A Brief History of Microdosing
Hundreds of people say taking barely perceptible doses of hallucinogens has helped them but there still hasn't been a major scientific trial.
Image: Flickr/Bill Smith
James Fadiman's inbox is stuffed with hundreds of emails from people describing how they've conquered anxiety or depression or even things like cluster headaches and painful period cramps. Will the scientific establishment ever begin taking their experiences seriously?
Over the last five years, Fadiman has spent much of his time explaining how taking a tiny little bit of LSD or another hallucinogenic drug on a specific schedule could have big time medical benefits. It's called microdosing, and while the idea hasn't yet catapulted itself into the mainstream, it's getting there—there's nary a science- or technology-minded media outlet that hasn't either tried microdosing or written about it in some form over the last few months.
The general idea is based on the long-held belief that acid can help you work through some mental problems and see the world in a different way. But taking a full dose of a hallucinogen isn't for everyone—my sole experience with LSD ended with me crying and eating frozen fish off the floor of a Barcelona hostel, among several other harrowing experiences during a high that lasted 14 mostly excruciating hours.
With microdosing is to take roughly a tenth of a normal dose (about 10-20 micrograms) every four days and then go about your business. Done correctly, there are no hallucinations, no traumatic experiences, not even any sluggishness. Those who do it correctly, Fadiman says, report having better days, feeling less anxious, and sometimes even conquering long-held mental hangups.
"People do it and they're eating better, sleeping better, they're often returning to exercise or yoga or meditation. It's as if messages are passing through their body more easily," Fadiman told me.
Five years ago, Fadiman started sending out microdosing instruction sheets to anyone who was interested (this document is embedded below if you want to try) and able to procure their own drugs. He then asked them to do the following and email him the results:
"Write a few notes to yourself about how your day went. Consider, for example, the amount of work you did, how productive or creative it was, and the level of ease or discomfort you felt. Notice any changes in how you are relating to others. Notice any differences from normal in mood, food, physical strength, or symptoms of any condition."
Fadiman has been overwhelmed with the response—hundreds of "trip reports," most of them positive.
"This is total guesswork, but so many different conditions that I've seen are improved, it looks like it rebalances those pistons which are not in balance," he added. "This may be in your central nervous system, it may be the brain stem, it may be that it's improving function of mitochondria. One woman who had painful, crampy periods started microdosing and when her period came, she had no problems."
"I am the least-known microdosing researcher in the world and I am the most famous microdosing researcher in the world."
But Fadiman and others who I have spoken to about microdosing say that, like anything else that's self-administered, there are potential pitfalls. Reply All's PJ Vogt took too much acid on a recent experiment for the podcast, got too high, and decided to never microdose again.
Fadiman said he's gotten about 5 reports from people who very much did not enjoy their experience. Others say they feel good when they microdose, then go back to being depressed or anxious in the weeks after they stop a cycle. Still others take LSD too often and build up a bit of a tolerance.
Thus far, these anecdotal experiences suggest that microdosing is relatively safe and potentially helpful if you are truly sticking to Fadiman's regimen.
"If you're interested in what are the real effects, field reports are superior to clinical trials," he said. "You're dealing with people in the context of their lives. They have no stake in any particular outcome. Clinical reports are helpful if you want to make these medically available."
Back in 1966, Fadiman published a landmark study about hallucinogen drugs and creative problem solving that's still held up today as one of the main pieces of hard scientific evidence about acid's artistic utility. But if you've read any article about microdosing, you knew that already, because Fadiman—and often Fadiman alone—is quoted in just about all of them.
"I am the least-known microdosing researcher in the world and I am the most famous microdosing researcher in the world," he told me.
Though Fadiman believes his field reports are strong evidence, he said it's time for other researchers to start looking into microdosing. Fadiman decided while I was interviewing him that he no longer has the bandwidth to read any more reports and said it's time for microdosing to be tried in traditional double-blind studies with placebos, which would put the technique on the path toward FDA approval as a possible treatment for a myriad of conditions.
"I absolutely think it's time for a scientific study with appropriate controls, a true placebo, and a look at—if there is indeed an effect, how unique is it?"
"The scientific basis is pretty shaky right now," Matthew Johnson, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies psilocybin and other hallucinogens, told me. "Its benefits are plausible and very interesting, but the claims of 'everything fits together and goes right and you're in a good mood and in the flow,' well, we all have those types of days regardless of any pharmacological intervention."
"If you expect to have one of those days, you're more likely to have one," he continued. "In fact it's not all that different from the kind of feeling you get from 5 milligrams of amphetamine or a low-dose stimulant."
Johnson is what Fadiman called a conscientious skeptic—someone who believes microdosers may be having a placebo-type reaction but nonetheless believes the hundreds of positive case studies warrant further inquiry.
This video has nearly 300,000 views—Fadiman says it's a good primer though the dosages are a little high.
"I think it's a really fascinating idea and I absolutely think it's time for a scientific study with appropriate controls, a true placebo, and a look at—if there is indeed an effect, how unique is it?" Johnson added.
The problem is, until recently, no one was lining up to do these types of studies. Fadiman says he hasn't had the funding or staff to do a double blind study.
"Microdosing, if you do it correctly, it will help you"
But the field reports have been so promising lately that Fadiman believes it's time to move to the next step. He says a team of researchers at a university in the United States and a team in the Netherlands are both trying to perform studies in the next couple years, though he wouldn't name them because there are still regulatory obstacles before either study gets started.
Even experienced microdosers say they'd like to see the scientific evidence to help support what they've been feeling. Martijn Schirp, a regular microdoser and founder of the drug news website High Existence (which has several good primers on microdosing), says there's still a stigma around hallucinogenic drugs even if you're just taking a tiny bit of them.
"I think a lot of people keep it to themselves unless they know for sure unless they know other people don't look down upon it," Schirp told me. But it cuts both ways: "There's so much bias in people in general. Once they're a fan of something, they oversell it. I'm definitely guilty of it."
And with so many new believers, microdosing, as an idea, is more popular than ever. Fadiman notes that a how-to video on YouTube has received hundreds of thousands of views as evidence that it's becoming mainstream. He's seen enough evidence that he's convinced microdosing can help just about anyone. When I tell him that I have occasional panic attacks, he doesn't hedge.
"Microdosing, if you do it correctly, it will help you," he said.
Update: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the number of trip reports James Fadiman has received.
Lit Up is a series about drugs and drug-like substances and practices. Follow along here.
- james fadiman
- Eat Acid for Breakfast