From ayahuasca retreats to high-end journeys with psilocybin and therapy-led treatment to mail-order mushrooms, there’s no shortage of ways one can work with psychedelics. But it’s microdosing—ostensibly a low-dose, more frequently ingested version—that on its face appears to be a more approachable way to get the reported benefits of psychedelics (greater self-love, inner peace and healed trauma, for starters) without going full-tilt with a hallucinatory “trip.”
But what exactly is microdosing, who is it for, and what is it like? For the psycho-curious, here’s a brief overview of microdosing and how it works.
What is microdosing?
According to Harvard University’s health blog, a “microdose” is ⅕ to 1/20 of a recreational dose of a psychedelic drug, from ketamine to LSD and psilocybin. For example, the blog defines a medium-strength dose of psilocybin as 2-3 grams of dried mushrooms. A microdose, in contrast, tends to be around 0.2 or 0.3 grams. The idea is that the dose is small enough that it won’t cause hallucination or have a psychedelic effect, but it’s big enough to have a positive effect on one’s psyche.
Microdosing is often self-guided, but anecdotally speaking, aficionados will microdose once every three days to once every few weeks, for as long as they find benefits to their mental health.
What is microdosing for?
Microdosers tend to seek out low-dose psychedelics for treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, trauma, reduction of anxiety symptoms, mood enhancement, creativity and even attention span. As microdosing becomes increasingly mainstream (although, it should be noted, not increasingly legal except for two U.S. cities so far), more people are giving it a try for a quickly-expanding set of symptoms and concerns—typically, when they’ve tried prescription medications, talk therapy and other traditional avenues toward mental wellness and not experienced satisfactory outcomes. In these cases, microdosing can be a lifeline.
Does microdosing work?
It depends on whom you ask, and which study you consult. In the United States, quantified, peer-reviewed research into the use and impact of psychedelics on mental health was effectively quashed starting in the 1960s, through the remainder of the 20th century. As the so-called War on Drugs banned psychedelics outright, scientific research was mostly on pause. It’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that there’s been something of a renaissance in the field, leading to a loosening of regulations on psilocybin in places like Portland, OR, and Denver, CO, plus an early crop of studies. Ketamine, meanwhile, has remained legal as an off-label prescription that’s officially for use as an anesthetic.
A 2021 study, for example, “identified lower levels of anxiety and depression among microdosers relative to controls.” Notably, study participants chose their own substances (mostly psilocybin, with some LSD users), and some stacked their intake with cacao or other substances. Which is to say, it was self-selecting and highly observational. A 2022 study, however, which was a double-blind, controlled study in which some participants microdosed psilocybin and the others were given placebos, researchers found no quantifiable differences in mental health between the two groups.
What does microdosing feel like?
For this woman who microdosed with mail-order ketamine, the drug gave her a deep sense of peace, and compressed time. In her interview with Terra, she reported experiencing better sleep and intense dreams, as well as a dry mouth. But she also said the drug helped her feel more like herself.
“Mood, depression, anxiety—ketamine is helping with all of those things,” she said. “I still need more help with it, but it’s making me ask, how can I get more of the psychedelics into my healing toolkit? Should I cut down some of my talk therapy?”
Is microdosing safe?
As with the efficacy of microdosing, peer-reviewed, double-blind studies on the long-term impact of microdosing are still lacking. People like James Fadiman, a psychologist whose work on microdosing has in part spurred the current psychedelic renaissance, asserts that the practice is absolutely safe. But others, like U.K. psychiatrist James Rucker, have cautioned that there are still too many unknowns to self-medicate worry-free.
Apart from ketamine, and except for Oregon and Colorado, every substance typically associated with microdosing in the U.S. is, as of this publishing date, illegal. That said, some mental health professionals and general medical practitioners might recommend seeking out treatment with low-dose psychedelics. One’s approach to mental health care is highly personal, and should be done with the advice of a doctor.
What happens next with respect to research on safety and benefits largely depends on lawmakers and policy. If restrictions on research continue to ease, it will allow for more in-depth, longitudinal studies with more reliable results. Armed with more and better information, would-be microdosers (and their doctors) will have more to go on to make informed decisions and, ideally, to seek out and receive better care.