People have been taking doses of LSD and shrooms since the swinging sixties. Microdosing, however, has only become popular in the last six years or so.
While there are thousands of ecstatic reviews of the practice online, the expected benefits have not held up in the few clinical studies conducted on microdosing so far.
Some scientists believe the anecdotal effects are purely a placebo, while others suggest that our testing methods are insufficient for measuring the subtle improvements to wellbeing that microdosing provides.
So what's the truth? Are the benefits of microdosing psychedelics due to the placebo effect?
What is microdosing?
About twice a week, I will take a capsule containing 0.1g of psilocybe cubensis, which is a psilocybin-containing “magic” mushroom.
If I take two capsules (0.2g), I will feel a bit nauseous and uneasy. But with just one, I barely notice a thing.
This is what’s known in microdosing circles as a sub-threshold dose, or a sub-perceptual dose. Basically, it’s a dose just low enough that you don’t get any psychotropic/perception-altering effects.
By taking this low dose, the idea is that you get subtle positive effects from the drug without the high or any intoxication.
Albert Hoffman (who first synthesised LSD) was a fan of microdosing back in the 50s, but it wasn’t really a common practice until a bunch of tech workers in California's silicon valley started microdosing LSD and psilocybin (found in "magic mushrooms") in order to increase their productivity.
Since then, it’s caught on. From professionals to housewives, CEOs to students, you can find microdosers from all walks of life. It’s especially popular in the modern wellness niche, with plenty of influencers promoting awareness of the practice as a strategy to improve mental health.
Overall, it seems most people these days microdose to improve their mental health rather, with any increase in their productivity an extra.
What are the supposed benefits of microdosing
The Microdosing subreddit has 205,000 members currently, with a large percentage of them reporting positive experiences with microdosing.
The most common benefits are:
- Boost in mood
- Decrease in anxiety
- Reduced cravings
- Enhanced focus
- Emotional regulation
- Improved confidence
- Improved relationships
- Increased optimism
While there is little scientific evidence for the benefits of microdosing, when it comes to larger doses of psycheldics, there is growing amounts of research proving positive effects. The main takeaways so far are that LSD and psilocybin have profound antidepressant effects as well as a unique ability to dampen the fear response.
Psilocybin in particular appears to help promote the growth of new brain cells, making it a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other related conditions.
Although they’re not common, some people do report negative effects from microdosing, including:
- Increased emotionality
- Disrupted sleep
What studies have been done
Most studies done on microdosing so far are not conducted in clinical settings. The results were usually self-reported and from small sample sizes.
This is why more research is needed to determine the true efficacy and safety of microdosing. Having said that, let’s look at the science that has been done.
A 2019 study saw 278 microdosers complete an online survey. The results showed that 26.6% of participants reported an improved mood and 14.8% reported increased focus.
A similar 2019 study found that people who microdose LSD or psilocybin self-reported an increase in creativity and open-mindedness.
Another survey found that some microdosers experienced decreased levels of depression and stress over a six-week period.
This study did find that microdosing psychedelic truffles produced a short-term improvement in divergent thinking and creativity, but no other outcomes were measured.
The most recent study on microdosing, published last month (June '22), found that “psilocybin microdosers demonstrate greater observed improvements in mood and mental health at one month relative to non-microdosing controls”.
In a paper published in the journal eLife in 2021, researchers found that although all psychological outcomes improved for the microdosing group over the month-long testing period, the same was true for the placebo group – with no significant differences between the two.
These results make it look like the benefits of microdosing are down to psychological expectations rather than pharmacological effects of the drug.
But not everyone is so convinced that the effects of microdosing can be fully down to the placebo effect. Many argue that microdosing is a difficult area to study. As the substances used are illegal in most countries, it’s difficult to study standardised doses in a clinical setting.
In a small, placebo-controlled dose-finding study from 2020, it was found that microdoses of LSD had beneficial effects on mood and attention for some participants, which were not explained by the placebo effect.
Another study found evidence of an increase in brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a protein linked to brain plasticity, a few hours after microdosing. While the study was not able to link this finding to any measures of wellbeing or cognition, it does show that something is happening within the brain.
Larger doses of psilocybin have previously been found to increase levels of BDNF in the brain, as has lion’s mane mushroom.
Interestingly, the placebo effect has also been suggested to be a powerful driver behind the effects of many antidepressants. One review looking at all the available published and unpublished (hidden by pharmaceutical companies) data revealed that most (if not all) of the benefits of antidepressants are due to the placebo effect.
Microdosing clearly helps a lot of people - me being one of them. However, clinical research does not match anecdotal reports, and the current science suggests that the beneficial effects are purely down to the placebo effect.
While it’s more to it than that, more research will be needed to find out exactly what pharmacological effects are taking place.
When it comes to researching such a novel and unique practice as microdosing, there are so many variables at play that it’s going to take a fair bit of investigation to hone in on what effects microdosing is having, including any possible negative effects.
Personally, I’m a big believer in the positive effects of microdosing psychedelics - particularly psilocybin - and I’m sure there's more to it than the placebo effect.
What do you think? Have you experienced positive effects from microdosing and do you think they could be down to the placebo effect?