Microdosing Psychedelics: From Woodstock to Nixon’s War on Drugs, the use of psychedelics is a generally polarizing topic. The latest science suggests, however, that there may indeed be a considerable therapeutic benefit to psychedelics. Today we explore microdosing psychedelics, their history, who it may benefit, and how to do it.
Microdosing Psychedelics: What is Microdosing?
Microdosing psychedelics is the practice of consuming very low, sub-hallucinogenic doses of a psychedelic substance, such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or psilocybin-containing mushrooms 1. A typical microdose is about one-20th to one-tenth of a standard recreational dose.
The idea is not to generate any symptoms associated with a typical “high” of psychedelic drugs, like hallucinations, but rather take a sub-perceptual amount to reap the benefits without interfering with day-to-day life.
The two most popular substances to microdose with are psilocybin mushrooms or LSD, although other drugs, including ketamine and cannabis, are also micro-dosed as well.
What are Psilocybin Mushrooms?
Psilocybe Cubensis is the technical name of over 100 varieties of mushroom species that contain psilocybin and psilocin, the psychoactive properties inside mushrooms. Although classified as hallucenogens, the effects of consuming ‘magic mushrooms’ vary, depending on mindset and the setting in which they are taken 2.
Psilocybin mushrooms grow in various climates and habitats all across the world, including indoors under artificial conditions. Many species, however, are difficult to cultivate indoors because they need specific environmental triggers that aren’t easily replicated, like the presence of microbes in the soil to trigger their fruiting cycle 3.
Although many cultures of the world have known about the hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms for centuries, the psychedelic nature of psilocybin was first discovered by Dr. Albert Hoffman in 1958 4. Hoffman also discovered lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
Microdosing Psychedelics: What is LSD?
Lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD, is a synthetic hallucinogen that was first synthesized in 1938 in Switzerland by Dr. Albert Hoffman 5. Hoffman was trying to create a blood stimulant, and the psychedelic properties of LSD were not known until 1943 when Hofmann accidentally consumed some.
Before having any awareness of its hallucinogenic properties, Hoffman’s lab, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, widely distributed the substance for the experiments. This led to the widespread and rapid distribution of LSD across the world 6.
The History of Using Psychedelics for Therapeutic Benefits
During the 1950s and 1960s, top research universities across the country were studying the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics in the fields of psychiatry and oncology 7. Unfortunately, these studies came to a screeching halt when President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. All hallucinogens were signed into law as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act 8. A Schedule 1 drug is defined as having a high potential for abuse and has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S. As a result, all federal funding dried up.
Although clinical trials are slowly unraveling the impact that the war on drugs has had on the perception of psychedelics, psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and other psychedelics remain on Schedule 1 drug in many countries, and on the UN’s global drug convention, which severely limits both research and clinical application 9. The studies being done today are primarily funded by private non-profits and angel investors who are trying to re-establish psychedelics’ reputation for use in a therapeutic setting.
What are the Benefits of Microdosing Psychedelics?
Before the criminalization of psychedelics, university-run studies explored incredibly diverse fields, including; health, creativity, and religion. The Harvard Psilocybin Project is one example of a two-year project led by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, in which they studied psychedelics in various environments.
In the Marsh Chapel Experiment, students were given psilocybin as a part of a study designed to determine if the drug could facilitate the experience of profound religious states, and all of the participants reported such incidents. In the Concord Prison Experiment, inmates were administered psilocybin in an effort to reduce recidivism rates. Alpert and Leary believed that psilocybin could be the solution for the emotional problems of the Western man 10.
Although the post-war-on-drugs research into psychedelics is relatively new, there is still a growing body of evidence to support the claims that self-administering individuals have been making anecdotally for a long time.
The most common self-reported benefits include improved mood, better eating and sleeping habits, and less need for caffeine. In addition, reports suggest that the current generation is straying away from alcohol and recreational drugs in favor of ‘smart drugs,’ used to enhance their mood, productivity, and goals 11.
Scientifically, the research backs these claims up. For example, a 2019 placebo-controlled study on microdosing of LSD highlights its ability to improve mood, cognitive functions, and also tolerance to pain 12.
Another study examines the impact of LSD in successfully promoting neural plasticity and development 13. This has profound therapeutic implications since those who suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder tend to have impaired neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Trauma causes brain cells to be less adaptable and grow more slowly.
The benefits extend to drug-resistant depression and other previously untreatable psychiatric disorders, providing new hope for those whom conventional medicine has failed 14.
Apart from neuroplasticity, psychedelics were also found to profoundly increase the number of dendritic spines on cortical neurons, doubling their density in some cases. These spines form are an important site of molecular activity in the brain and are closely related to higher cognition 13.
The therapeutic benefits of psilocybin parallel that of LSD in most ways. Research highlights the mushrooms’ ability to act like an “inverse PTSD,” enabling individuals to diffuse the negative charge associated with painful memories 15.
Modern studies for microdosing psilocybin focus on their therapeutic effects in various areas, including life-threatening stress management and reduction of anxiety and depression amongst cancer patients 16.
When psilocybin reaches the brain, it decreases the brain activity associated with the medial prefrontal and the posterior cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with obsessive thinking and is usually overactive in people with depression. One of the mechanisms of antidepressants is actually to stifle its activity 17.
How to Microdose Psychedelics?
One of the most popular protocols for microdosing was set by Dr. James Fadiman. He shares that a microdose consists of about one-tenth of a recreational dose, usually ranging from 10-20 micrograms of dried psilocybin mushrooms or LSD. That’s 0.1- 0.2 grams, and the key, according to Dr. Fadiman, is finding the correct quantity for your body that remains sub-perceptual 18.
The dose should not elicit any ‘high’ or side-effects of larger psychedelic doses, including hallucinations.
A microdose is taken every third day, which looks like:
Monday: dose day
Tuesday: no dose
Wednesday: no dose
Thursday: dose day
Friday: no dose
Saturday: no dose
Sunday: dose day
Monday: no dose
… and so on.
Following a third-day cyclical protocol like this is vital because the human body develops a tolerance to psychedelics very quickly. If you deviate from the protocol and take them every day (or too often), your tolerance will build, and you will have to dramatically increase your dose each time 18.
Precautions with Microdosing Psychedelics
Although the current studies on microdosing psychedelics suggest they are generally safe, precautions exist for those who have any sort of bipolar or psychosis history since there is the possibility of overstimulation. There is also a ‘grey zone’ in people with pre-existing anxiety, as it may aggravate the problem 18.
Psychedelics drugs are also currently illegal in most of the world, especially in a non-therapeutic setting. The push to decriminalize psychedelics is, however, strong. Denver, Colorado, became the first city to decriminalize psilocybin in 2019, and various cities across the country have followed suit.
In November 2020, voters passed the Oregon Ballot Measure 109, which decriminalized psilocybin and legalized it for therapeutic use in the state of Oregon 19. However, the use, sale, and possession of psilocybin and other psychedelics in the United States remain illegal, despite state laws, are illegal under federal law.
As studies continue to explore and highlight the benefits of psychedelics, only time will tell if decriminalization on the federal level will follow.
The study of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes was occurring across the country until the 1970s war on drugs turned all hallucinogens into a Schedule 1 offense drug. Although the benefits have been spoken of anecdotal for a long time, a resurgence in the study of psychedelics has begun to confirm what people have been sharing for a long time.
Microdosing is the act of taking a sub-perceptual dose of a psychedelic drug to reap the benefits without the high. Studies show that both LSD and psilocybin mushrooms have a powerful impact on boosting cognitive function, mood, and pain tolerance in humans.
The studies that explore their potential on neuroplasticity are in their infancy stage but show great promise. Without government support, most of these studies are being funded by private non-government organizations hoping that the taboo of psychedelics may shift and that individuals may use hallucinogens legally one day in a therapeutic setting.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Dr. Daniel Pompa. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Pompa and his associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Dr. Pompa encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
1 Anderson, Thomas, et al. “Psychedelic Microdosing Benefits and Challenges: an Empirical Codebook.” Harm Reduction Journal, BioMed Central, 10 July 2019, doi.org/10.1186/s12954-019-0308-4.
2 Mattos-Shipley, K.m.j. De, et al. “The Good, the Bad and the Tasty: The Many Roles of Mushrooms.” Studies in Mycology, vol. 85, 2016, pp. 125–157., doi:10.1016/j.simyco.2016.11.002.
3 Stamets, Paul. Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World: an Identification Guide. Ten Speed Press, 1996.
4 “Psilocybin.” American Chemical Society, www.acs.org/content/acs/en/molecule-of-the-week/archive/p/psilocybin.html.
5 2007 Annual Report: the State of the Drugs Problem in Europe, 1 Nov. 2007, www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/annual-report/2007_en.
6 “The History of LSD – Acid, Albert Hoffman & Timothy Leary – Drug-Free World.” Foundation for a Drug-Free World, www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/lsd/a-short-history.html.
7 Carhart-Harris, Robin L, and Guy M Goodwin. “The Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelic Drugs: Past, Present, and Future.” Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 42,11 (2017): 2105-2113. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.84
8 “CSA Schedules.” Drugs.com, www.drugs.com/csa-schedule.html.
9 Weil, Andrew. The Strange Case for the Harvard Drug Scandal. Look Magazine, 5 Nov. 1963.
10 “Psychedelics Promote Neural Plasticity.” The Beckley Foundation, 28 Mar. 2019, www.beckleyfoundation.org/2018/06/13/psychedelics-promote-neural-plasticity/.
11 Aikins, Ross D. “From recreational to functional drug use: the evolution of drugs in American higher education, 1960-2014.” History of education vol. 44,1 (2015): 25-43. doi:10.1080/0046760X.2014.979251
12 “Microdosing Research: Science.” The Beckley Foundation, 1 Sept. 2020,www.beckleyfoundation.org/microdosing-lsd/.
13 Ly, Calvin, et al. “Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional Neural Plasticity.” Cell Reports, vol. 23, no. 11, 2018, pp. 3170–3182., doi:10.1016/j.celrep.2018.05.022.
14 Fuentes, Juan José et al. “Therapeutic Use of LSD in Psychiatry: A Systematic Review of Randomized-Controlled Clinical Trials.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 10 943. 21 Jan. 2020, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00943
15 Khazan, Olga. “One Dose of This Illegal Drug Can Stop Depression for Months.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Dec. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/12/the-life-changing-magic-of-mushrooms/509246/.
16 Griffiths, Roland R, et al. “Psilocybin Produces Substantial and Sustained Decreases in Depression and Anxiety in Patients with Life-Threatening Cancer: A Randomized Double-Blind Trial.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, vol. 30, no. 12, 2016, pp. 1181–1197., doi:10.1177/0269881116675513.
17 Carhart-Harris, R. L., et al. “Neural Correlates of the Psychedelic State as Determined by FMRI Studies with Psilocybin.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 6, 2012, pp. 2138–2143., doi:10.1073/pnas.1119598109.
18 Fadiman, James. The Psychedelic Explorers Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. Park Street Press, 2011.
19 Business Insider International. “Oregon Has Become the First State to Legalise ‘Magic’ Mushrooms for Therapeutic Use. Here’s What That Means.” Business Insider Australia, 4 Nov. 2020, www.businessinsider.com.au/oregon-first-ever-state-to-legalize-psilocybin-for-therapeutic-use-2020-11?r=US&IR=T.