The Benefits and Risks of Microdosing Psychedelics: A Comprehensive Review

For years, scientists have been researching the potential benefits of psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD, and other psychedelic drugs for mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and addiction.

Recently Colorado joined Oregon along with a group of cities to decriminalize the usage of Psilocybin in hopes that its therapeutic effects could be better understood.  Across the board, it appears that interest in using previously outlawed drugs like Ketamine, MDMA, and Psilocybin in the treatment of various mental health disorders has peaked.  Despite being illegal at the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has awarded a breakthrough therapy designation for psilocybin in the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).  The Veterans Administration (VA) is also participating in clinical trials to test psilocybin’s efficacy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

A growing body of research is finding that microdosing psilocybin or other psychedelics just may provide unique health benefits. Research on psychedelics is expanding with promising results, but there needs to be more rigorous studies to determine if psilocybin microdose is effective as a mental health treatment.

This content idea would involve a detailed analysis of the potential benefits and risks associated with microdosing psilocybin and other psychedelics. The article could explore the scientific evidence behind the practice, as well as anecdotal reports from individuals who have tried microdosing. It could also delve into the legal and ethical considerations surrounding the use of these substances, and provide guidance for those who are interested in trying microdosing for themselves.

What is Microdosing?

Microdosing is essentially the practice of taking very small amounts of a drug to benefit from its physiological effect while reducing unwanted side effects.

There is no single set amount of a drug or substance that constitutes a “microdose”.  However, one definition defines a microdose as 5–10% of a usual psychoactive dose of a substance. A medium-strength psilocybin dose is anecdotally said to be between 2 to 3 grams of dried magic mushrooms.  So estimates would make a microdose of psilocybin approximately 0.1 to 0.3 grams.

One challenge when determining the correct microdosage of psilocybin is that the potency of mushrooms can vary immensely.  Since psilocybin is an unregulated substance (other than in clinical trials) many people looking to microdose psilocybin may be unable to accurately determine the amount of the psychoactive chemical that they are consuming. 

What is Psilocybin?

Psilocybin (sometimes called magic mushrooms) is a hallucinogenic substance found in certain types of mushrooms.  There are over 180 varietals of mushrooms that contain psilocybin that grow across the globe in:

  • South America
  • United States
  • Europe
  • Mexico

Psilocybin activates a person’s serotonin receptors, most frequently in the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that impacts cognition, perception, and mood. Hallucinogens also act in other brain areas that regulate panic and arousal responses.

Psilocybin doesn’t always lead to active auditory or visual hallucinations. It instead distorts the way some individuals that use the substance perceive people and objects already in their environment. The quantity of the substance that an individual takes, their expectations of how they’ll experience the drug, and their past experiences can all affect how psilocybin affects the person.

Psilocybin’s hallucinogenic effects typically occur within a half hour after an individual consumes it and lasts anywhere from four to six hours. In some people, changes in thought patterns and sensory perception can last for a few days.

How potent a magic mushroom can be will depend on the following:

  • Origin
  • Species
  • Harvest period
  • Growing conditions
  • Whether the individual consumes it dried or fresh*

*Dried mushrooms contain around ten times higher psilocybin than fresh mushrooms.²

What Does Microdosing Psilocybin do to the Body and Mind?

Microdosing is often practiced to improve cognitive function, mood, and mental concentration. It also helps enhance problem-solving skills and creativity. However, the effects of low psilocybin doses haven’t been extensively researched to date.

The extrapolation of certain effects typically identified in higher doses may suggest that lower amounts of psychedelics can alter³:

  • Brain Oscillatory Activity (Brain Waves)
  • Cognitive Functions
  • Perception
  • Mood

These effects can be variable among people, depending on traits like absorption and suggestibility.

Research also shows that full serotonergic psychedelic doses can produce lasting positive changes in mental health, personality, and behavior.³ Also, there is anecdotal evidence that supports that microdosing psychedelics can enhance problem-solving abilities and creativity, as well as positively impact empathy, promote cognitive flexibility, and decrease levels of mind wandering.

Another study suggests that repeated use of psilocybin in small quantities can enhance mental health and mood.⁴

Researchers found that individuals who engaged in microdosing psilocybin experienced “small- to medium-sized” enhancements in their symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression over a 30-day follow-up when compared to individuals who didn’t.

This observational study which Nature-Scientific Reports published, included over 950 individuals who stated that they microdosed psilocybin during the past month. There was also a 180-individual control group involved in the study as well who didn’t engage in psilocybin microdose.

The Harm Reduction Journal published a study that categorized a few potential benefits from anecdotal reports by individuals who microdosed. These benefits include:

  • Enhanced energy, stimulation, and wakefulness
  • Enhanced mindfulness, concentration, and focus
  • Creativity
  • Social benefits
  • Cognitive benefits, like improved problem solving
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Improved body functioning
  • Decreased symptoms, like stress
  • Self-efficacy, which includes improved productivity, ambition, and motivation
  • Improved life appreciation, optimism, and mood

Individuals also reported other benefits of microdosing, including the general lack of side effects and the ability to control their dose.

Certain body and mind benefits of microdosing psilocybin are as follows.

Improved Mental Health

Often, individuals microdose because of the mental health benefits like reduced anxiety and stress or alleviation of depression symptoms. One study involved an online questionnaire asking individuals who microdose had the individuals compare the effects of microdosing with the effects of other types of treatment for anxiety or depression symptoms. The answers showed that individuals found microdosing to be more effective than certain other treatments but not as effective as taking higher psychedelic doses.

Focus

Microdosing might assist with temporary focus and allow an individual to work on larger projects without having their minds wander. A study shows lower distractability levels with microdosing.

Enhanced Brain Functioning

Some anecdotal evidence shows certain individuals feel that microdosing assists them with their brain function by enabling their brain to function at peak potential or helping them become more open to new ideas.

A study published in PLOS ONE showed that individuals reported experiencing better brain functioning on the days they microdosed, but the effects they experienced didn’t carry over to the days they didn’t microdose.

Quitting Other Habits

Individuals also report that microdosing helps them quit bad habits, such as drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. Some individuals even feel like they don’t need to indulge in certain simple stimulants like coffee when they’re microdosing.

What Don’t We Know About Microdosing Psilocybin?

There’s no definitive proof, as of yet, that psilocybin microdosing is either safe or effective.

In fact, in clinical trials, microdosing psychedelics hits a rough patch. There is some doubt that microdosing these drugs can provide any mental health benefits.

However, there are a number of scientific papers that report these anecdotal enhancements. In the study above, for instance, there were 98 individuals who were asked questions daily over six weeks to gauge their:

  • Happiness
  • Focus
  • Creativity
  • Productivity
  • Mindfulness

These individuals scored higher on all of these metrics on the days that they microdosed.

Whether or not these benefits are purely the result of a placebo effect is unclear. There is some uncertainty about whether individuals microdosing psilocybin will have a certain expectation for what the process will achieve. Because of this, some findings may be considered the result of a “placebo effect.”

Still, the anecdotally reported benefits and promising full-dose study results have encouraged researchers to explore further.  They believe that psilocybin microdosin has the potential to help form neurological brain connections and lessen the impact of psychological conditions like anxiety, depression, and ADHD.

Distinguishing facts from false information has been quite a challenge for scientists attempting to verify the claims coming from those who microdose. The primary trouble is pinning down the variables that must be accounted for if studies are to withstand scrutiny.

For just about any issue that an individual struggles with, it seems microdosing will allegedly help in some way. To some experts, it seems unlikely that a single pharmaceutical therapy can do it all.

For example, one study found that individuals who microdosed psychedelics experienced reduced symptoms of stress and depression as well as lower distractability levels. However, the study didn’t include a “control group” of individuals who did not microdose as a comparison.

While these results are impressive, it’s essential to take note that this study is still just observational instead of being a randomized controlled trial. Because of this, researchers can’t account for other factors that may impact the outcomes, such as:

  • Mental health before the study
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Other types of treatment

Researchers also question which drug to investigate and research and at what dose. LSD and psilocybin are the most commonly discussed psychedelic drugs online for microdosing. A study of forum posts with nearly 200,000 members showed that most individuals who microdose were taking between 5% and 20% roughly of a standard recreational dose. Dose frequency is also varied, but most of the forum posters stated they take a couple of days off between doses.¹⁰

Microdosing Psilocybin for Addiction

Psilocybin may also be therapeutic for addiction. Psilocybin could be dismissed by the uninitiated as a recreational drug. As a Schedule 1 substance, it could have a high potential for abuse and no presently accepted medically therapeutic use.

However, to a lot of scientific researchers in the medical field, psilocybin is far more. It’s a promising option for the treatment of an array of medical problems. In particular, experts see the chemical increasingly as a possible, low-risk, and effective tool to help individuals break their addiction to other substances. In 2020 alone, over 68,000 U.S. overdose fatalities involved prescription or illicit opioids. Therefore, it’s an understatement to say finding a new, effective treatment for addiction is urgent.¹⁷

Research that supports psilocybin’s use for addiction has been increasing for quite some time. Recent research looks at data from more than 214,500 adults in the U.S. from 2015 to 2019 and found a link between previous psilocybin use (at any time in their lifetime) and a decreased risk of opioid use disorder.¹⁸

Mixed Results of Microdosing

 Some studies show an extremely significant and real benefit from microdosing.¹¹ Others aren’t as convincing and show minimal to no benefit. One study recently used an observational, naturalistic design to study 953 microdosers of psilocybin compared with 180 participants who didn’t dose for 30 days.¹²

The microdosers found improvements in mental health and mood that were generally consistent across the presence of mental health concerns, age, and gender. This study as well as similar studies, seem to confirm a lot of the anecdotal reports of individuals who boast about the benefits they’ve experienced from microdosing.¹³

Other research on microdosing isn’t as impressive. In one example, a randomized controlled study was conducted by researchers who gathered 34 individuals and randomized half of these individuals to receive a placebo and the other half to receive psilocybin.  The experimental group that received the psilocybin reported feeling more creative and happier.  Certain brain wave changes in this group were also recorded via an EEG machine.  However, it was concluded that there wasn’t any actual objective proof of improvements in their well-being, creativity, and cognitive function with low-dose psilocybin mushrooms.

Research like this supports the hypothesis that any effect individuals get from psychedelic microdosing is primarily an expectancy effect and that individuals would need to take a higher dose to receive any therapeutic benefit.¹⁴

Possible Risks of Microdosing

One concern with microdosing psilocybin is the possibility that long-term use of psilocybin could result in cardiac valvulopathy or valve damage. The liver metabolizes psilocybin when ingested and converts it to the psilocin pharmacological compound, which binds to the heart’s serotonin receptors. To evaluate the benefits and risks of microdosing psilocybin accurately, these risks must be assessed long-term.

When used occasionally, it appears that psilocybin may not pose a threat in this regard. However, there isn’t much longitudinal data that looks at routine chronic users to understand the possible role that psilocybin can have on the heart.

There are also concerns as to the variation of strength, dosage, and origin of the psilocybin being used. The amount of psilocybin in a given quantity of dried mushroom matter (whether encased in a pill or otherwise) varies greatly. The majority of mushrooms grown for their psychoactive properties are of the Psilocybe Cubensis varietal. Studies have shown a wide range of variations in the levels of psilocybin and psilocin (the pharmacologically active form of psilocybin) amongst these mushrooms.  Even mushrooms in a single culture may have drastically different amounts of psilocybin.  Similarly, the same spores may have a significantly different amount of psilocybin between different fruiting periods or “flushes.” This can lead to inconsistencies in the exact dosage of the main psychoactive ingredient in mushrooms that a person consumes when microdosing.

Pharmaceutical companies have begun producing a synthetic version of psilocybin in order to attempt to standardize dosage. However, this is typically only available to individuals undergoing specific clinical trials. Users should be aware that some of the products being sold as ‘synthetic psilocybin’ in online markets may actually be research chemicals that bare no chemical resemblance to psilocybin and have not been tested for their effectiveness in treating mental health disorders.

More Exhaustive Research is Required

Research on psychedelics has historically been a challenge since LSD, psilocybin, and other types of psychedelics are presently illegal in the U.S. under federal law.¹⁵

While previous clinical trials studying psychedelics have been challenged, the FDA has since granted the status of “breakthrough therapy” for psychedelics and now encourages scientific research.¹⁶

Even though there are potential therapeutic benefits for psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs, the negative risks aren’t completely understood and therefore require more exhaustive research.

It’s recommended that individuals consult with their healthcare professional to inform their decision about whether to take psilocybin or other psychedelics. Remember that there may be other medical reasons for avoiding or at least being cautious about these drugs.

It’s important to understand there’s no definitive evidence that microdosing is safe or helpful in both the short and long term. Keeping points like these in mind, it’s fair to say that psilocybin is becoming better understood, undergoing additional research, and becoming more widely accepted.

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