Exploring the Benefits and Risks of Microdosing

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

The reported benefits of microdosing are manifold and have been reported by users far and wide, with many people seeking microdosing as a tool to enhance their performance,  improve their mental health, or boost their creativity. However, the benefits associated with microdosing are mostly anecdotal, and microdosing research is still in its infancy, with few studies having empirically investigated its benefits, risks, and safety over time.


To date, the majority of microdosing studies have relied on participants’ self-reports, giving questionnaires to those who have prior experience with microdosing or those who have an active interest in it. Accordingly, there is substantial bias in these studies as participants may have been inclined to believe that their experiences would be positive.


A study published in PLOS ONE tracked the experiences of 98 microdosing participants daily over a six week period, assessing various psychometric measures related to mood, attention, wellbeing, personality, and so forth. Although results showed a general increase in reported psychological functioning on dosing days, there was limited evidence of residual effects on the following days. 


Beyond this, researchers found that over the span of the six week period, participants reported significant reductions in depression and stress, and an overall improvement in their mental health after starting a microdosing practice. There were also significant decreases in “mind wandering” suggesting that participants were more easily able to maintain focus as a result of microdosing. 


A different study, published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2019, classified several possible benefits from the reports of a real-world sample of 278 microdosers including improved mood, improved focus, increased creativity, increased energy, reduced anxiety, and social benefits such as increased empathy and connection. These observations substantiate the large body of anecdotal reports that drive many to beginning a microdosing practice. On the other hand, the study also identified several “challenges” such as physical discomfort, impaired focus and mood, increased anxiety, impaired energy as well as cognitive and social interference. 

Reported outcomes of the microdosing benefits and challenges of microdosing as indicated as percentages. Source: Psychedelic microdosing benefits and challenges: an empirical codebook

At present, there is limited research when it comes to understanding the role of microdosing as a therapeutic tool to treat mental health conditions. However, many people are still drawn to start a microdosing practice because of its reported ability to reduce stress and anxiety and provide relief from the symptoms of depression. 

One study published by Frontiers in Psychiatry used participant self-reports to assess the effectiveness of microdosing when compared with conventional prescribed treatments for mental health problems like anxiety and depression. The findings showed that the majority of people found microdosing to be more effective than conventional treatments, however, it was still considered to be less effective than higher doses of psychedelics. 


Mental health conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction are associated with the rigidity of neural pathways as well as the deterioration of neurons in certain parts of the brain. A popular theory explaining the benefits of microdosing links it to psychedelics' ability to promote neuroplasticity, which helps the brain change and establish new neural connections over time, as well as neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells. This is directly tied to our ability to remain cognitively dynamic which promotes mental health by enabling us to break away from rigid mental structures, but also tied to learning,  an activity which at its root requires the creation of new neural pathways. It still remains unknown as to whether microdoses have the same ability as larger doses of psychedelics to promote neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. 

What are the Risks of Microdosing? 

Microdosing is not for everyone, with some people being extremely sensitive to psychoactive compounds, and others finding their effects non-desirable. Commonly reported side effects of microdosing include increased anxiety, reduced focus, low energy, intensified moods, as well as emotional and physical discomfort. Those with underlying mental health conditions and/or a history of psychological disorders should avoid microdosing due to these aforementioned potential side effects. 


Physiologically speaking, psychedelic substances are relatively safe, but there remains a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to taking them on a regular basis, even in such small doses. Unlike other substances, psychedelics are not physically addictive. However, it is very possible to become psychologically dependent on microdosing as a result of the positive feelings of euphoria, heightened awareness, and well being that it can produce. Much like other substances, people can become reliant on microdosing, using it as a “band aid” to boost their low moods and hack productivity. 


One negative aspect, specifically related to long-term microdosing, is building up a tolerance. In other words, the body’s response to certain substances becomes diminished when they are used regularly over time, generally leading to the subjective experience of reduced benefits. This is a key reason that microdosing protocols do not advocate dosing every single day. 

An additional risk associated with microdosing psychedelics is that it is not always easy to determine that the dose you have taken is in fact “micro”. Psilocybin mushrooms are a natural resource, with their potency varying from strain to strain. Similarly, LSD is not always evenly spread out on blotter paper and its illegality makes it hard to determine its  quality and strength. 


One negative finding in the previously mentioned PLOS ONE study is that participants reported small increases in trait neuroticism, which researchers hypothesize “may reflect an overall increase in the intensity of emotions (both positive and negative) experienced during periods of microdosing.” Despite the fact that the majority of participants had beneficial experiences, there were still a small proportion of individuals that reported feeling anxious or uneasy. 


A study published in the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology sought to investigate the reported side effects of microdosing psychedelics by sending an online questionnaire to 1116 respondents who were microdosing or had microdosed in the past. The most reported negative effects were psychological in nature and happened on dosing days, while participants were under the influence of the substance. The study found that one-fifth (20%) of all microdosers reported to have experienced some kind of psychological and/or physical negative effects.


Perhaps one of the more obvious risks when it comes to microdosing is the legality of it. Psychedelic substances are illegal world over, although some countries and states have looser laws relating to their possession, use, and cultivation. This is gradually changing as more people become open to the benefits of psychedelics, and decriminalization initiatives are mobilized across North America and Europe. 

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to microdose is a personal one, and each of us must weigh the potential benefits along with the possible risks. Online community forums are brimming with compelling testimonials of individuals who have found personal growth and healing through their microdosing practice. It is likely that there will be a long wait until more detailed, empirically validated studies on microdosing are conducted due to the legal and bureaucratic obstacles that stand in the way. Nevertheless, regulation typically lags behind innovation, and uses for microdosing practices will continue to be explored. 

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