The Jury is Still Out on Microdosing
While thousands of people microdose on psychedelics every day and many rave about the benefits, scientists are clamoring to back up the excitement with evidence.
Anecdotally, microdosing enhances creativity, productivity, focus, a sense of wellbeing, improved memory, vitality. The list goes on.
Take the case of National Hockey League player Daniel Carcillo, who retired from the sport at age 30 due to traumatic brain injury from repeat concussions, struggled with 15 crippling symptoms in various combinations on any given day, including depression, headaches, insomnia and suicidal thoughts. After spending a fortune on various treatments over the past three-and-a-half years, Carcillo took a large dose of psilocybin six months ago and then began microdosing every three days on 100 milligrams (along with a cocktail of CBD and other medicinal, non-psychedelic mushrooms). Recently, his EEG came back clear for the first time. “It’s saved my life,” he says. “I’m more creative, attentive, a better father, husband and friend. My anxiety and depression is so much better. I’ve won two Stanley Cups, but right now I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life,” he says.
Another microdoser, a 61-one-year-old entreprenuer from Cape Town, South Africa, echoes many others when she says microdosing helps her to focus, be more creative and more empathic in her relationships with friends and colleagues. “The world just looks more beautiful,” she says. “In a subtle way, microdosing puts you back into that same space as a hero’s dose does but in a less hectic way. It allows you to access the benefits but still carry on with your day as usual.”
But how do scientists make sense of personal accounts like these?
While the findings in studies involving larger doses of psilocybin or LSD have been unequivocally positive, those on microdosing involve several challenges, including the lack of clarity around the basics, such as what constitutes a microdose, how frequently it should be taken and under what circumstances, as well as the fact that psychedelics are still illegal in most countries. It is now generally agreed that microdosing involves a very small dose (no more than one tenth of a gram of psilocybin) that doesn’t interfere with a person’s normal behavior; that it is used many times (microdosing expert James Fadiman recommends every third day); that it is taken to improve well-being and cognitive and emotional functioning.
Only a few studies have been concluded so far, including two small empirical studies, and the findings are more uncertain and nuanced than the anecdotal evidence would have us believe.
But more studies are underway. Given the legal and bureaucratic obstacles, researchers must currently rely on self-reporting from microdosers. Two recent European studies analyzed participants’ self-reported experiences of microdosing as well as their expectations. They found some subtle positive changes – less depression and stress and increased focus – but no obvious changes in creativity, wellbeing and mindfulness, contrary to participants’ expectations. Researchers also noticed “increased neuroticism” among some participants, and concluded that not every microdoser necessarily has positive experiences. Ultimately, researchers found some “disconnects between the popular narrative around microdosing and the experience of microdosers in the sample”.
Researcher Balazs Szigeti says none of the studies have so far established any “robust effects” and calls for more rigorous, empirical research and controlled studies. “There’s a difference between the hype and showing scientifically that it works. In this case, the hype is way ahead of the scientific evidence,” he says.
The fact that the studies have involved people who are interested in psychedelics and have a vested interest in a positive result, that they are taking some legal risk which ups the ante, and that the doses are so small, creates a “perfect storm” for the placebo effect to manifest in the findings, he believes.
With Imperial College, Szigeti is testing the placebo effect in a large sample size study. Users will rate their sense of wellbeing as well as test their cognitive functioning via an online game. Participants must guess whether they’ve taken a placebo or a microdose. So far, Szigeti says early findings show that the “subjects are not very good at their guesses.” The final results should be available by March 2020.
Another self-reporting study on the effects of microdosing on cognitive performance and mental health is now being conducted by mobile health research platform Quantified Citizen and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canada. Lead researcher and “mushroom guru” Paul Stamets is upbeat about the potential of microdosing. He believes it can enhance the kind of creative thinking that, if pooled together, could help us address pressing global challenges.
Stamets believes microdosing may have more positive neurogenic effects in some cases than large doses – a feeding rather than a flooding of the system. One day, we could take small daily doses in much the same way as we take vitamins, he believes. Stamets, who advocates a protocol of three days on, four days off, points to research on rodents that has showed clear benefits of microdosing over macrodosing, in helping to decondition fear responses, for example.
Meanwhile, studies on the effects of higher doses of psychedelics show unambiguously clear benefits in humans: alleviation of depression and anxiety, reduction in addictive behavior, increased empathy. Interestingly, the mystical experiences that people report on high doses in research settings have been shown to have a direct bearing on how positive the outcome is. The higher the rating of mysticism, the greater the shift in attitude and behavior of the participants, researchers have found.
Eric Osborne, founder of MycoMeditations, which hosts psilocybin retreats in Jamaica, has cultivated “magic mushrooms” for over 20 years, munched on a good few of them, and facilitated countless retreats. He’s not surprised by the research findings on large doses, which he believes reveal that the real benefits of psychedelics lie in the profound perceptual changes brought about in the mind, including this spiritual component.
He worries that the phenomenon of Silicon Valley techno-types microdosing to improve their productivity could contradict the very essence of why a psilocybin experience is so valuable. Nevertheless, he’s not “in conflict” with productivity. “We need an efficient and productive society, and technology plays a vital part in that.” And psychedelics, he says, have also helped him learn to work productively.
But, as a fungi expert who jokes that the mere smell of a mushroom can open up the psychedelic pathways in his brain, he is keenly sensitive to another scent: the whiff of faddism. He is concerned that microdosing may introduce a fad-like component into the psychedelic sphere (itself at risk of becoming a fad), “that risks discrediting the profound and meaningful work that the psychedelic movement is achieving.”
Osborne believes that some in the microdosing community are seizing the entrepreneurial opportunity to carve a niche for themselves in this burgeoning industry, while sometimes showing a reluctance to do the deep work that is really required,” he says.
Researchers are likely to invest large sums into more studies to explore the virtues of microdosing. “The more qualitative and quantitative research we can do on the effects of psychedelics the better, especially given how many people are using them. We need to be as informed as possible,” says Osborne. “I am certainly willing to change my perspective given new data, but I’m skeptical that microdosing is really going to live up to its reputation.”
He believes that we should also look back at history, at the practices of indigenous cultures that have been using psychedelics for thousands of years, for answers. “There’s a wealth of knowledge there that we’re under appreciating. Indigenous people have historically taken far bigger doses than are being taken for research purposes or on our retreats.”
There is some anthropological evidence of psychedelics being used to treat certain ailments and not just for religious rituals, but it’s not clear how high the doses were. Anecdotal evidence of the Aztec people taking lower doses in the 16th Century pointed to the experience of hallucinations, which implies these were higher doses.
When psychedelics, and in particular microdosing, are being touted in popular culture and media as “the next best thing”, Osborne says he fears that industrialization is the next step. “We seem to be heading to a point where we remove the psychedelic effects of the substance while trying to maintain positive outcomes.”
While this may ultimately help some people, Osborne believes we must not lose sight of the profound gift that psychedelics offer us: the opportunity to stare deeply and bravely into ourselves to confront the obstacles and challenges that hold us back.