Following the publication of Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, in which she describes profound mental health improvements as a result of microdosing LSD that according to her were not produced by common psychiatric medications, microdosing as a self-managed treatment for depression and anxiety has been the subject of increasing media and scientific attention.
Microdosing psychedelics is also a growing trend among people who suffer from chronic pain conditions like cluster headaches. Although not yet scientifically proven, many people report that microdosing with small amounts of psychedelic substances like LSD or psilocybin can help relieve their symptoms.
Furthermore, the intensity of a high-dose psychedelic experience may not be desirable for all people. Understandably, some may be intimidated or frightened by the idea of tapping into an unfamiliar state of consciousness for several hours where their perceptions, emotions, and sense of self identity are temporarily and radically altered. For these people, the practice of microdosing may be a way of improving health or performance without having to radically alter your conscious state.
All of this raises some interesting questions; can microdosing psychedelics hack your biology to optimize health and performance? At present, the jury is out as to whether microdosing actually works, or is a placebo effect phenomenon where a person experiences a positive change because they believe they will.
Concerns have also been raised as to whether microdosing is physiologically safe or potentially quite harmful.
Microdosing: Placebo or Effective Biohack?
Maastricht University graduate student Joel Bornemann recently published a review of studies investigating the effects of microdosing psychedelics on cognition (perception, attention, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving) and mood.
In his paper — The Viability of Microdosing Psychedelics as a Strategy to Enhance Cognition and Well-being — Bornemann clearly explains the various discoveries presented in the literature on microdosing.
Microdosing Psychedelics for Creativity
In 2018, researchers in the Netherlands assessed measures of divergent thinking, which is the ability to generate creative and original ideas by exploring different possibilities and perspectives, and convergent thinking, which is type of thinking that involves bringing together different ideas and finding a single, correct answer or solution to a problem, in people attending a psychedelic festival.
In this study, participants were asked to complete the Alternative Uses Task and Picture Concept Task, two well-known tests that measure creativity and problem-solving abilities. Participants completed these tasks before ingesting a sub-threshold dose of psilocybin-containing truffles, and again while they were presumed to be under the influence of the truffles.
Results showed significant improvements in both convergent and divergent thinking among participants, providing evidence for the creativity-enhancing properties of microdosing. However, the lack of a placebo control group in this study means that the improvement in creativity could be an effect of placebo.
James Fadiman, a Stanford Ph.D. in Psychology and author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide — a manual that offers comprehensive guidance for those seeking the divine within through psychedelic experimentation — recently designed a website with Dr. Sophia Korb for people interested in conducting a self-study, which provides a microdosing protocol that recommends microdosing every third day for one month. For the thousands of individuals who entered daily evaluations of their experience, improved creativity was a commonly reported effect.
Two subsequent qualitative studies seemed to support these findings about creativity. The first study analyzed 21 interviews through private messaging, while the second study analyzed data from a subset of the Global Drug Survey questionnaire, answered by people who reported microdosing LSD or psilocybin within the last year. In both studies, participants reported improvements in creativity.
In 2019, researchers from the University of Toronto conducted an observational study to determine if microdosing is linked with improved creativity. The researchers analyzed data from the Alternative Uses Task, which is a test used to measure creative thinking by asking individuals to generate multiple uses for a common object beyond its typical or intended use. The test was completed by participants with and without microdosing experience, and results showed that current and former microdosers scored higher in creativity than those who have never practiced microdosing.
It's important to note that the reported increase in creativity from microdosing in this study may not be solely due to the practice of microdosing itself. One possibility is that creative individuals are more likely to try microdosing, so it's difficult to say for certain that microdosing is the sole cause of the observed increase in creativity.
Exploring Negative Findings: Microdosing and Creativity
In contrast to the mostly positive findings mentioned above, a 2019 systematic observational study found no changes in creativity. The participants in the study completed a set of questionnaires at the start and end of the 6-week microdosing study. The questionnaires included the Creative Personality Scale to measure creativity, but the researchers did not find any changes in creativity. These results contrast with recent studies that showed increased creative thinking with microdosing.
However, the authors of this study note that creativity is a complex concept and can be hard to assess using questionnaires. Therefore, the lack of changes may be due to the limited ability of these measures to capture creativity accurately.
The previously mentioned controlled study that determined around 13 micrograms of LSD to be a safe microdose also failed to observe any differences in creative performance. Although the reserchers found that microdoses of LSD marginally increased the number of attempted trials on a measure of creativity, overall they detected minimal effects.
Most recently, researchers from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina found no evidence to support that low doses of psilocybin mushrooms can enhance creativity in their double-blind placebo-controlled study. The researchers used various creativity tasks to assess changes in creativity. However, their results did not indicate a significant positive impact on creativity (in terms of divergent and convergent thinking).
There is considerable anecdotal evidence suggesting that microdosing can boost creativity. Recent observational studies have also provided some support for these claims, However, these studies are susceptible to experimental biases like confirmation bias and placebo effects.
The above findings could be used to inform future investigations.
Microdosing Psychedelics for Focus and Productivity
The renewed interest in psychedelic research seems to have been propelled by an increasing number of young professionals in Silicon Valley, a region in California, USA, that is known for being a global center for technology and innovation, who are using microdosing to enhance their focus and productivity at work.
The results of several studies suggest that microdosing may lead to…
- Improved cognitive performance
- Increased productivity
- Increased efficiency
- Decreased procrastination
- Decreased mental fog
- Lower levels of distractibility
- Increased absorption (focused attention characterized by deep involvement with particular aspects of subjective experience)
However, In 2019, a study based on questionnaires linked microdosing to reduced focus. In the same year, a double-blind RCT that administered six doses of either a placebo, 5, 10, or 20 micrograms of LSD showed little effect on cognitive performance. However, the study's results may have been affected by the fact that participants were confined to bed on the days they received microdoses.
The previously mentioned University of Buenos Aires study conducted by psychotherapist Federico Cavanna and colleagues also failed to find evidence supporting the notion that psilocybin mushrooms enhance cognition.
Microdosing, Mood, and Well-Being
Some studies suggest that microdosing may have the potential to improve mood and well-being. In particular, microdosing may have the potential to:
Studies suggest that microdosing psychedelics may have some potential in alleviating depressive symptoms.
For example, a study published in 2021 in which thousands of participants described their microdosing experience via a mobile application, showed that adults who microdose psychedelics self-report lower levels of depression. Though these results appear quite promising, reported effects were quite small, and the lack of a control group may have influenced the outcomes of this research.
In contrast, the research group in Buenos Aires found no evidence to support the notion that low doses of psilocybin mushrooms can improve mood. In their conclusions, the authors suggested that the perceived benefits of microdosing may be due, at least in part, to the power of expectation.
Research investigating the effects of microdosing on anxiety has also garnered mixed results, with some studies reporting lower levels of anxiety and relief from social anxiety, while others, including Fadiman’s comprehensive cross-national study, reported incidences of increased anxiety.
Microdosing and Mental Health: Recent Developments
Since the publication of Bornemann’s review, some placebo-controlled trials exploring the effect of microdosing on mental health have been published. These studies also reported mixed results.
In one of the largest placebo-controlled trials on psychedelics to date, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: the Placebo group, which took placebo for 4 weeks; the Half-Half group, which took placebo for 2 weeks and microdosed for 2 weeks; and the Microdosing group, which microdosed for 4 weeks. During each microdosing week, participants took two microdoses of any psychedelic substance of their choice, without a defined dose.
Participants in the microdosing group reported significant psychological improvements, including increases in well-being, mindfulness, and life-satisfaction, as well as decreases in paranoia. Overall, this study confirms the positive anecdotal reports of microdosing's psychological benefits. However, the results indicate that these improvements are not attributable to the effects of microdosing on the brain, but rather to the placebo effect, as there were no significant differences observed between the groups.
In a recent home-administered randomized controlled trial, healthy male volunteers were divided into two groups: one group received a small dose of LSD in distilled water, and the other group received a placebo (water only). Each group received 14 doses every three days for six weeks, with the first dose given in a lab and the others taken on their own.
The daily questionnaires showed that the LSD group reported feeling more connected, energetic, happy, and healthy on the days they took the drug compared to the days they didn't. These positive effects remained after controlling for their expectations before the study. However, after the six weeks of dosing, there were no significant long-term changes in depression, anxiety, mindfulness, or stress levels.
In other words, while microdosing LSD did have some short-term mood-boosting effects, it did not produce any significant long-term benefits. Future studies in clinical populations (e.g., people with depression or anxiety) could use active placebos to control for placebo effects and adjust the dose to account for individual differences in drug response.
Notably, during the study, four individuals withdrew due to experiencing feelings of anxiety and overstimulation after taking the LSD doses.
In summary, it remains unclear what effect psychedelic microdoses may have on mood. A better understanding of the effects of microdosing on mood will undoubtedly be enhanced by future, better-designed research.
Possible Long-term Health Effects of Microdosing
Although psychedelics are regarded by experts as among the least harmful psychoactive substances, exhibiting no toxicity or dependence liability, no research to date has examined any potential long-term physiological effects of microdosing.
We know that psychedelics exert their characteristic subjective effects by interacting with the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor, a protein in the brain that responds to the neurotransmitter serotonin. While psychedelics have a strong affinity for the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor, they also have an affinity for the 5-HT2B serotonin receptor. Research suggests that activating the 5-HT2B receptor may contribute to the development of valvular heart disease.
While occasional use of psychedelics likely does not cause any cardiovascular problems, repeated microdosing for extended periods could.
Psychedelics have also been shown to promote neuroplasticity. Scientific studies have demonstrated that classical psychedelics can catalyze a period of neuroplasticity, enhancing the brain’s ability to modify and adapt its function and structure. This process of brain reorganization is thought to contribute to the long-lasting therapeutic effects of psychedelic-assisted therapy.
However, the brain also has a natural mechanism to control this process to avoid too much or too little change. Overstimulation of neuroplasticity through microdosing may disrupt this balance and result in cognitive issues or worsening of psychiatric symptoms.
As psychedelic research is still in its early stages, researchers have yet to determine the optimal doses and frequency of these substances that are safe for human consumption