- Microdosing refers to the practice of regularly using small amounts of psychedelic substances that do not impair cognitive function.
- Evidence from mostly small observational studies suggests that microdosing psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, can improve cognitive function and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- In agreement with these data, a large study now shows that individuals who microdose psilocybin showed improved mood and a greater decline in anxiety, depression, and stress over a one-month period than those who did not microdose.
- Notably, these improvements in mental health and mood associated with microdosing psilocybin were also observed in individuals with mental health concerns.
A large study recently published in the journal Scientific Reportsshows that microdosing psilocybin resulted in greater improvements in mental health and mood than in individuals who did not engage in microdosing.
The study’s co-author Joseph Rootman, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, said that the study was “the largest longitudinal study to date” on microdosing psilocybin and one of the few pieces of research to include a control group.
“We found psilocybin microdosing to be associated with improvements in mood and mental health, which adds to the growing body of research that suggests positive benefits of microdosing specifically in the domains of mental health and cognition.”
— Joseph Rootman, study co-author
“We hope that our findings will help facilitate the development of more rigorously designed clinical trials,” he added.
What is microdosing?
Naturally occurring psychedelic substances such as psilocybin extract from magic mushrooms and mescaline have been used for their beneficial health effects for thousands of years. The classification of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin and LSD as drugs of abuse without any medical use has, however, hindered research on the therapeutic effects of these substances.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of scientific and popular interest in the potential use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. For instance, psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has shown promise in the treatment of individuals with depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.
These studies have generally used regular doses of psilocybin that produce euphoric and hallucinogenic effects. However, the use of regular doses of psilocybin can also produce unpleasant and terrifying experiences, also referred to as “bad trips”.
This has led to the adoption of a practice called microdosing, which involves the consumption of small amounts of psychedelic substances that do not produce hallucinogenic effects.
Most ‘microdosers’ use about 10% of the regular dose of psilocybin, equivalent to about 100-300 milligrams of dried mushrooms, between 2-5 times a week.
Challenges of studying psychedelics
Anecdotal reports and observational studies suggest that microdosing psychedelics can improve cognitive function, enhance mood, and reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. Most of these observational studies have used a cross-sectional design, with only a few longitudinal studies comparing the effects of microdosing psilocybin with a control group over a period of time.
However, there are obstacles to conducting longitudinal studies on the effects of hallucinogenic substances.
For instance, a significant number of participants in previous placebo-controlled microdosing studies were able to recognize the effects of psilocybin during the study. In other words, participants were aware of the treatment, i.e., not blinded, introducing the possibility of bias.
Moreover, studies suggest that individuals tend to have strong expectations of positive effects due to the use of psilocybin and this can result in placebo effects.
To further characterize the potential health benefits of microdosing, the authors of the present study used a naturalistic design by tracking changes in the mental health and mood of individuals who were already microdosing.
Specifically, the researchers compared changes in the mood, mental health, and cognitive function of microdosers over a period of 1 month with individuals who were not microdosing.
Microdosers who use psilocybin often combine it with other substances such as the mushroom lion’s mane which may also possess therapeutic effects. For instance, there is some evidence to suggest that lion’s mane mushrooms could alleviate symptoms of depression and mild cognitive impairment.
Microdosers combining psilocybin and lion’s mane are also known to incorporate vitamin B3, also known as niacin. Niacin is thought to improve the absorption of psilocybin and lion’s mane and could potentially enhance the effects of these mushrooms.
To better characterize the impact of these combinations on well-being, the researchers also included participants who were microdosing psilocybin along with lion’s mane and niacin.
Effects of microdosing psilocybin
The present study consisted of 953 microdosers using psilocybin and 180 individuals who were not microdosing. The participants completed a series of questionnaires and tasks on their mobile devices at the onset of the study and at one month after recruitment.
These assessments included self-report questionnaires to assess mood and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. The researchers also assessed cognitive function and psychomotor ability, which refers to physical movements that require cognitive processing.
The researchers found that microdosers showed greater improvements in mood and larger reductions in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress over the study period than non-microdosers.
These positive effects of microdosing were observed in all participants, regardless of whether they used psilocybin alone or a combination of either psilocybin with lion’s mane, or psilocybin, lion’s mane, and niacin.
Moreover, microdosing psilocybin resulted in similar levels of improvements in mental health and mood across age groups, genders, and among individuals who did or did not have mental health concerns.
The only exception was female microdosers who showed larger reductions in depressive symptoms than males.
The researchers also found that older microdosers showed larger improvements in the psychomotor test, but not cognitive function, than non-microdosers. This effect was largely due to older participants over the age of 55 years using a combination of psilocybin, lion’s mane, and niacin.
In sum, the results of this study add to the current evidence on the beneficial effects of microdosing psilocybin on mental health and mood, including among individuals with mental health concerns.
Microdosing benefits: More research needed
Although the study had a large sample size, the number of individuals in various subgroups according to age, gender, and substances used for microdosing was relatively small. Thus, these findings need to be replicated with larger sample sizes.
Dr. Balázs Szigeti, a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London, also noted that the present study used a control group but placebo effects in the microdosing group cannot be ruled out.
Dr. Szigeti explained:
“This study used a natural history control condition, meaning that the control group did not have any treatment. This is a weak control condition, although certainly better than not having any control group as in purely observational studies.”
“Relative to this weak control, microdosers showed some improvements, mostly with moderate effect sizes. This means that on most scales the magnitude of the improvements was only modest. Therefore, this study helps to establish that in uncontrolled / weakly controlled studies microdosing shows some benefits,” he continued.
“The major weakness of the study is the lack of placebo control. Therefore, it is unclear whether the source of these improvements is positive expectancy or the pharmacological action of microdosing,” he pointed out.
“So far, only a few placebo-controlled studies have been conducted on microdosing with mixed results. Due to the lack of a scientific consensus and the great public interest, I expect this area of research to grow in the coming years that can hopefully clarify this question.”
— Dr. Balázs Szigeti
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