Microdosing: Fact or Fluke?

Does microdosing work? Taking microdoses of psychedelics like shrooms or LSD has become more popular, but what evidence is there for its effectiveness?

by Megan Townsend

Since the pandemic, microdosing psychedelics like psilocybin or LSD has taken centre stage as an increasingly popular trend. It’s starred in documentaries, taken over TikTok and piqued the interest of millions of people. 

Those that swear by microdosing claim it provides a wide range of health and wellness benefits, including increased creativity, improved mental health and enhanced focus. However, increasing amounts of scientific studies on the practice have found that microdosing may be a placebo, with no identifiable positive long term effects.

What is microdosing?

It’s important to note that the intention of microdosing isn’t to get ‘high’. Although there isn’t any universally accepted definition of the term, it’s largely accepted that a microdose is around a fifth to a twentieth of a standard recreational dose of a psychedelic. However, it can be difficult to accurately measure the true amount as these substances aren’t regulated outside of clinical trials, meaning that potency can vary greatly.

As microdosing takes place in such small amounts, users don’t experience the usual ‘trippy’ psychoactive effects associated with LSD or magic mushrooms. Instead, some report very subtle, almost sub-perceptual advantages. 

What does it do?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that microdosing can have a number of positive health and wellness effects, ranging from improvements in mood and focus to enhanced creativity.

The rise in the popularity of microdosing is mostly attributed to James Fadiman, an American writer and researcher of psychedelics. In 2010, he sent out microdosing instruction sheets to those interested and asked them to email him back the results. According to Fadiman, the results were overwhelmingly positive, with hundreds of ‘trip reports’ sent back claiming improvements in a number of conditions. 

Moving into the mid-2010s, microdosing was repopularised amongst Silicon Valley workers, who used small doses of psychedelic substances to gain a ‘competitive advantage’ over their co-workers. In 2016, WIRED spoke to a number of Silicon Valley employees who claimed that microdosing induced a “flow state”, increasing lateral thinking and promoting “empathetic interpersonal relations”.

At present, microdosing has taken up residence in the TikTok influencer community, who often frame the trend in terms of spiritual and wellness practices, rather than employment productivity.

@brianamystic A few ways microdosing has impacted my life #microdosingtiktok #mushrooms #spiritualtiktok #personaldevelopment #mentalhealthawareness ♬ Blade Runner 2049 – Synthwave Goose

What does the research say?

Despite the positive anecdotal evidence, when it comes to researching microdosing, the results appear mixed.

Some studies report small to medium-sized improvements which confirm the subjective effects felt by those who swear by microdosing. Survey-based research conducted in 2018 found that microdosers feel that the practice helps to improve their mood, decrease anxiety and enhance memory, attention and sociability. 

Another study from 2018 also found that microdosing ‘psychedelic truffles’ also helped to boost creativity in participants and promoted ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. However, as this study didn’t utilise a control group, it is difficult to determine whether these effects were truly down to microdosing psychedelics or a social desirability/expectancy bias. 

Interestingly, one of the most recent studies to explore microdosing with LSD found that it had no evidence for long term improvements in either mood or cognition, two of the main reasons for the uptake of the trend. The study used 80 healthy male volunteers, with half allocated to an LSD group and the other half a placebo group. Each group received 14 doses of either LSD or the placebo every three weeks for six weeks. On days when they were dosed, participants reported small improvements in creativity, connectedness, energy, happiness and irritability, but this only occurred in those who were effectively blinded. After six weeks there were no significant changes in depression, anxiety or stress scales, and four participants dropped out of the study due to feelings of anxiety and overstimulation. 

Another randomised controlled study (the strongest form of scientific evidence) found that the same appears true of microdosing with psilocybin. The research involved 34 participants and again randomly allocated them to receive either psilocybin or a placebo. Participants noted interesting subjective effects such as feeling happier and more included. However, researchers concluded that there was no objective evidence of improvements in creativity, wellbeing and cognitive function, and that perceived effects at such a small dose level are likely due to an ‘expectancy’ effect.

Unfortunately, it’s important to note that microdosing suffers from a lack of rigorous scientific research, particularly in the form of randomised controlled trials, which is needed to confirm anecdotal evidence. 

Much of the research that has explored microdosing to date (with a few exceptions) has taken the form of small-scale self report studies. Whilst such studies are often helpful in producing preliminary data, they obviously suffer from a lack of validity and generalisability. 

As well as this, research samples are often self-selected. This further contributes to the expectancy bias, as participants who are already enthusiastic about microdosing are part of the research population, increasing the likelihood of positive results. 

Of course it’s also important to acknowledge that research with psychedelics also encounters barriers that other legal substances might not. LSD and psilocybin’s status as class A schedule 1 substances means that researchers have to jump through multiple hoops to conduct their studies, one of the main hoops being acquiring a Home Office licence. Not only is this incredibly time consuming, but it is also highly expensive, and so researchers are increasingly warning that the psychedelic research area is an unappealing one. 

Although anecdotal evidence claims microdosing can have several positive effects, the research base is still torn as to whether this is true. If science is to meaningfully explore the practice, then psychedelics must become  accessible to the research community, so that previous findings can be confirmed. 

This piece was written by Volteface Content and Media Officer Megan Townsend. She is particularly interested in the reform of drug legislation, subcultural drug use and harm reduction initiatives. She also has an MA in Criminology from Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.

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