What Are the Benefits of Microdosing?
Written by: Kelly Martin
Published on: August 2, 2022
Hypothesis and Emerging Research
Psychedelic experiences have the potential for great healing. But it’s also true that trips are intense events that can teeter into emotionally difficult territory, and in rare cases they can result in significant harm. And guided experiences with a trained clinician can cost thousands of dollars.
Some psychedelic-curious people who want to glean some of the good stuff from psychedelic medicine without so much of the risk—or just want to bring psychedelic teachings into their everyday—have turned to microdosing.
Microdosing is the practice of using just a tenth or even a twentieth of a dose of a psychedelic substance that would induce a full-blown trip. Most people who microdose hope to enhance well-being in some way: to focus, to connect with others, to tap into creativity, to balance mood.
Science has not yet confirmed much at all about these claims. Microdosing, as a practice, hasn’t been around that long. Albert Hofmann, the chemist who first synthesized and ingested lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), was also the first to suggest that small doses of the substance may have benefits for cognitive functioning. But the practice only became popular after psychologist James Fadiman published his book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, which details his own experience with microdosing, in 2011. No one began studying microdosing rigorously until about 2016. Microdosing research, especially clinical research, faces major regulatory hurdles and is difficult to pull off. And while microdosing studies build upon decades of scientific discoveries in the psychedelic space, generalizations are unlikely to hold up. The experience of a full dose of a psychedelic and that of a microdose are worlds apart.
Before we get into it: Psychedelics are illegal in many countries and unregulated in others. And while psychedelics are actively being studied for potential benefits, they can also pose significant risks. The clinicians we spoke to here said that microdosing is relatively safe. But as with any alternative healing practice, it’s best to consult your own medical team and understand the risks before proceeding.
WHAT IS MICRODOSING?
A microdose is a subhallucinogenic dose of a psychedelic—most commonly LSD or psilocybin mushrooms—achieved with a much smaller amount than what would induce a full-on trip. Someone who’s microdosing takes these small amounts of their chosen psychedelic over a longer period of time.
In the context of microdosing, people have begun referring to a full psychedelic dose as a macrodose.
WHAT A MICRODOSE FEELS LIKE
Alli Schaper, the founder of the microdosing legalization nonprofit Microdosing Collective, notes that with microdosing, achieving the intended effect isn’t so much about what you feel as it is about what you don’t feel. That is, if you’re tripping, it’s not a microdose. (Generally, with psychedelics, it’s better to start smaller than you think you need to and work your way up to the effect you’re looking for.)
While a microdose is subhallucinogenic, it’s not necessarily subperceptual. One study found that microdosers associate the practice with enhanced mood, focus, and creative energy. Another reported that test subjects taking a microdose experienced a greater sense of awe in response to aesthetic experiences. Researcher Balázs Szigeti, who authored one of the first placebo-controlled studies on microdosing, notes that microdosers may feel additional effects on the body, including muscle tension, slight stomach upset, and seeing colors as more saturated.
Microdosers may find it helpful to keep a journal to log doses and track how they feel over time.
THE POTENTIAL BENEFITS
Microdosing may offer some of the benefits of psychedelics without you diving into a full-on trip. And claims about the practice are vast: In anecdotal reports collected by Fadiman and researcher Sophia Korb, PhD, people have stated that they’ve microdosed to enhance everyday functioning as well as alleviate the symptoms of a number of health conditions. While these claims aren’t all backed by robust evidence—the science of microdosing is in its infancy—they are a starting point for scientists to develop questions and hypotheses to investigate in future research.
Enhancing cognitive function—that includes everything from attention and memory to maintaining a cheerful disposition—is a major area of research in the microdosing space. Researchers are investigating if microdosing lives up to users’ claims around optimizing focus, creativity, and mood, in addition to whether microdosing enhances the senses, attenuates social discomfort, increases energy, and improves sleep quality. (So far, studies have shown mixed results.)
Researchers are considering whether microdosing could be a novel treatment for various mood-related disorders, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder as well as substance-use disorders. And based on the neuroplastic potential of psychedelics—we’ll get into that later—some neurologists hypothesize that microdosing could be a potential treatment for certain neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, migraines, and cluster headaches.
HOW PEOPLE DO IT
Some microdosers dose on weekdays. Others, every other day or every three days. Or someone might take a microdose only when it feels intuitive. Some structured protocols suggest capping off a microdosing practice at a certain number of weeks and taking time to reset before restarting the protocol again. And some may involve additional herbs and supplements, like lion’s mane mushroom and niacin (vitamin B3).
Whether these schedules are useful is up for debate. Psychiatrist Will Siu, MD, who works with ketamine-assisted psychotherapy and psychedelic integration, is optimistic about microdosing as a practice but prefers to skip the structure. “There are things out there that say, ‘Just follow this protocol; it helps people with whatever,’” Siu says. “That’s just not true. That’s not how these medicines work.” Instead, Siu advises his clients to combine microdosing with whatever healing work they’re already doing—whether that’s talk therapy, yoga, or something else—as a gentle tool to open up their unconscious mind and go deeper into their practice.
Siu notes that the effects are most predictable when a microdose is taken on an empty stomach.
MICRODOSING AND NEUROPLASTICITY
The effects of psychedelic macrodoses on neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt to change—are well-documented: Research shows that psychedelics increase the body’s ability to protect, grow, and reorganize neural connections, allowing the brain to rewire set-in mental pathways and even build new ones in areas that have atrophied. Which is why they are being considered for the treatment of disorders that involve brain dysfunction or atrophy, including stress-related mood disorders like depression, substance-use disorders like alcoholism and tobacco dependence, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Now there is emerging evidence that microdosing, like macrodosing, may impact neuroplasticity. That’s why neurologist Evan Lewis, MD, is interested in where microdosing research will go next. While most of the existing research has been done with healthy people, Lewis is hoping to see whether low doses of psychedelics may help treat his patients, who come to him for help with neurological rehab from injuries, strokes, seizures, cluster and migraine headaches, and functional neurological disorders.
You can’t prove that microdosing affects neuroplasticity without looking at what’s physically going on in the body. Which requires biological data collected in a lab with blood tests and brain imaging. So far, the data that scientists have is promising. “We have concrete, laboratory-based evidence that the serotonergic psychedelics—like psilocybin, DMT, ayahuasca, and LSD—show markers of neuroplasticity that seem to vary with dose amount and how frequently the dose is administered,” Lewis says. For example, one study found increased levels of the neuroplasticity indicator brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) when subjects took low doses of LSD. And another study found that microdoses of LSD altered brain connectivity shown in fMRI scans, even when the dose didn’t have a subjective effect on the subject’s mood.
What exactly these biological markers mean for neuroplasticity—or how they translate to results in people—is yet to be fully fleshed out, Lewis says. Future research will need to determine whether these markers correlate, rather than associate, with neuroplastic changes and clinical effects like improved mood.
MICRODOSING AND THE PLACEBO EFFECT
It’s possible that anecdotes of microdosing’s benefits can be chalked up to the placebo effect, the phenomenon in which a beneficial result in a study can be attributed to positive expectations rather than the treatment that’s being tested. Multiple studies have found that people who go into microdosing with positive expectations tend to get positive results: psychological well-being and resilience, emotional stability, feelings of social connectedness, and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.
In Szigeti’s self-blinded, placebo-controlled study on microdosing, the benefits of microdosing over the course of a month were only as significant as those of a placebo. Szigeti notes that it’s not a condemnation of the practice—this is new science, and ongoing studies may show different results. He also says the placebo effect is powerful, and he doesn’t want to take the potential benefits of a placebo effect away from people. “If you’re enthusiastic about microdosing, then yes, go ahead,” Szigeti says. “But please don’t read my paper.”
Lewis doesn’t interpret Szigeti’s findings to mean microdosing doesn’t work. He notes that as a neurologist, he sees many of his patients’ successes come from placebo effects. “If people are going to microdose and get an effect as large as a placebo effect, that’s going to lead to some degree of neuroplasticity. It will probably make them better than if they didn’t microdose at all.”
THE INFLUENCE OF SET AND SETTING
The principle of “set and setting” refers to someone’s mindset and physical and interpersonal environment going into a psychedelic experience. And it’s a fixture of psychedelic culture. Early psychedelic researcher Stanislav Grof described psychedelics as “nonspecific amplifiers of the psyche,” meaning whatever you’re feeling going into a psychedelic experience will likely be expanded by the drugs. If that’s happiness, safety, and love, someone is probably going to have a pleasant, positive experience. But if someone is going in with fear and uncertainty, they are more likely to have a challenging time—what’s typically known as a bad trip.
In microdosing, there is no trip, so the stakes of someone’s set and setting aren’t so high. You’re unlikely to have an uncomfortable experience just because you didn’t go into it with a sunny attitude. But the principle may be just as important to people seeking benefits from the practice. “If you are going to pursue psychedelic healing across the spectrum of doses, you’re pursuing a change you want in your life. It has to come with set and setting, therapy, lifestyle change, and integration,” Lewis says.
Siu notes that these are not substances that necessarily do their job behind the scenes, and that microdosers who don’t consider their overall context may be missing the point. “Psychedelics open up this ability for people to touch parts of themselves that they don’t already do,” Siu says. “If I know the timing of when I start feeling something and when I start coming down, what do I want to do with that time?”
As long as people have basic knowledge of what they’re getting into with microdosing, Siu says, he considers the practice to be relatively safe. You’re unlikely to have an intense or overwhelming experience, he says, and it is magnitudes safer than working with macrodoses on your own or with the wrong guide. “I also think it can help people build trust and knowledge working with their own unconscious in a gentle, safe way,” Siu says.
Still, proceed with caution. While microdosing with certain psychedelic substances, including LSD and psilocybin, has been tested for safety within a six-month period, we don’t yet know if there are longer-term risks. And there is always the possibility that psychedelic drugs may be contaminated with potentially dangerous substances. You can buy drug testing kits online or find a drug testing service that will test your substances for you in a lab.
Who should not microdose: According to research gathered by Fadiman, microdosing is not recommended for people with color blindness, who may experience lasting visual changes after microdosing; people on the autism spectrum, who do not appear to respond to doses low enough to be considered microdosing; and people with a personal or family history of psychosis, who are at a greater risk for harm from psychedelic use. There is no scientific data determining whether it is safe for pregnant people to microdose.
THE FUTURE OF MICRODOSING RESEARCH
Doing clinical research on microdosing is difficult—there are too many regulatory hurdles to get past, and there’s not much profit incentive—so there is still very little robust research available. But in the last few years, major universities like Johns Hopkins, UCSF, UC Berkeley, NYU, Imperial College London, Mount Sinai, UW-Madison, and UC San Diego have established psychedelic research institutes that hope to elucidate how psychedelics work in the body and what they might be good for.
RELATED READING ON GOOP AND ELSEWHERE
We follow along with the latest psychedelic research as well as efforts to decriminalize psychedelics and legalize illicit drugs. We’ve looked into the best retreats and psychedelic therapy centers for healing and exploration, MDMA-assisted couples therapy, and psychedelic integration. And we’ve curated a list of our favorite books on psychedelics.
For books on microdosing experiences specifically, we recommend Paul Austin’s Microdosing Psychedelics and Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day, in addition to James Fadiman’s seminal text The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. We also like learning from Schaper’s Into the Multiverse podcast and her microdosing policy nonprofit, Microdosing Collective.
We hope you enjoy the books recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page, including links to Amazon.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.