Author

Will Long

Will Long

A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Long has been a writer for Landmark Recovery since 2021. He specializes in research and writing about substance abuse from a scientific and social perspective. Unearthing information from underexplored, far-flung corners of the Internet, Long’s passion is finding emerging trends in substance use and treatment that the public should know about.