What Is Microdosing?

Chemical structure of a substance with a small piece broken off.

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Microdosing involves taking very low doses of a substance, usually a psychedelic drug. The amount of the substance that is used is significantly below a hallucinogenic dose, yet proponents believe that the practice can produce a range of positive health effects.

These low doses are purported to enhance daily functioning while avoiding a dramatically altered state of consciousness.

People are motivated to microdose for a number of reasons. These include a desire to:

  • Alleviate mental health symptoms (such as anxiety and depression)
  • Enhance performance
  • Facilitate social interactions
  • Improve creativity
  • Increased energy
  • Increase focus
  • Increase concentration
  • Reduce physical symptoms (such as muscle tension and headache)
  • Relieve from menstrual pain

Interest in microdosing has grown tremendously in recent years, spawning an abundance of online discussions, videos, and articles devoted to the practice. Despite the dramatic rise in prominence, research on the practice is still in its relative infancy. 

Can microdosing really improve your mental health? Is it safe? Is it legal? The answer to those questions depends on various factors.

Little is known about the prevalence, effects, safety, and long-term impacts, so more research is needed to fully understand the potential help or harm that microdosing may hold. The legality of the practice depends on the substances used—two of the most popular substances are illegal, but some others can be legally microdosed. 

History of Microdosing

Psychedelics are powerful psychoactive substances that produce mind-altering effects including changes in perception, mood, and cognition. 

Early research on the use of psychedelics showed a number of beneficial effects. Psychiatrists used psychedelics during experiments during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. It was during the 1960s that counterculture figures such as psychologist Timothy Leary helped to popularize hallucinogens. However, research on the topic was effectively halted for a period of 40 years after such substances were banned in the United States.

The practice of microdosing has grown considerably in recent years, particularly as it has gotten media coverage from a number of high profile publications. Interest in microdosing has grown alongside related practices such as the use of "smart drugs" and nootropics.

Substances

Definitions of what exactly constitutes a microdose vary. Generally, it involves taking about 5% to 10% of a recreational dose of a hallucinogenic substance. This amounts to somewhere between 10 and 20 micrograms.

Substances that are often used for microdosing include:

Ayahuasca

This psychoactive brew or tea originates in South American that is used as part of some religious ceremonies.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in marijuana. It is non-psychoactive and is believed to help relieve anxiety and stress.

Cannabis

Also known as marijuana, it may also be used to microdose and is purported to help relieve anxiety and improve focus.

Ibogaine

This is a root bark cultivated in Central Africa and sometimes used in traditional spiritual medicine. Some research suggests it may hold promise for relieving opioid dependence.

Ketamine

This medication is usually used for inducing and maintaining pain relief and sedation during surgery.

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)

LSD is considered the most popular substance for microdosing, it is said to help people feel more focused, productive, and creative. 

Mescaline (peyote)

Mescaline is a naturally-occurring psychedelic that has effects similar to LSD and has played an important role in Native American tradition. While illegal in the U.S., its use is legal for certain religious groups and for scientific research.

Methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDMA)

Popularly known as ecstasy or molly, MDMA is a psychoactive drug that is primarily used for recreational purposes. It has energizing effects and enhances feelings of empathy and self-awareness.

Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

This medication is used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, but is sometimes used recreationally to enhance academic or athletic performance.

Nicotine

Popularly consumed in tobacco products, people who microdose nicotine suggest that it can help improve memory and focus.

N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)

DMT produces short but intense psychedelic experiences. When microdosed, proponents suggest that it helps increase spiritual awareness and lessen feelings of anxiety.

Psilocybin (“magic” mushrooms)

Like LSD, psilocybin one of the most popular substances used in microdosing. Some research suggests that the substance may have antidepressant effects.

While a number of different substances can be used, those most commonly utilized for microdosing are the psychedelics LSD and psilocybin. These tend to be the most researched and are often easier to obtain than some lesser-used substances.

It is important to note that LSD, psilocybin, ibogaine, and DMT are all classified as Schedule I drugs by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which means that their possession, use, and distribution is illegal in the United States. 

Effects

There is a lack of research into the effects and potential benefits of microdosing. Another problem is that researchers do not yet know the possible long-term effects of this practice. 

Of the research that has been done so far, most of these studies rely on respondents self-reporting their past experiences with microdosing. Such studies may not give a full depiction of the practice, since most of these participants already expect to have a good experience so their feedback may be biased.

In order to determine if microdosing has the potential to improve mental well-being or treat certain mental disorders, there needs to be randomized controlled trials that compare the effects of microdosing to that of placebo.

Perceived Benefits

In one study asking about perceived benefits, participants reported the following positive outcomes:

  • Improved mood
  • Improved focus
  • Creativity
  • Self-efficacy
  • Increased energy
  • Social benefits
  • Cognitive benefits
  • Reduced anxiety

Creativity

Increased creativity is one of the most commonly reported benefits of microdosing, but it is also one of the most difficult to measure. People might feel that they are more creative, but this may not necessarily correspond to real-world improvements in problem-solving and innovation.

While further investigation is needed, respondents do report feeling more focused, mindful, and engaged with the world around them. Greater openness, curiosity, shifting perspectives, and overall greater feelings of creativity are commonly reported benefits. 

Mental Health

People who report microdosing often do so in order to help alleviate the symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression. One study found that mental health was one of the key reasons why many people decided to try microdosing, and 44% of participants reported that the practice led to improvements in their mental health.

Another study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry asked participants via an online questionnaire about their experiences with microdosing. The participants in the study were over the age of 18 and had been diagnosed with at least one mental health condition. The results suggested that many participants felt that microdosing was more effective than some other types of conventional treatment, yet not as effective as standard doses of psychedelics.

Well-Being

People frequently report feelings of improvements in mood such as greater happiness, peace, calm, well-being, reduced depressive symptoms, optimism, and a better outlook on life.

Cognitive and social benefits are also commonly reported. These include such things as improved mental clarity, greater empathy, and higher levels of extraversion.

People who have tried microdosing also commonly report experiencing a range of other perceived benefits including the general lack of side effects, the ability to control the dose, and the novelty of the experience itself.

Full-Dose vs. Microdose

While there is still a lack of research on microdosing, some recent evidence suggests that full-dose psychedelics may have some benefits. Despite earlier concerns, research has found no link between the use of psychedelics and later mental illness or suicidal actions. In fact, in some reports, these substances were associated with a lower rate of mental health issues.

Some studies have found that LSD and psilocybin may be useful in the treatment of drug and alcohol dependence and depression. Also, MDMA has shown some benefits in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Psychedelics have been shown to increase openness. Some research suggests that psychedelics (at full doses) may help relieve some mental health conditions including anxiety and depression.

What might this suggest in terms of microdosing? It is important to remember that while these substances have been shown in some studies to have therapeutic potential at full doses, this does not necessarily mean that people will experience the same effects at sub-hallucinogenic doses.

Microdosing offers some advantages over the use of full-dose psychedelics. While these substances tend to have low physiological risks, full doses do place people at the risk of experiencing psychological side effects including what is popularly referred as having a "bad trip."

A “bad trip” is an experience characterized by frightening hallucinations, paranoia, mood swings, and delusions that can potentially be dangerous. So while standard doses of psychedelics appear to offer some benefits, they are not always desirable due to the alterations in perceptions, cognitions, and emotions as well as the potential for unwanted side effects.

Because microdosing involves much lower doses, people are less likely to have these negative side effects. However, it is also important to be aware that even sub-hallucinogenic doses of these substances can produce unwanted and unpleasant side effects.

Because of the promising potential seen in research on standard doses of psychedelic substances, the potential of microdosing as a mental health and substance use treatment warrants further research.

Safety and Risks

Microdosing may provide some benefits to some people, but that does not mean that it is without unwanted effects. In one study, participants reported a number of challenges associated with microdosing. Some reported problems included:

  • Physiological discomfort
  • Impaired focus
  • Impaired energy
  • Increased symptoms
  • Impaired mood
  • Increased anxiety
  • Social interference
  • Cognitive interference

Some people with certain medical conditions such as anxiety may find that these substances can make their symptoms worse. People who have a history of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may want to also avoid psychedelic substances at any dosage level.

Another important safety consideration is the fact that because many of the substances used for microdosing are illegal, there is no regulation of the manufacture and production of these substances.

One study found that MDMA tablets are often mixed with other substances including bath salts and only 60% of these tablets even contained any MDMA at all. This means that when you obtain these substances, it is very difficult to know what you are actually getting.

Legality

The most commonly reported challenge for people who have tried microdosing is the fact that these substances are illegal. For example, LSD, psilocybin, and peyote are all listed as Schedule I drugs in the Controlled Substances Act. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) describes these substances as having "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." This means that it is illegal to cultivate, possess, or sell such substances for either personal use or distribution.

Such substances may also show up on standard drug tests, even at very low doses. This could lead to serious consequences, including legal charges and loss of employment.

Professional Considerations

Psychedelic-assisted therapy refers to any type of therapeutic practice that is assisted with the ingestion of a psychedelic drug. While research on this practice was largely halted after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in the clinical use of psychedelics as part of therapeutic treatment. 

It is important to note that these substances are still illegal and cannot be legally prescribed or given by a doctor or psychiatrist. However, as more research is done on the use of psychedelics, both in standard dosages and microdoses, it may be possible that psychedelics find their way into various treatment paradigms.

There has been a recent push to reclassify psychedelics as Schedule II controlled substances. This would recognize that these have medical uses, which would make it possible to conduct further research and utilize them in clinical, supervised settings. Whether this happens, however, remains to be seen.

A Word From Verywell

Microdosing shows promise, but it is important to remember that its effects have not been well-researched and, in many cases, these substances are illegal. It should not be used to replace professional treatment if you are having symptoms of a mental health condition.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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