In May of this year, Fast Company reported employees at the mushroom coffee brand MUD\WTR added small amounts of hallucinogenic (psilocybin) mushrooms to their morning brew. Silicon Valley employees have long been rumoured to microdose psychedelics at work to enhance focus, creativity, and improve productivity. The popularity of microdosing has since grown among politicians and the public in recent years.
Although psychedelics aren’t yet legal in Canada, will we see more companies or even wellness professionals tout microdosing?
What is microdosing?
Microdosing is the action or practice of taking or administering very small amounts of a psychedelic drug (by capsule, dropper or nasal spray) in order to test or benefit from its physiological action (sharpened perception, increased serotonin levels) while minimizing undesirable side effects like hallucinations. Psilocybin and LSD are the most common psychedelic drugs used.
Psilocybin mushroom capsules contain 50 to 300 mg of dried powder, while a full dose is 10 times this amount.
“This is not an underground phenomenon anymore. There are businesses that make a living out of microdosing, and obviously that changes the game,” said Balázs Szigeti, professor at Imperial College London in an interview with CBC.
Potential benefits of microdosing
In Hulu’s TV show Nine Perfect Strangers, Nicole Kidman’s character Masha gives resort guests small doses of psilocybin to help them with anxiety, depression, addiction and other traumas. But does it really work?
Microdosing is still being researched for its potential benefits. In 2020, a survey of people managing mental and substance use disorders with microdosing found 44% perceived their mental health was better.
A more recent study of a large international sample of adults highlighted therapeutic and wellness motivations for microdosing psychedelic drugs. They identified lower levels of anxiety and depression among microdosers, relative to controls.
The University of Toronto’s Centre for Psychedelic Studies and University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health are conducting the world’s first clinical trials on microdosing psilocybin.
An Austin-based designer came across research about psilocybin and read anecdotes of Silicon Valley influencers claiming increased energy from microdosing. He started eating about half an inch (1 to 2 mg) of psilocybin mushrooms a few times a week and started feeling benefits almost immediately. He told The New York Times, “It just kind of boosted my morale. I was in a little bit better mood. I had a little bit more pep to my step. I was having a little bit more fun, feeling a little bit more excited about things.”
Former professional hockey player Mike Brodeur ended his NHL career with the Ottawa Senators in 2010 after a concussion. He found difficulty recovering with painkillers and antidepressants, and began microdosing psilocybin. “When I wake up in the morning with my coffee, I take my pill, Monday to Friday. It gives me energy, focus, problem-solving, a better look at the future. It’s been life changing,” he told CBC.
A mother in San Diego started microdosing about three years ago when she was pregnant with her son. She struggled with alcoholism and says microdosing helped her to stop drinking. She now microdoses regularly.
In 2019, Zack and Amy, a couple in Ontario, microdosed psilocybin every morning for two weeks out of curiosity and a desire to understand each other more. After a few days, Zack noticed he was calmer and more honest about his feelings. He pointed out when Amy did things that bothered him and said he wished she would give him the space to improve his communication skills. Although they had difficulty finding another shrooms dealer, Zack remains convinced that microdosing helped his relationship. The self-awareness he also experienced led him to take up meditation and other wellness practices.
According to Dr. Bhatt, Chief Science Advisor for Silo Wellness, people microdose for a range of reasons. He said in an interview: “You have your Type As that want that edge and want to stay on top of things, you have individuals that are trying to maintain their mental health, and you have individuals who are just trying to see if they can expand their mind.”
Los Angeles-based Celia Collective offers psychedelic education and wellness programs for those interested in healing through microdosing, starting at $300 a session.
Alternative opinions about microdosing
Aside from the fact that taking psychedelic drugs of any dose is not yet legal (except for clinical studies), studies suggest the benefits of microdosing could be a placebo effect and that current science doesn’t support the claims of heightened creativity and focus.
One of the largest placebo-controlled studies published in the spring of 2021 involving nearly 200 participants found that those who microdosed—usually with LSD—for about a month experienced psychological benefits including boosts in well-being and life satisfaction, but those in the placebo group also experienced similar improvements. There was no meaningful difference between the two groups.
A more recent study published in Addiction Biology earlier this year found that short-term microdosing of LSD doesn’t appear to cause any lasting or dramatic improvements to a person’s disposition or brainpower. “The results were a little bit disappointing in that we didn’t see any dramatic improvements in mood or cognition, or really any lasting changes on any of the measures that we looked at,” said lead researcher Harriet de Wit, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
The study found that microdosing LSD was safe, with no negative effects on heart rate, blood pressure or other vital signs, but participants built a tolerance to LSD over the course of the study, with the drug effect diminishing during each subsequent session.
Dr. Matthew Johnson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, said the new research adds to “a handful of studies that suggest that this phenomenon of microdosing is surely at least partially placebo effect.” He continued: “So far, no study has found really any evidence to pick up even a little signal of the benefits of microdosing.”
He added that depression treatment would be the most likely benefit that could come from microdosing LSD. The concept of microdosing also runs counter to modern psychedelic drug research, which is based on a “model of these high overwhelming doses causing this very overt psychedelic experience.”
Longer studies might see a result from frequent microdosing, or researchers might find more effects in people suffering from a mood disorder like anxiety or depression. Most lab studies have only assessed microdosing over a few weeks, whereas microdosers take psychedelics for months.
Only about a third of people who microdose carefully measure the amount of the psychedelic they are taking. Measuring requires trial and error. Most take enough to feel effects, which usually start after an hour and last four to six hours. The most commonly reported negative side effect of microdosing is accidentally taking too much.
“They intend to take a microdose, but then they’re at work and the wall starts waving,” said Dr. Johnson in an interview with Insider.
Despite the popularity of microdosing, it’s likely to be frowned upon in most workplaces. In 2021, Justin Zhu, former CEO of Iterable, was fired by the company board because he took a microdose of LSD before a company meeting to improve his focus.
Researchers also say frequent repeated doses of a psychedelic could stress the heart. Considering the health, legal, and professional risks of a wrong dose, Dr. Johnson suggests curious seekers revisit caffeine instead.
Although it may be too early to tell whether microdosing will be a “new norm,” it’s clear that many people are experimenting with psychedelics for relief and to get through mental and emotional challenges. Perhaps sometime soon, the science will reveal more to support or refute the activity.