Article Thumbnail

Is the Science Turning Against Microdosing?

Citing conflicting research and rampant instances of the placebo effect, researchers are slowly starting to question the efficacy of taking small amounts of psychedelics

Psychedelics are so hot right now. 

Not only are they being used in clinical settings to treat various mental health issues, at “luxury retreats” and by your parents, but microdosing them has become the new big thing in wellness. A recent survey found that more people have microdosed psychedelics during the pandemic as a way to enhance creativity and improve their mental wellbeing, and a 2018 study boasted the confidence-boosting, nature-connecting benefits of microdosing. Meanwhile, 2019 research found that self-medicating with small doses of psychedelics was more effective than traditional treatments for the likes of depression, anxiety and ADHD. 

But despite all the anecdotal evidence, limited studies and research into bigger doses of psychedelics, scientists still don’t actually know how good for you microdosing is — or if it’s even beneficial at all.

It doesn’t help that the scant research available has given mixed messaging on the topic. Despite surveys yielding positive responses, preliminary clinical studies are beginning to cast doubt on previous claims. A March 2021 study suggested that the benefits of microdosing may be the result of users’ expectations, as participants in the placebo group saw similar improvements to those actually taking psychedelics. Then, in December 2021, another study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, found that microdosing psilocybin had no effect on emotional processing nor symptoms of anxiety and depression when compared with a placebo group.

“Microdosing promises a range of benefits that most people probably want to experience, such as a better social life, being more in the moment, enhanced creativity and antidepressant and anxiety-reducing effects,” says Martin Korsbak Madsen, a neurobiology researcher at Copenhagen University Hospital. In other words, he continues, “it represents what a lot of people want,” as opposed to what they actually experience. “Placebo effects are immensely shaped by expectation. If you take a microdose of LSD and have an expectation that you’ll reap a long list of benefits, you’re more likely to suffer from confirmation bias — i.e., your mind cherry-picks evidence to support your belief,” he says. 

David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and the head of the Center for Psychedelic Research, says that although his team hasn’t found any benefits from microdosing as of yet, they also haven’t found any harmful effects, either — which makes sense, given the plethora of research into bigger doses of psychedelics. However, as reported by National Geographic, experts are still concerned about the long-term effects of microdosing, which they say could weaken heart valves, mirroring the damage done in the 1990s by the now-banned diet pills fenfluramine and phentermine (Fen-Phen).

Furthermore, microdoses of psychedelics are much harder to study than bigger doses, due to the impracticality of giving out small amounts day after day in a laboratory setting (the illegal status of psychedelics in the U.S. means that scientists can’t allow participants to take the drugs at home). This lack of research doesn’t seem to have curbed the public’s penchant for microdosing, though — one in five young people in the U.K. allegedly microdosed through lockdown, the r/microdosing subreddit currently has nearly 200,000 members and so-called “microdosing retreats” appear to be on the rise.

Still, many microdosers have begun to question why they’re not feeling the same supposed benefits as others are. “I’ve been microdosing LSD for a few weeks now, trying to find my sweet spot,” wrote redditor whydidyoureadthis17 in r/microdosing. “[I’m] getting up to 20 micrograms every other day, which is about the threshold before it becomes noticeable, and I can’t say I feel an introspective difference in my life.” They went on to explain that they suffer from depression and low mood, and turned to microdosing after a variety of other medications failed to help. Although they admit that “the road to recovery is a long one,” they said they felt left out, and disheartened “to not have that switch flip on for me like it has for others.” 

Commenting on their post, another user said they feel “awesome” after five weeks of microdosing, but point out that it’s not just because of the shrooms they’re taking. “I also started working out, stopped drinking alcohol, started taking supplements, sleep earlier and started working toward a life goal I’ve been chasing for years,” they wrote. And while this person said they don’t believe shrooms did all of this, they’re confident that microdosing helped them “get started by re-wiring [their] brain during this month.”

In a separate post, redditor AskJill said microdosing shrooms actually made them “tired and more depressed.” Another user, agreed: “As many posts as there are about microdosing producing fabulous results in people’s lives, it just doesn’t work for everyone. I tried valiantly over several months, tweaking the dose amount, frequency, etc., but to no avail.” Instead, they recommend AskJill takes a macrodose of psilocybin, which they describe as “much more effective than all the months of microdosing.”

Madsen isn’t surprised by these kinds of experiences. “There’s no evidence that microdosing actually does what it promises, other than deliver some really good placebo effects,” he says. “However, it’s possible that the dose, the participants or the outcome measures are not right. I mean, what is a microdose? Are we measuring the right things?” 

It’s not all doom and gloom for microdosing fans, though. “Science isn’t done with microdosing,” he concludes. “It’s possible that it might be good for something.