The Conundrum Of Microdosing
The practice of “microdosing” is certainly a phenomenon that has caught attention in recent years. Entire microdosing clinics are opening under the nebulous “wellness” term. On social media, a potpourri of enticing microdosing courses are available. These often comes with pricey memberships hovering around promises of “life improvement” and “mental sharpening”.
When it comes to the illicit psychedelic market, psilocybin-infused chocolate bars are neatly sectioned off in microdosing squares. If you’re watching your calories, small capsules of finely ground shrooms sold in fancy apothecary bottles are always available. People across the world are emphatically telling stories of how microdosing gives them a cognitive edge on their day-to-day activities.
So how can they be wrong?
Some of these people have credentials in the “psychedelic community”. Heck, they’ve even spoken at psychedelic conferences discussing the myriad of benefits of microdosing.
Surely, this is reason to believe that a microdose of psychedelics has a positive effect on mental well being, right?
Well, you knew this part was coming. The part where I tell you that, after looking at every sociological, psychological, and neurological study about microdosing, I’m comfortable saying that there’s lots of deception.
My pursuit has always been to explore the neurological and scientific underpinnings of psychedelics. Sometimes, that pursuit takes us towards areas we prefer not to disturb.
There are a lot of lies about microdosing — and, surprisingly, it may not even matter.
Contents of this article
- What Defines A Microdose?
- What Is The Five Dimensions of Altered Consciousness?
- How Does Microdosing Work?
- The Neural Mechanisms Of Microdosing
- What Research Says About Microdosing
- Does Science Support Microdosing’s Effectiveness?
- Where Did The Term ‘Microdosing’ Become Popular?
- Placebo Effect Studies
- The Conundrum Of Microdosing
- The Psychedelic Emergence
What Defines A Microdose?
Clinically, it’s anything from one-tenth to one-twentieth of a normal dose of psychedelics.
Of course, what’s a “normal dose” of psychedelics? This is where it gets a bit murky and we have to rely on colloquial data for these answers.
A tab of LSD is typically 100μg, or 100 micrograms. So, according to our microdosing formula, divide a single tab by at least 10 parts — or just 10μg.
When it comes to MDMA, a classic dose or tab is equal to about 120mg. That means a microdose should consist of no more than 12mg.
When it comes to psilocybin in mushrooms, while the traditional dose is 3.5 grams (an eighth of an ounce), the perceptual dose is only one gram. That would mean a microdose is about 100mg and dried psilocybin mushrooms, or 0.1 of a gram.
With doses these miniscule, how would anyone feel anything? Well, that’s a feature of the practice.
Microdosing should be sub perceptual, meaning it doesn’t provide sensory information that your brain can process. There is no trip. You feel nothing.
Unfortunately, the sub perceptual nature of microdosing psychedelics doesn’t allow for much subjective data to be acquired.
What Is The Five Dimensions of Altered Consciousness?
The Five Dimensions of Altered Consciousness (5D-ASC), a scale psychologists use to scientifically analyze the qualitative properties of a psychedelic, doesn’t necessarily apply to microdosing. There have been very small measurements of 5D-ASC activity in low dose amounts of psychedelics which by definition means these amounts exceeded the maximum microdose requirements.
Sub perception is a hallmark of the microdose experience, a “trip” that a person cannot feel. Sociologist Dimitrios Liokaftos discusses this rather suspicious aspect of microdosing in research published in September 2021.
“Microdosing appears to lend itself particularly well to placebo effect given its sub-perceptual use modality.”
The placebo effect of microdosing is something we’ll get into later.
How Does Microdosing Work?
According to the microdosing community, the sub perceptual nature of microdosing allows a person to go about daily activities while getting the behavioral and mood benefits often associated with psychedelics (reduction in anxiety and depression, increase in positive-related behavior).
Does sub-perceptual (or sub-perceptible) mean that it’s not working? There’s a lot of things humans can’t perceive.
Certain colors of the spectrum like UV light can’t be detected by humans, yet they have an extraordinary impact on health and well-being.
Microwaves are invisible, but that still hasn’t stopped us from using them to heat up a left-over burrito on a Friday night.
Although we may not perceive those spectrums of light in action, it’s easy to see the results of microwave and UV light in our environment.
So what evidence, or objective footprints, has microdosing left us?
The Neural Mechanisms Of Microdosing
Microdosing often comes with claims of noticeable mental health benefits from those that partake in the practice. So, naturally, it’s been the subject of rigorous neuroscientific and pharmacological investigation.
At the beginning of 2021, Imperial College London released a study on perhaps one of the largest psychedelic research ventures even conducted.
Nearly 200 people were given either a placebo or a microdose of a psychedelic (either LSD or psilocybin) and were then monitored for a month. What researchers found was that microdosed psychedelics worked as good as the placebo — there were no statistical differences in reported well-being in both the microdosed and non-microdosed category.
This shouldn’t come as a shocker. We’ve known microdosing has little to no effects since the first clinical study of the practice in 2018.
RELATED: Microdosing Psilocybin Mushrooms
What Research Says About Microdosing
Charles University researchers looked at the effects of microdosing psilocin (the compound psilocybin turns into when you eat it) along with ketamine, and they found there were no noticeable benefits of microdosing. In fact, they suggested microdosing may be counterproductive to mental benefits.
Another study from the same year (from Goldsmith’s, University of London) used a randomized double-blind study procedure and administered 5, 10, 20μg amounts of LSD. They concluded that “LSD conditions were not associated with any robust changes in self-report indices of perception, mentation, or concentration.”
One particular study conducted by Anya Bershad at University of Chicago looked at LSD consumed at two microdose amounts (6, 5μg), two doses that exceed the threshold of microdoses (13, 26μg), and placebo. Participants then took an array of psychological tests (IAPS Image Rating, Cyberball) to measure any noticeable cognitive effects.
At microdose amounts, their behavioral changes were subtle in comparison to placebo, with the placebo actually outmeasuring the microdose effects in many instances. At doses that exceeded the threshold of microdosing, participants reported feeling “high” and had small measurable changes on the 5D-ASC scale.
Overall, there were no significant measurable effects of an increase in mood, reduction of depression, “elevation of cognition”. Likewise, there were no other advertised effects marketed by microdosing aficionados.
Other microdose studies report similar findings — measured behavioral effects of microdosing are insignificant or as effective as placebo.
However, this conclusion isn’t from a rogue lab. Instead, it’s a global effort of strenuous research with experimental protocols from top psychologists, pharmacologists and neuroscientists.
Does Science Support Microdosing’s Effectiveness?
Despite all of this, people that microdose still vehemently believe the practice works.
Is science incapable of detecting the reports of cognitive changes? Bershad presents a pretty interesting idea — perhaps it’s the instruments that’s at fault.
“This is a very interesting and important question. One possible answer is that the instruments we use to detect effects aren’t sensitive to the particular effects people experience when taking these substances outside of the laboratory. We have questionnaires designed to assess mood (depression, elation, anxiety), which may not tap into the specific effects of microdosing LSD.”
Instruments that psychology and neuroscience use may not be precise enough to discover minute changes of human physiology and cognition. This happens in science a lot.
Einstein knew other subatomic forces existed. But microscope technology at the time only detected protons and electrons.
There is precedence to a scientific idea being proven correct when technology advances to a point in which evidence can be gathered and measured. But microdosing isn’t an idea from science, or any strong scientific inclination that it’s effective. It’s not even an idea that has strong historic cultural ties.
Where Did The Term ‘Microdosing’ Become Popular?
Indigenous people in North America that implemented psychedelics in shamanic rituals never practiced or advocated a microdose regime.
Instead, it’s a term that recent people use to discuss its alleged efficacy through “microdose education”. These are usually the ones selling high-priced subscription services and neatly bundled microdosing kits.
But this isn’t how science works.
However, I think there’s a better explanation for the feelings from microdosing — despite lack of compelling evidence.
University of Zurich’s Katrin Preller had this to say about microdosing’s perceived effects:
“A recent study showed that people indeed do feel better after microdosing, however independently of whether they have taken LSD or a placebo. This suggests that the placebo effect is very strong, potentially encouraging people to continue microdosing because they feel better even though this might not have anything to do with the pharmacological effects of LSD.
And — as suggested above — it is still possible that microdosing may have a positive effect on emotion regulation in clinical or subclinical populations.”
But this still needs to be tested.”
This isn’t so much a critique on microdosing. It is more so a staunch acknowledgment of just how powerful the mind is.
Placebo Effect Studies
The placebo effect is a real thing — expecting something to happen in the absence of a drug can cause neurological and behavioral changes that aren’t fully understood. Most clinical pharmacological research utilizes placebo to check for efficacy of drugs. However, it also illustrates that non-pharmacological changes are abundant.
The interesting thing about placebo is the effect works even when a person knows they’re taking a placebo.
In 2016, participants openly took a placebo pill to treat lower back pain without any accompanying pain medication.
The results were shocking.
People taking the placebo — while knowing it was placebo — still claim a significant reduction in back pain.
Placebo also expands beyond our traditional understanding of it. In other words, the act of knowing you’re taking a substance can influence the efficacy of the substance.
A recent study on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, antidepressants like Prozac, Lexapro) saw people that knew they were taking SSRIs had a “clinically superior” response compared to people that didn’t know they were taking the drug.
The onset of the placebo effect may even strengthen from the ritual or practice of administering the placebo. A person is more likely to respond to placebo in a clinical setting, complete with researchers spouting medical terminology.
Even the branding and the color of the placebo alters its effectiveness. These are attributes that are undoubtedly endemic to the microdosing industry.
The Conundrum Of Microdosing
So if microdosing shows no significant pharmacological or neurological modulations to behavior under clinical research, yet a person still believes the practice is having a beneficial effect on them — why should they stop?
Better yet, why be deterred from microdosing just because science can’t fully explain the non-pharmacological placebo effect it has?
This is an ethical question that transcends the scope of this article.
I’m sure some people reading this start their day by avidly checking their daily horoscope. Even though it’s pseudoscience, reading a fortune about how you will overcome some adversity may serve as inspiration to have a more resounding behavioral disposition to a tough scenario.
On the same token, reading about how you should stay away from certain astrological signs may hinder relationships you’re building. Why begin talking to a “Gemini” when your daily horoscope says you should stay away from them?
Pseudoscience isn’t so docile — and to be clear, I’m not classifying microdosing as pseudoscience. Both industries do run parallel in the nebula of “wellness”.
The same home for things like adaptogens (a word now banned in the EU because of false marketing in the wellness sector), nootropics supplements (FDA still warns consumers of advertising fraud in the nootropic industry), and other sub-perceptual products usually accompanied by high-end branding and sleek packaging.
The Psychedelic Emergence
If you believe microdosing is helping, it’s ridiculous for me to proclaim you should stop doing what’s working. It would be equally dismissive for me to not inform you that the marketing claims of microdosing are severely misleading. Some are even downright false when compared to the current science surrounding it.
There may be more emerging research that can provide stronger evidence of neurological or behavioral changes exclusively linked to microdosing. One should never count out science.
In this psychedelic renaissance, it’s important to keep your mind open, but not too open where your brain falls on the floor.