Microdosing describes the practice of taking a “microdose” of a drug, most commonly a hallucinogenic drug like mushrooms, MDMA or LSD. This practice has become increasingly widespread, with a 2019 study finding that a microdosing subreddit had over 40,000 subscribers (1).
Many users claim microdosing has greatly reduced or even resolved symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and ironically, drug addictions, garnering public interest and reviving research into the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs. This article will provide an overview of what microdosing is, the potential risks and benefits of this practice, and the status of research on this practice.
Microdoses vs Therapeutic Doses
The therapeutic dose of drugs describes the dose normally needed to cause the desired effects of a substance. People taking therapeutic doses of LSD and mushrooms often report hearing and seeing things that aren’t there, and depending on where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing, can have a very negative and scary experience. These experiences are often referred to as “bad trips” and are commonly reported among experienced recreational users of these drugs (4).
MDMA is different from LSD and mushrooms in its effects. MDMA is often called an empathogen because of its emotional effects and has both qualities of a stimulant and a hallucinogen. When taking therapeutic doses of MDMA, people often describe experiencing feelings of warmth, connectedness, and empathy with other people. They are less likely to see the vivid hallucinations that people experience on LSD or mushrooms, but do experience sensory changes that make touch, music, light, taste and smell more intense (3).
Microdoses, on the other hand, are usually doses between one tenth and one hundredth of a therapeutic dose. At this sub-therapeutic dosage, the effects of drugs are less intense. Users are less likely to hallucinate or feel intoxicated but may notice more subtle changes in their mood or perception. For people who practice microdosing, these subtle changes are the desired effect (1, 2). While MDMA, mushrooms and LSD are the most commonly microdosed drugs, others have reported microdosing ayahuasca, salvia, mescaline, and even marijuana.
Reported Benefits of Microdosing
Anecdotally, users who have tried microdosing hallucinogens report nootropic effects, which describe cognitive enhancements like increased clarity, focus and creativity. People also report boosts in their mood and energy levels, which can help counteract fatigue, brain fog, and depressive symptoms (1, 2).
Improved cognition, energy, and mood are the primary benefits that people who try microdosing are seeking (2). Early research suggests that sub-therapeutic doses of psychedelics can cause these desired effects in some users. For example, one study found that 92% of microdosers reported improved mood, 59% reported improved anxiety, and roughly half of users reported improved lifestyle choices like exercising more, eating better, and meditating more (1). In addition, microdosing has shown promising results in the treatment of symptoms of ADHD and also chronic pain disorders (2).
Research also suggests that microdosing may be helpful to people trying to overcome an addiction or bad habit. Over 40% of users reported reduced caffeine and nicotine use as a result of microdosing, 30% reported reduced marijuana use, and about 16% reported reduced use of prescribed drugs and illicit drugs (1).
These improvements in mental health and addictive disorders are consistent with prior research conducted on full therapeutic doses of psychedelic drugs, which continue to be studied for their therapeutic value. Research suggests that full therapeutic doses of psychedelics are more effective in producing the desired benefits and effects than microdosing is, but microdosing does appear to have significant positive effects for many users (1, 2). Still, the benefits of microdosing are balanced with an equal number of potential risks and adverse effects.
Adverse Effects & Risks of Microdosing
Ranked high among adverse effects of microdosing are concern about the illegality of these substances and the potential for legal consequences. The illegality of psychedelic drugs also increases the risk of receiving impure or inauthentic drugs. There are instances where more dangerous drugs like bath salts, ketamine or methamphetamines are sold to unknowing buyers as psychedelics (3). Unlike prescribed drugs regulated by the FDA, there is also no way to guarantee the purity of the drug, which makes it easy for microdosers to take too little or too much of the drug.
Physiological symptoms like feeling hot or cold, numbness or tingling, headaches, and vision problems are also commonly reported side effects of microdosing. Along with these symptoms, many microdosers also report insomnia and reduced appetite as an adverse effect. One study found that almost 20% of people who microdose report one or more of these physiological side effects (1).
While improved mood, focus, and energy are the primary benefits reported by microdosers, between 6-10% of users actually reported worsening of mood, inability to focus, and loss of energy (1). These findings highlight the fact that psychedelic drugs have unpredictable effects, even at small, sub-therapeutic dosages. Not only will some users not experience any benefits to microdosing, they may even find that the problems they are trying to correct actually get worse.
Specific Risks of Microdosing for People with Addictions
While some research suggests psychedelics can have promising effects in the treatment of addictive disorders, the use of any mind or mood-altering drugs can pose risks for people with these conditions. People with one kind of addiction are very likely to develop other forms of addiction, meaning that taking one illicit drug to stop another generally isn’t a recommended solution for people struggling with an addiction.
People with addictions often struggle to restrict how much and how often they use a drug. Because microdosing requires restricting doses to between one hundredth and one tenth of a therapeutic dose, people who already struggle with addiction can easily slip into thinking that they should take more to “feel” the effects more. Sticking to a strict microdosing regiment may be almost impossible for a person with prior addictions because of these tendencies.
Final Words of Caution
While microdosing is becoming increasingly popular, there are notable risks associated with taking any psychedelic drug, even at very low doses. Researchers do not fully understand psychedelic drugs, what they do in the brain, and how they affect changes in perception, mood, and cognition, but there are few other drugs that can have such powerful and unpredictable effects. Some people have even developed Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder or HPPD, which is a rare forms of psychosis that involves lasting hallucinations and sensory abnormalities (4).
People who intentionally or accidentally take a therapeutic dose of a psychedelic can experience hallucinations and become unable to determine reality from the effects of the drug they are on. These “bad trips” can be extremely frightening, upsetting, and even traumatic for people. While this might not seem very significant, research shows that of those who have had bad trips, 40% rated it as one of the most psychologically difficult experiences in their lives (1). In rare cases, people who use hallucinogens can develop “flashbacks” of a bad trip, even years later.
Also, many psychedelic drugs have extremely long half-lives, meaning they are metabolized very slowly, causing their effects to last much longer than other drugs. For example, mushrooms and LSD can have effects that last up to 12 hours, meaning that any adverse reactions (even to small doses) can also persist for this duration (4). Finally, the illegality of these drugs places users at risk for legal problems as well as an inability to verify what drug and dosage they are taking.
While there are some early studies that suggest that certain psychedelic drugs can have therapeutic value in treating conditions like depression, anxiety, trauma, and possibly even addictions, more research is needed to fully understand the effects of these drugs. Also, there is a big difference between taking a drug as a part of a medical treatment or research study, which helps to ensure the safety of users, versus experimenting alone.
Current research studies using these drugs have doctors and trained counselors to help guide people through specific types of therapeutic processes when taking the drug. They also have dedicated facilities where patients can receive constant supervision and support from trained staff until the effects of the drug fully wear off.
In the future, if psychedelics do become a mainstream treatment, these safeguards will continue to be in place to ensure the safe and therapeutic use of these drugs, and a standardized protocol will be used to help users benefit from the process. As of now, taking microdoses or therapeutic doses of psychedelics is still an experimental treatment that is both illegal and unsafe for people to try at home.
- Anderson, T., Petranker, R., Christopher, A., Rosenbaum, D., Weissman, C., Dinh-Williams, L. A., … & Hapke, E. (2019). Psychedelic microdosing benefits and challenges: an empirical codebook. Harm reduction journal, 16(1), 43.
- Hutten, N. R., Mason, N. L., Dolder, P. C., & Kuypers, K. P. (2019). Self-rated effectiveness of microdosing with psychedelics for mental and physical health problems amongst microdosers. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 672.