The Mythology of Microdosing Continues to Grow. Can Science Catch Up?

Every weekday, Brad wakes up at 5 a.m. to meditate, pray, and read the Bible with his partner before his daily prework workout and yoga routine. He runs his own successful business, cooks dinner for his girlfriend every night, eats an alkaline diet, and uses any free time he has in the evening to meditate or walk his dog. In other words, he lives the type of life the rest of us only aspire to when crafting our New Year’s resolutions or wishfully writing a new weekly routine.

As anyone familiar with behavioral science knows, motivation and self-regulation (two key ingredients in Brad’s moderated lifestyle) are huge areas of research that scholars puzzle over. You don’t have to be a scientist to intuitively understand this—all of us sometimes experience a mismatch between our intentions and actions. Like Brad (whose name I’ve changed): his days used to be spent eating junk food and watching TV and pornography. He spent a few years in drug rehab and by his own account was “basically stoned all day everyday” for 18 years. How did he change to become a beacon of healthy habits?

Brad credits his newfound lifestyle to microdosing, the practice of taking subperceptual doses of psychedelic drugs on a routine basis. Although microdosers typically ingest LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) or psilocybin mushrooms (the same types of psychedelics used in the full-blown hallucinogenic trips that were popularized, and then stigmatized, in the 1960s and 1970s), microdosers don’t take drugs to get high. In fact, most microdosers ingest about a tenth of what would be required for a full psychedelic trip. Goals of microdosers vary—from increasing energy to decreasing anxiety—and the effects of a microdose are subtle. With such a small dose, microdosing typically does not lead to any of the sensory distortions or altered state of consciousness associated with higher doses of psychedelics. After taking a microdose, most people fall back into their daily normal routine without interruption—going to work, taking their toddler to the doctor, even attending obligatory family brunches without relatives noticing anything amiss.

Microdosers pen lengthy tributes about how the practice has changed their lives by helping them become less angry, anxious, and depressed.

Many microdosers follow a dosing protocol outlined by psychologist James Fadiman in his book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. For Fadiman, an early psychedelic researcher and the godfather of microdosing, different doses of psychedelics have different purposes. High doses are best used for spiritual experiences; low microdoses work as problem-solving aids. Fadiman has collected thousands of anecdotal reports that microdosing psychedelics can help ease anxiety, improve creativity, reduce dependency on other substances (coffee, cigarettes, Adderall, antidepressants), alleviate headaches, and improve motivation to engage in healthy habits such as diet, exercise, and meditation.

Most proponents are effusive in their praise of the life-changing power of microdosing, and their glowing claims are one of the reasons microdosing has grown in popularity over the last few years. In the online subreddit r/microdosing, an online community of over 60,000 subscribers and the place where I met Brad, microdosers pen lengthy tributes about how the practice has changed their lives by helping them become less angry, anxious, and depressed.

A recent article in The Guardian featured the stories of three women—a university lecturer, a mother, and a businesswoman—who microdose to better their lives in different ways. The lecturer credited microdosing with improving her teaching and helping her become more empathetic toward her students. She also times microdoses to coincide with family visits and social events because it makes it “easier to be interested in people.” Likewise, the businesswoman microdoses in a calculated way to take advantage of the social and creative boost she feels. She ingests small amounts of LSD when facing a working day filled with design tasks or training employees. For the mother in the article, the illegal status of the mushrooms she uses to microdose is a huge concern, but the benefits she experiences (reduced depression, getting off of booze, and therefore parenting better) outweigh the risks. 

Other advocates tout similar benefits. One man anonymously wrote about how growing and microdosing on magic mushrooms helped him through the loss of his daughter. In A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life,author Ayelet Waldman details her experiment microdosing LSD for a month. She credits the practice with helping reduce her depression and putting “the brakes on more inappropriate behaviors.

As plentiful as the praise is, evaluating the many too-good-to-be-true claims against hard science is challenging.

As plentiful as the praise is, evaluating the many too-good-to-be-true claims against hard science is challenging. Clinical research on psychedelics, in particular LSD, dried up in the 1970s following the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Although in the 1950s and 1960s scientific research and clinical use of psychedelics was widespread under the CSA, both LSD and psilocybin are classified by the United States government as Schedule I drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” That classification could be partially due to certain academics who conducted psychedelic research with highly suspect methodology (Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert ingesting psychedelics alongside their participants comes to mind) before becoming prominent faces of the burgeoning counterculture movement. Scientific research on Schedule I drugs is not totally banned under the CSA, but the legal restrictions combined with a bad public image meant that psychedelic research underwent a decades-long freeze. Other than a few studies on psilocybin (the psychedelic compound found in “magic” mushrooms) in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was almost no academic research on psychedelics until a few years ago.

By necessity, most experimentation on psychedelics and microdosing over the last fifty years has occurred underground. Citizen scientists, like those on the subreddit r/microdosing, have been researching and recording the results of different doses, protocols, and methods. That community has a dedicated page with information ranging from “Effects, Side Effects, and Interactions” to “Dosage and Regime” to “Reports and Diaries.” Some pages have anecdotal reports from other users, others link to scientific articles, and still others have thorough tables listing drug, dose, threshold, duration, and notes. It has all the feel of a medical advice page—with the major caveat that many these claims and tips have yet to be rigorously tested.  

Despite the abundance of detailed, scientific-in-appearance information and forums dedicated to microdosing, almost everything we know about microdosing stems from anecdotal reports like those I mentioned above. That is a problem. While there is a larger body of research suggesting that psychedelics can help in the treatment of depression, end-of-life anxiety, PTSD, and addiction, the practice of microdosing psychedelics has not been evaluated according to the same standards. Without conducting controlled, scientific trials, there is no way to evaluate the truth behind the claims. The health risks are also unknown—there are no studies evaluating whether it is safe for humans to take low doses of psychedelics on a regular basis for extended periods of time.

It has all the feel of a medical advice page—with the major caveat that many these claims and tips have yet to be rigorously tested.

Many scientists have pointed this out. In a recent commentary in the Journal of Psychopharmacology,a group of researchers in disciplines ranging from psychology to neurobiology and pharmacology enumerate the methodological problems with the quasi-scientific approaches employed by citizen scientists. Their critiques include uncertainty of dose and presence and variance of the active ingredient, lack of randomization, no inclusion or exclusion criteria, absence of physiological data, and condition blinding.

To better understand the differences between scientific research and people experimenting on themselves at home, let’s walk through how a typical research study runs. Participants are prescreened to make sure they fit certain criteria and will not experience undue health risks from the study. Those who pass screening protocols are randomly assigned to a treatment and control group, and ideally both they and the researchers are “blind”—that is, they do not know which participants are in which group. Those in the treatment group receive a specific, validated dose of the drug, and those in the control group receive a placebo that they take using the same protocol. Then, each group is evaluated and compared to see if the treatment is more effective than the placebo. 

When citizen scientists experiment on themselves, they lack all of these methodological controls. In addition to dose uncertainty, the lack of blind placebo conditions means that many of these glowing outcomes could be the result of the expectation of positive effects. It seems plausible that the growing media mythology around microdosing could create a cycle of self-fulfilling prophesies.  

It seems plausible that the growing media mythology around microdosing could create a cycle of self-fulfilling prophesies.

Some recently published research, however, does give credence to certain claims made by microdosers. One research team in Australia found preliminary evidence that expectation effects do not explain all of the changes microdosers report. Researchers in the Netherlands found that a single, nonblind microdose of psychedelic truffles improved convergent and divergent thinking, key components to creativity. In another study, scientists compared current and former microdosers to a nonmicrodosing control group to assess differences in personality, mental health, and creativity. Those who had microdosed in the past or were currently microdosing scored lower on measures of dysfunctional attitudes and higher on measures of wisdom, open-mindedness, and creativity when compared to nonmicrodosing controls. Although these are published studies, it is important to note that they also suffered methodological limitations that should temper enthusiasm about their results. It’s a step in the right direction, but researchers need to continue to increase the rigor with which they evaluate microdosing.

Although there are real issues with the approaches taken by citizen scientists, as well as the initial research forays done by academics, both groups have helped advance a compelling case for why microdosing research should transition to the rigorous protocols of the lab. As one study author put it, microdosing has been portrayed by the media as a “general panacea that is able to improve virtually all aspects of an individual’s life.”  The cost of not investigating these claims is high.

Consider depression, just one of the many ailments that advocates say microdosing can help. Depression is widespread, costly, and difficult to treat. Although antidepressants are an effective treatment for depression for some individuals (about 60 percent of people experience a 50 percent reduction in symptoms), experts say new treatments are sorely needed. Based on the claims of those microdosers who report relief from their depression symptoms, microdosing LSD or psilocybin could be one of those treatments—which we will never know without robust, well-funded research.

The cost of not investigating these claims is high.

Fortunately, that research might be coming sooner rather than later. Last week, Johns Hopkins Medicine announced the launch of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research to ramp up research into the therapeutic, medicinal, and overall well-being potential of psychedelics. With $17 million in private funding, the new initiative represents the promise of a new era in psychedelic research. 

Spending the last few weeks immersed in the online world of microdosing, I found it easy to get caught up in all the positive claims. That is, until I came upon a sobering post in r/microdosing. An anonymous poster reported trying a microdose of LSD to alleviate their symptoms of depression. For this individual, microdosing triggered a psychotic manic episode that culminated in a major period of depression.

Microdosing appears to have the potential to help with everything from anxiety to depression to creative output. But there are also many risks with people using powerful drugs, unvalidated protocols, untested doses, and substances of unknown provenance to treat themselves at home without the supervision of a doctor. It is well past time that it be evaluated by well-funded and experienced scientific teams. Only additional research can reveal where microdosing resides on the continuum between placebo and panacea.