Microdosing is a treatment unlike any other. Take a tiny dose of a psychedelic twice a week for several weeks and you’ll barely notice a difference – until you start to realize how much better you’re feeling at the end of each day.
Microdosing requires careful self-reflection, miniscule doses, and barely-noticeable effects. Naturally, such a subtle treatment is bound to become subject to cries of “Placebo!” almost as soon as it hits the mainstream.
Despite the cynicism, current evidence supports microdosing as having a legitimate physiological effect. And considering the amazing healing benefits people are reporting from microdosing… should we even care if it’s a placebo?
PHARMACOLOGY AND POTENCY
A typical microdose of LSD is 10 micrograms. This is tens of thousands of times lower than a normal dose of modafinil. How then are people reporting similar effects from these very different doses?
A recent study investigating the way in which LSD binds to receptors in the brain could shed light on this question. Researchers found that when a molecule of LSD binds to the serotonin 2A receptor, it gets “hugged” into a molecular lock that has the potential to keep the receptor activated for several hours.
This supports the idea that such tiny doses of psychedelics could still have a physiological effect – they’re sticking around in the brain for much longer than normal substances.
Additionally, we know that 100ug of LSD is sometimes all it takes to propel people into a life-changing, ego-destroying psychedelic headspace – so it doesn’t seem unlikely that a tenth of that will still have some sort of effect in the brain.
MICRODOSING FOR MENTAL HEALTH
The science doesn’t end at pharmacology. A myriad of recent studies have shown that moderate to large doses of psychedelics (including LSD and psilocybin) can be amazingly effective in treating mental health conditions such as depression, end-of-life anxiety, social anxiety, addiction, cluster headaches, PTSD, and OCD.
But these studies are with doses much larger than a normal microdose. Can we expect the same therapeutic benefits from tiny doses?
Although there have not been any clinical trials on microdosing for mental health conditions, initial reports from microdosers suggest impressive healing benefits. Most reports come from people who started microdosing in order to treat depression or anxiety – and impressively, almost all of our respondents find that microdosing is an effective replacement for antidepressants.
MICRODOSING FOR CREATIVITY
Taking psychedelics to treat medical conditions is one thing. But what about the many people who are microdosing to get ahead in creative pursuits or workplace productivity? Are they all deluded, or are there reasons to believe it’s working?
Although a scientific definition of “creativity” isn’t the easiest thing to come up with, there have been a number of studies on the creative potential of psychedelics – using moderate dose sizes.
A study using mescaline to enhance problem solving in a group of businesspeople showed that 200mg of mescaline (equivalent to about 100ug of LSD, a moderate dose) could help people come up with new solutions to old problems. 27 people were told to consider one (or more) problems they were encountering in their work, and had been dwelling on for some time. After the psychedelic session, most of the participants had come up with a new solution to at least one of their problems, including equipment designs, mathematical formulas, and conceptual models.
Other studies in rabbits have suggested that psychedelics do something unique to the way we learn – helping us adapt to new situations. Rabbits given moderate doses of LSD were found to learn a new association with less error than rabbits given no LSD or very high doses of LSD. The dose at which most rabbits started learning more effectively was equivalent to about 60ug in humans, although many rabbits would respond to lower doses.
Studies in mice, investigating the neurotransmitter serotonin (which psychedelics mimic), also suggest that psychedelics could help us adapt to unexpected situations. Zachary Mainen, Ph.D., the lead investigator in these studies, believes that prolonged activation of serotonin receptors in microdosers’ neurons could be reducing impulsivity and improving people’s patience with everyday problems.
Last year’s famous imaging study (that showed us the brain on LSD for the very first time) also turned up some interesting findings on divergent thinking. The study found that moderate doses of LSD decreased the activity of the Default Mode Network, which allowed the brain to become connected in unusual and expanded ways. Basically, psychedelics turn down our brains’ natural control mechanisms, allowing us to think more “outside the box.”
So moderate doses seem to turn up our creativity dial. But can we also unlock the creative potential of psychedelics with microdoses? Our microdosing survey seems to suggest so, with most respondents reporting increases in creative thinking and problem solving. Basically, if you go into work on a microdose, you’re more likely to feel creative, productive, and effective.
THE POWER OF THE PLACEBO
So it seems as if microdosing is genuinely having an effect – and there’s science to back it up. But let’s backtrack a bit and think about the placebo effect.
In a research study a few years ago, 37 women suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome were given a unique treatment that dramatically and significantly improved their disease symptoms and quality of life.
Had they been given some kind of new experimental medication?
Well, sort of.
The women in the study were given placebos, and they were openly told they were being given completely inactive pills!
Conventional wisdom would suggest that this completely defeats the point of a placebo. Surely deception is necessary for a placebo to work at all. You need to think that you’re being given an active drug, right?
But this study found that openly giving the IBS sufferers sugar pills, along with some information about the placebo effect and the importance of staying positive, had impressive healing benefits.
This study isn’t a one-off either; last month a comprehensive review of several “open-label placebo” studies proved their effectiveness in treating conditions such as ADHD, depression, and chronic pain.
These studies show that healing is not just about pharmacology or physiology; healing is holistic. People need support, guidance, ritual, and belief alongside the science, in order for complete healing to occur. Deception and pessimism are not necessary.
There is a whole heap of legitimate science that strongly suggests microdosing has a significant physiological effect.
But if it turns out that some microdoses are simply too small to make a physiological difference, while people are still reporting benefits from them… so what? Then microdosing can also act as an effective placebo.
We need to move away from the anti-healing stigma that surrounds placebos and accept that healing is a complex process. True healing has components of social interactions, ritual, belief, and compassion – alongside the sciences of physiology and pharmacology.
Instead of asking “Is microdosing just placebo?” we should be asking “Does microdosing heal?”
The clear answer is yes, microdosing heals.