(Photo: METRO/Myles Goode)
Microdosers Say Tiny Hits of LSD Make Your Work and Life Better
People are increasingly taking daily, low doses of illegal psychedelic drugs to up their game at work and improve their mood. Will we all be doing it one day?
by Sam Wong[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or over a year, Janet Lai Chang took magic mushrooms a few times a week before going to work. She says it made her happier, reduced her social anxiety and helped her build relationships.
Chang is one of many who have added a pinch of psychedelic drugs to their daily routine in recent years. Followers say this “microdosing” regime doesn’t send them tripping, but merely gives them a boost to improve their mood or performance.
The effects they report seem plausible, but as psychedelics are illegal in most countries, such claims have not been backed up by much research. There has been a recent revival in scientific trials of psychedelic drugs for treating depression and anxiety, but with microdosing people are doing their own experiments, away from the strict regulations of clinical research.
Yet as Chang’s experiences show, the findings are tantalising. So can these new investigations into psychedelic pick-me-ups yield any decent insights? And could you one day be dropping acid alongside your morning vitamin?
Up and at ’em
You would be forgiven for thinking your work performance might suffer under the influence of mind-warping illegal drugs. But microdoses, about a tenth of a recreational dose, don’t seem to induce hallucinations; instead, people who do this report in internet forums that they are happier, more creative and more productive. They may say things look more beautiful than usual, but that’s as trippy as it gets.
“I am studying more effectively, retaining more of the lecture content, and not letting the pressure of ‘everything is due at the same time’ get to me as much as previous semesters,” says one person online.
The extent of microdosing is unclear, but James Fadiman, who popularised the idea in his 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, speculates that it’s more than 100,000 people worldwide, based on the number he has been in contact with.
“Microdoses, about a tenth of a recreational dose, don’t induce hallucinations or trip-like effects”
Psychedelics have been linked with creativity since the 60s, when LSD was widely used by artists and musicians. Fadiman and his colleagues gave LSD to engineers, mathematicians and architects as they worked on professional problems they had been struggling with. They all performed better on tests after being given the drug, compared with an earlier sober session, and reported finding the experience helpful to the creative process.
This line of research ended when LSD was made illegal in the late 60s, but a recent revival has made progress in understanding how psychedelics act on the brain.
LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, achieve most of their effects by binding to serotonin receptors responsible for mood and cognition. Earlier this year, a study found that part of the receptor closes on LSD like a lid, trapping the drug in place for hours. This may explain why it can have effects at very low doses.
Neuroimaging studies show that LSD and psilocybin change how different parts of the brain talk to each other. In particular, the visual cortex communicates more with other areas.
It’s difficult to get permission to study the effects of psychedelics on the day-to-day lives of healthy volunteers, but some researchers are trying to collect data anyway. From February to May this year, Fadiman and his colleague Sophia Korb invited people to follow a research protocol and report on their experiences. Participants have to source their own drugs – LSD, magic mushrooms or other psychedelics; the effects of microdosing seem to be similar across other hallucinogens.
The methodology falls well short of the normal standards of scientific rigour. There is a control group, but participants aren’t randomly chosen to unknowingly receive a drug or placebo, as would be the case for a standard trial.
Korb says it would be unethical to give someone an illegal drug without them knowing, and for safety reasons participants with high-stakes jobs – like aircraft maintenance for the army – are encouraged to be in the control group. Collecting flawed data is better than no data at all, she says.
The people taking part have a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Many have depression or other mental health conditions, but some are merely hoping for self-improvement or well-being. “You don’t have to be sick to get better,” says Fadiman.
The protocol instructs participants to take a microdose every three days, while reporting their scores on a range of 30 variables each day for a month. Fadiman and Korb presented their preliminary analysis of 418 microdosers at the Psychedelic Science conference in San Francisco earlier this year.
“Microdosers report feeling more determined, active, and enthusiastic, but also more nervous and jittery”
People with depression appear to benefit from microdosing, whereas those with anxiety find it is less helpful or makes symptoms worse. Overall, the microdosers report feeling more determined, active, alert, proud and enthusiastic, but also more nervous and jittery. They report feeling less depressed, upset, guilty and afraid.
Positive effects on depression aren’t entirely surprising. A small study published last year found promising results for psilocybin, taken during psychotherapy sessions. Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London, who led the study, thinks low doses could offer some of the same beneficial effects. “A full dose of psychedelics can be mind-shattering, almost. These little doses are subtly mind-loosening,” he says.
Korb’s results show few signs of harmful effects of microdosing. Five men with colour blindness dropped out because they were experiencing visual effects. No participants reported serious adverse effects, but Korb wouldn’t recommend microdosing for people with anxiety.
Many subjects report the same unexpected benefits, such as better sleep, improved athletic performance and relief from symptoms of menstrual disorders and migraines. Fadiman says this suggests they aren’t just placebo effects, but until controlled trials are carried out, we can’t be sure.
So could psychedelics be available on prescription one day? Korb says several research groups are interested in using their data to plan formal studies. She is also talking to the US Food and Drug Administration about research on cluster headache syndrome – a severe condition with few effective treatments, but some patients say psychedelics help.
Convincing evidence of microdosing improving work performance remains elusive. However, later this year Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation, a UK think tank that encourages psychedelics research, plans to carry out the first formal scientific study of microdosing with LSD to see if it improves mental health, cognition and creativity.
Volunteers will undergo a series of psychometric tests and play the complex board game Go. Feilding was a keen Go player and LSD user in the 60s. “I found that if I was on LSD, I won more games,” she says. “I could see patterns on the board better.”
Carhart-Harris thinks it is possible that psychedelics might boost some aspects of cognition, but he is concerned that regular use at home, even of low doses, may be risky compared with taking bigger doses in a therapy session. “No longer do you have a controlled environment,” he says, and regular doses could lead to as-yet unknown side effects.
We may know more soon. Korb is advising a citizen science group in Boston on a randomised, placebo-controlled study, with results due in a few months.
People are doing this anyway, so collecting data will allow them to do it safely, says Korb. “The bigger ethical question is ‘Why can’t we study these sort of things that seem to be so helpful to people?’.” Without such studies, microdosing will remain a risky practice, both medically and legally
This article appeared in print under the headline “Leading the high life”
WATCH | Microdosing: People Who Take LSD with Breakfast
Microdosing is when you take a tiny amount of psychedelic drugs – LSD or magic mushrooms usually – as part of your ordinary day. The drugs are illegal, and there is no medical evidence to say what the benefits or harms of it may be. But a small community of people in the UK are doing it anyway, and say it’s improving their lives. Some say it aids creativity and concentration and others argue it helps with their mental health problems. BBC Reporter Catrin Nye has been meeting the people that do it.
Do you struggle to close down that Facebook tab and just get on with things? Why not gulp down a tab of LSD for breakfast? Yep, you read that right. A writer working with psychedelics researcher Dr James Fadiman – who worked with LSD until it was banned until 1966 – took a tiny dose of LSD for breakfast…