by Tia Ghose
For Martijn Schirp, it’s a way to make an ordinary day just a little bit better.
A former poker player and recent graduate in interdisciplinary science in Amsterdam, Schirp has been experimenting with a new way to take psychedelic drugs: Called microdosing, it involves routinely taking a small fraction of a normal dose of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or magic mushrooms.
Microdosing has gained a cult following amongst a small group of hallucinogen enthusiasts like Schirp, who now writes at HighExistence.com. Proponents report improvements in perception, mood and focus, minus the trippy tangerine trees and marmalade skies normally associated with psychedelics.
Schirp said he prefers to microdose when he’s immersed in creative or contemplative activities, such as writing, painting, meditating or doing yoga.
“It’s like the coffee to wake up the mind-body connection. When I notice it is working, depending on the dosage, time seems to be slowing down a bit, everything seems covered with a layer of extra significance,” Schirp told Live Science in an email.
Given his positive experiences with higher doses of psychedelics, “microdosing offered a way to get a taste of this without [the experience] completely overwhelming me,” Schirp said.
But while the effects Schirp and others describe are plausible from a physiological perspective, microdosing is uncharted territory, said Matt Johnson, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has studied the behavioral effects of psychedelic drugs. Scientists have yet to run a clinical trial to assess the effects (or lack thereof) of microdosing. Johnson added that taking a smaller dose of a psychedelic is safer than taking a large dose, but the way people tend to do it — regularly taking small doses every several days — could have long-term side effects.
Just a little bit
The idea of taking small doses of psychedelics has been around for a while. The inventor of LSD, Albert Hofmann, was known to microdose in his old age and told a friend that microdosing was an under-researched area. But microdosing gained greater visibility when James Fadiman, a psychologist and researcher at Sofia University in Palo Alto, California, described it in his book “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide” (Park Street Press, 2011).
Since then, Fadiman has received about 50 anecdotal reports from microdosers around the world. Most report positive, barely perceptible shifts while microdosing, Fadiman said.
“What people say is that whatever they’re doing, they seem to be doing it a little better,” Fadiman told Live Science. “They’re a little kinder, a little bit nicer with their kids.”
People with creative jobs report improved focus and an ability to enter the state of flow more easily. Some report a desire to eat healthier or start meditating, Fadiman said.
“It’s like they tend to live a little better,” Fadiman said.
Still others report taking the teeny doses of psychedelics for psychiatric conditions, said Brad Burge, the director of marketing and communications at Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, California, where scientists study the effect of psychedelics on medical conditions such as PTSD.
“I’ve heard anecdotally of people using it for depression, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder],” Burge told Live Science. “With microdoses, the point would be to create subtle changes in people’s psychopharmacology or experience, in much the same way as most traditional pharmaceuticals are used now.”
Plausible mechanism, no evidence
The effects people report with microdoses of LSD, psilocybin, DMT or other “classic” psychedelics aren’t completely implausible, Johnson said. All of these drugs work by activating a particular receptor in the brain known as the serotonin 5HT-2A receptor. This receptor fuels the release of the “feel-good” brain chemical, serotonin, which creates a domino effect in the brain that leads to many other brain changes.
At high doses, these drugs temporarily, but radically, reshape brain networks; for instance, one study found that magic mushrooms create a hyperconnected brain. But antidepressants like Prozac also target serotonin receptors, so it’s possible that a low, constant dose of a psychedelic might work in a similar manner, Johnson said.
Still, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest microdosing works as people claim it does, Johnson said. The effects described are so subtle — on par with having the caffeine in a cup of coffee — that they “fall within that category of barely perceptible, and it’s right in the range where people can so easily fool themselves,” Johnson told Live Science. That means microdosing is particularly susceptible to the placebo effect, in which people taking a sugar pill who believe they’re taking a drug report perceptible effects, he said.
To prove that microdosing has an effect, psychedelics researchers would need to do a double-blind study, in which neither the people administering the drug nor the recipients know whether a particular participant is getting a microdose of a psychedelic or something inert, like a little sugar dissolved in water, Johnson said. Some groups of people are allegedly doing these trials — but because LSD is illegal, and is only approved for research use in a few small trials in a few locations, all of these people are off the grid and not publicizing their efforts, Fadiman said.
Unknown side effects
What’s more, microdosing could have side effects, Johnson said. The few microscopic grains of LSD — just 10 micrograms — typically used to microdose are too tiny to measure even on a professional laboratory scale, Johnson said. To get around this, people who microdose typically take a blotter paper laced with one hit of LSD, soak it in water and then drink some of the water. But since LSD is an illegal substance procured on the black market, there’s really no way to know exactly what you’re getting, Johnson said.
Even in the lab, with carefully measured doses of drugs administered in a controlled environment, Johnson has found substantial variation in the way that people react to the same dose. Combined, those two uncertainties mean people may not be able to reliably microdose, he said.
“Someone might be expecting a kind of sparkly day, just a really productive day at work — and next thing you know, they’re grasping hold to their office chair wondering why the world is dissolving,” Johnson said.
Schirp, for instance, has occasionally had negative microdosing experiences.
“At times, the experience was still too overwhelming to be productive — I just wanted to lay down or take a walk,” Schirp said.
Beyond that possible experience, the long-term risks of the drug are unknown. The risk of taking a single, tiny dose of LSD or psilocybin is going to be smaller than the risk of taking one big hit, Johnson said. But even the most dedicated psychonauts don’t typically trip daily or even weekly, Johnson said. By contrast, people who are microdosing report using the drugs every three or four days, he said.
Such frequent use could have unknown, long-term side effects, he said.
“You’re tinkering with the system that is involved with depressive systems, but in unexplored ways,” Johnson said.