At a time when many people regularly take CBD, a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, to manage their anxiety, it comes at no surprise that we're finding more therapeutic uses for once taboo drugs. Enter psilocybin or "magic mushrooms," which some anecdotally say manages their symptoms of chronic anxiety, depression, and even attention deficit hyperactive disorder, when taken in small "microdoses." They also swear it enhances creativity and improves cognition. (And, yes, we're talking about shrooms.)
On Reddit boards, people crowd-source their microdosing methods, sharing information about their preferred dosage and the effects. But despite how widespread the practice is, science and the legal system haven't caught up to the way that people microdose IRL. So, is microdosing worth it or even safe? It's complicated.
We've long known that taking psychedelic drugs could have a profound therapeutic effect on people's mental health and outlook, but new research points to what's actually going on "under the hood" in the brain. Psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin, essentially "change the way that the brain functions," explains Albert Garcia-Romeu, PhD, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he studies the effects of psychedelics in humans, with a focus on psilocybin as an aid in the treatment of addiction. When taken in high doses, the drugs help to metaphorically reset or reboot the brain, he says. "If [a person is] suffering from an extreme depression or addiction, it can help alter the way the brain is processing information, and hopefully that change can carry over into longer-term changes that can have therapeutic benefits," he adds.
Microdosing, or taking tiny amounts of a drug daily, does more than just get people mildly high. Specifically, psychedelics such as LSD (which is very similar to psilocybin, pharmacologically speaking) act on the neurotransmitter system, serotonin, which is widely used in traditional antidepressant drugs, says Harriet De Wit, PhD, founder and primary investigator in the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory at the University of Chicago. "So, there is some neurochemical rationale for the possibility that it improves mood," she says. Compared to traditional antidepressants, which can take weeks to take effect, microdoses of LSD have been shown to have marginal subjective effects after just one administration, she adds.
The problem is, there's very little research on microdosing, even though the topic has really gained traction among users, says David Nichols, PhD, co-founder and chairman of the board for the The Heffter Research Institute, an organization that promotes research of hallucinogens. There has yet to be a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial, which is the gold standard for assessing a drug's effects, on the effects of microdosing psilocybin. "My opinion is that a lot of folks who claim benefit from microdosing actually are experiencing the placebo effect; they believe it is doing something," he adds. Dr. De Wit adds that the alleged beneficial effects of microdosing are "confounded by peoples' strong expectations that what they take will make them feel better, and there is a need for double-blind controlled studies." Considering how small a microdose typically is, the effects could potentially be placebo, agrees Dr. Garcia-Romeu.
That's not to say that there aren't some risks associated with microdosing. Technically, psilocybin and LSD are classified as "Schedule I" drugs, meaning it's illegal to cultivate or possess psilocybin producing mushrooms for either personal consumption or distribution, per the Drug Policy Alliance. Although LSD and psilocybin are relatively safe, it's significantly risky to buy substances from an illegal source, because you can't confirm the purity and concentration of the substance, Dr. De Wit says. "The amount of active drug may vary widely, other active drugs may be added, and there may be toxic or impure other substances in any preparation," she adds.
All of this points to the greater need for research into promising drugs like psilocybin. Most experts agree that psychedelic drugs have a lot of potential — either taken in microdoses or in combination with psychotherapy with psychological guidance. "This is an exciting new chapter in psychiatric research," Dr. De Wit says.