Why I Take Psychedelic Mushrooms For My Health

Illustrated by Tyler Spangler.
I’m on mushrooms right now. Just a small amount, about half the size of my pinky nail. I’m not hallucinating or anything, but for the past couple of months, I’ve been taking a regular, tiny dose of psilocybin ‘shrooms every few days. And life has never been better. It’s called "microdosing" — and, so far, it’s been awesome.

Microdosing as a concept isn’t new. It’s been used in clinical trials to test drug reactions on the body. The National Institutes of Health have listed the guidelines for dosing as “1/100th of the expected pharmacological dose.” In the psychedelic world, “microdosing” refers to taking teeny, tiny amounts of psychedelics such as LSD and ‘shrooms on a regular basis, to improve your day-to-day functioning. You’re not having a Hunter S. Thompson moment here. Instead, the idea is that you’re cruising along and generally feeling better.

James Fadiman, PhD, a pioneering researcher in psychedelics and microdosing who has made it his life’s work to study psychedelic use all over the world (and is the author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide), offers a protocol that many enthusiasts currently follow: Once every four days, take a 10th to a 20th of a typical dose. Dr. Fadiman says this amount should be “sufficiently low that there is little or no change in visual perception, nor any physical or mental confusion.”

Earlier this year, I came across an Alternet article touting the benefits of microdosing, and then an insanely helpful Reddit forum devoted to it. I was intrigued. According to these (admittedly biased) sources, people were exploring microdosing for many reasons, from increasing creativity to decreasing anxiety.

My main goal was to see if I could improve my focus, and if dosing could help rid me of my crippling migraines. I’ve had migraines for over 30 years, have tried every remedy you can think of (beta blockers, antidepressants, Botox, acupuncture, Topamax, cafergot), and my neurologist has all but waved a white flag at me. My most recent drug regimen involved barbiturates and muscle relaxers taken at the first sign of a migraine — plus lots of moaning and groaning.

When I mentioned my headaches to Dr. Fadiman, he pointed me to ClusterBusters, a forum for people who self-administer relatively large doses of psychedelics — typically LSD — in an attempt to relieve their cluster headaches. Cluster headaches, however, are distinct from migraines. But there was also enough anecdotal information online about migraine sufferers getting relief from mushrooms that I had to give it a shot. What did I have to lose?

I finally got to try out my microdosing obsession when my friend John* mentioned he had ‘shrooms and was experimenting with microdosing, too. I admit I was beyond trepidatious about my first dose. I hate tripping. The only two times I previously tried ‘shrooms were in the late '90s; I felt certain there were ghosts in the room and that someone was after me, and then I became fascinated with the window, which forced my friends to take me outside for the duration. Hello, after-school special! So this time around, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I freak out on my dog? Was I going to vomit?

Fuck it, there was only one way to find out.

I debated powdering my mushrooms, weighing the powder precisely, and then putting it into gel caps, as suggested by the Reddit forum (because potency in shrooms varies), but the truth is: I’m lazy as hell. So I cut off a tiny chunk, washed the little ‘shroom piece down with filtered water, and then waited and watched Supernatural reruns. (It seemed appropriate to watch a show about demons while waiting for hallucinogens to kick in.) Pretty soon, I felt really good and happy — think that buzzy joy you get from being stoned, but minus the stoned part.

Dr. Fadiman, who studied LSD prior to its ban in 1966, has spent years unofficially researching and studying microdosing. In 2010, he put together an all-volunteer study group in which subjects self-administered psychedelics according to his protocol and reported their results to him. Although it wasn’t a controlled study, the anecdotal results were interesting, if vague. “It improves your overall capacity," Dr. Fadiman explains. "It seems to help a huge number of conditions” including anxiety, depression, and even stuttering. After his initial volunteer group, people continued to send in reports, which Dr. Fadiman receives to this day from all over the world.

While the medical-establishment jury is still out on the use of psychedelics, study of the substances has experienced a resurgence in recent years. Psychedelics are being studied in controlled settings for the treatment of depression, anxiety in cancer patients, alcoholism, end-of-life therapy, cluster headaches, and PTSD — and they're being used in psychotherapy.

Of course, shrooms and their psychoactive ingredient (psilocybin) are schedule 1 substances, meaning that they are considered to be highly addictive and have no accepted medical value. That makes it very illegal to take these drugs. It also makes it difficult for researchers to study them, which is why there’s still so much about psychedelics that we don’t know.

It’s dangerously easy to take too much and end up, say, tripping at work.

Partly for that reason, some experts don’t think psychedelics, even in small amounts, are advisable — after all, there isn’t any formal scientific evidence or controlled trials on microdosing. “I would not encourage people to try this,” says Matthew Johnson, PhD, a professor in the Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “From a scientific standpoint regarding what we know about psychedelics and their effects, it is true that the relative risks would be less, on average, when there was a lower dose, [but] taking any drug is never ‘safe.’”

Dr. Johnson points out that it’s difficult to control the exact micro-dose and its potency, which makes it dangerously easy to take too much and end up, say, tripping at work. He also notes that these drugs can lead to anxiety, panic, and potentially dangerous behavior — and for those predisposed to psychosis, they can increase the risk for psychotic episodes.

Still, Dr. Johnson admits that microdosing is “a fascinating topic. It may be that low doses of such compounds might have promise for mood or other disorders, given what we know about their basic pharmacology. It would be great to see controlled trials on this.”

During my admittedly unscientific self-experiment, I spent the day I’d taken my dose doing laundry, unpacking from my recent move, walking the dog, working on revisions for my book, and giving directions to tourists when I went for a walk. In short, I felt great. There were no dancing elephants and no going to the mirror and seeing a cat face instead of my human face like that one time in 1996.

As I’ve continued to use the protocol over the past six weeks, a pattern has emerged. On day one, I get a lot done and feel fantastic. I want to take my dog on really long walks, get my to-do list finished, and even take all my conference calls. I can think pretty clearly, though I do feel different. It’s like being high but not being high at the same time. On day two, I just feel generally a bit happier. And by day three, I’m back to “normal.” On day four, I usually microdose again.

The only downside I found was when I took too high a dose; the next day, I felt like I had a hangover. After that, I dialed back my dosage, from about the size of my pinky nail to half that (very precise, I know), and I’ve stuck with that since. Generally, while I’m on the protocol, I feel less stress, my friends keep telling me I look radiant (“Thanks! It’s the mushrooms”), and here’s the part that really matters: My head doesn’t hurt while I’m dosing.

If I have a slight headache, and I generally have one when I wake up, it disappears after I take my morning microdose. Instead of spending the day waiting for it to come back, I feel pretty great, and at most, take some Tylenol later on. On day two, the headache may or may not be back. So while the pain relief doesn’t last, even one day is good for me.

However, I’m not microdosing exactly according to the every-four-days protocol, because of my headaches. If I wake up with a full-blown migraine, I’ll take a strong painkiller, and I don’t want to mix in mushrooms in as well. I had a full week of intense headaches recently, so no microdosing. That’s one thing I like about mushrooms: If I don’t want to dose one week, there’s no detox effect. I can stop — no mess, no fuss. There has been no proven physical addiction to psychedelics like mushrooms or LSD (although you can build up a tolerance, hence the protocol). I don’t jones for the next dose; I can take it or leave it.

I’m not saying microdosing is for everyone, and obviously not all experts are on board. But I’m into my experiment so far. It’s resulted in fewer headaches, more energy, and general stress relief. In the end, it’s about what works for you — and why you’re microdosing. The entire experience has opened my eyes and mind up to a new world of possibilities.

A. Khan is the pseudonym of a freelance fashion writer in New York who dreams of a life without headaches. She’s currently working on her first book.


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