Microdosing Psychedelics Like Mushrooms and LSD Linked to Better Mood and Focus, but Scientists Warn Evidence Is Thin

Microdosing psychedelics such as LSD and magic mushrooms could boost mood and focus but also trigger psychological problems. Those are the findings of a new study, as scientists warn more research is needed to prove the benefits of the practice.

The approach involves taking a psychedelic substance, like LSD or psilocybin magic mushrooms, at levels that don't cause hallucinations and still allow a person to operate normally.

Media reports in recent years have claimed microdosing is growing in popularity, with devotees claiming it helps them balance their moods. Writer Ayelet Waldman, for instance, claimed in her book A Really Good Day that taking tiny amounts of LSD changed her mood and saved her marriage.

The interest comes amid what is known as the psychedelic renaissance, as researchers around the world investigate the potential benefits of using psychedelic drugs in controlled medical settings to treat mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD. The drugs under the spotlight include LSD and magic mushrooms, as well as MDMA, ayahuasca and peyote ibogaine. Scientists are also investigating the use of ketamine, which is an anesthetic rather than a hallucinogenic.

But the scientific evidence to support claims that microdosing is helpful is minimal, according to the authors of the study published in Harm Reduction Journal. A separate team, who published work in the Journal of Psychopharmacology almost a week later on July 15, similarly found the evidence to support microdosing is thin.

The researchers behind the Harm Reduction Journal study recruited 278 participants who said they microdosed LSD, magic mushrooms, or a combination of the two. Most of them were found on Reddit.

Of the total, 26.6 percent said microdosing improved their mood, which included lowering symptoms of depression; 14.8 percent said it helped them to focus; 12.9 percent said it boosted their memory, and 11.3 percent said it helped their self-efficacy. A further 10.5 percent claimed it improved energy levels. Fewer than 10 percent said microdosing had cognitive benefits, social benefits, reduced anxiety or provided physiological enhancement. That included better sleep, cardiovascular endurance, and no longer suffering from headaches or migraines.

However, 18 percent said they had experienced "physiological discomfort" such as headaches, nausea and insomnia. Also, 29.5 percent said the illegality of the drugs was a problem either because they were worried about safe dosing, the potential dangers of buying off the black market, the cost, and dealing with the social stigma of using illicit substances. Some respondents also reported microdosing increased their anxiety, made them feel like they had less energy, worsened existing symptoms and low mood and impaired focus.

Study co-author Thomas Anderson, a Ph.D. student and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, explained in a statement the paper's aim was to show that microdosing is a useful area of research that deserves funding.

"Scientifically speaking, we don't know if microdosing does anything at all," he said.

"The most common benefit was improved mood, which suggests that researching microdosing as a potential pharmacotherapeutic treatment for depression could be worthwhile," argued Anderson.

"Microdosing could provide a possible alternative to SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of drugs commonly used to fight depression], which are great but don't work for everyone.

"Microdosing won't work for everyone, either, but it could provide a possible alternative to other treatment pathways."

The authors of the paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology focused mainly on psilocybin, which is said to be the most commonly microdosed drug, but also included drugs like LSD where data was available.

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A stock image of a man taking a tab of LSD. Scientists have investigated the effects of microdosing psychedelic drugs. Getty

They similarly found that anecdotal reports generally focus on the positive experiences of microdosing, but there is no scientific consensus on the definition of the term. More research, including clinical studies that look at the physical and psychological effects in controlled scientific environments, are needed to "shed light on the potential negative consequences microdosing could have," they wrote.

By looking at existing studies, the team highlighted the lack of controlled scientific studies investigating microdosing, adding that there is little evidence looking at the long-term effects of the practice.

They surmise magic mushrooms could boost mood as they work on receptors that bind to serotonin, which plays a role in feelings such as happiness.

Professor David Nutt, Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and senior author of the review, commented in a statement: "Despite so much interest in the subject, we still don't have any agreed scientific consensus on what microdosing is—like what constitutes a 'micro' dose, how often someone would take it, and even if there may be potential health effects."

Kim Kuypers, first author of the review and Assistant Professor in Psychopharmacology, Neuropsychology & Psychopharmacology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, said: "This review is timely as a lot of hope is generated by positive media reports about alleged effects of microdosing.

"Patients might feel attracted by those reports to try it but may actually not be helped by it. We try to emphasize the lack of scientific proof that microdosing is indeed effective in combatting certain symptoms and hope that this will give impetus to new lines of research in this area."

Commenting on the Harm Reduction Journal study, Ian Hamilton of the Department of Health Sciences at the U.K.'s University of York, who was also not involved in the research, told Newsweek the study was "really important" and provides new information about individuals' subjective experiences, both positive and negative.

"It is clear that there is a hunger for more information about microdosing among some communities as people turn to internet forums for information. They are having to do this as there is nothing in the way of public health information, as the evidence is still emerging. With increasing interest from the pharmaceutical industry there is a need for an independent credible source for people to access balanced information about microdosing so they can make informed decisions about whether they want to try this way of using psychedelics."

However, he said the study was limited because the respondents were young men, meaning it's unclear if the results would apply to others. The participants are also likely to be more optimistic about the potential that microdosing offers, so they could be biased. A randomized control trial could help combat this, said Hamilton.

"The difficulty for anyone considering microdosing is it is still not clear what dose of a psychedelic is optimal in terms of benefit and reducing the risk of an adverse experience," said Hamilton.

How an individual experiences the same dose can differ depending on their gender, age, weight and any pre-existing physical or mental health conditions, he explained.

"So for anyone trying these drugs it will likely be a self-experiment in which they won't know the outcome until the substance has taken effect," said Hamilton. "Although overdose is unlikely that does not mean any adverse reaction doesn't feel really unpleasant and can last for hours, or worse trigger a longer-term problem such as psychosis."

Hamilton warned: "Some people will be super sensitive to even small doses of psychedelics but we don't know how to tell who these people are in advance."