What to Know About LSD Use

LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, is a long-lasting psychoactive drug that distorts and alters perceptions and sensations. In uncontrolled situations, LSD is one of the most potent mood-altering drugs available. It causes profound distortions in the user's perception of reality that can last up to 12 hours.

Although the use of LSD reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, the drug has been around since it was synthesized in 1938. It was synthesized from ergot, a fungus that grows on grains, such as rye.

LSD is illegal in the U.S. where it is classified as a Schedule 1 drug. This suggests that the drug has a high potential for abuse.

Also Known As: Common slang terms for LSD include Acid, California Sunshine, Hippie, Lucy in the sky with diamonds, Yellow Sunshine, and Zen. 

Drug Class: LSD is a hallucinogenic drug, which means that it causes subjective changes to consciousness, emotions, and thoughts. 

Common Side Effects: Some possible side effects of LSD include distorted perceptions, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, dilated pupils, and elevated blood pressure. 

How to Recognize LSD

LSD is usually sold in tablets or capsules, but sometimes in liquid form. The liquid is sometimes applied to absorbent paper, called "window pane" or "blotter" acid, which is cut up into individual doses.

What Does LSD Do?

Scientists believe that LSD works by influencing the receptors involved in the regulation of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Serotonin is involved in the control of behavioral, perceptual, and regulatory systems including mood, motor control, sensory perception, hunger, body temperature, and sexual behavior.

When this system is disrupted by taking LSD, it can cause profound distortions in the user's perception of reality, or in other words, hallucinations. LSD users see images, hear sounds, and feel sensations that seem real even though they are not.

These sensory hallucinations can be accompanied by rapid and intense emotional swings. Consequently, an LSD "trip" can go from being a pleasant experience to a very unpleasant one very quickly, making the effect of the drug extremely unpredictable.

What the Experts Say

Despite the fact LSD has been around for more than 70 years, there are few, if any, properly controlled research studies about the specific effects LSD has on the brains of those who use it. The research that does exist is comprised of smaller studies and case reports.

One review of the research on LSD that has been conducted over the last 25 years found that:

  • LSD increases feelings of closeness and trust in others.
  • It makes people more open to suggestion.
  • It enhances emotional empathy but impairs the ability to recognize fear.
  • It increases interconnectivity in some brain networks.
  • It has therapeutic potential, but more research is needed.

There are a number of reasons why people use LSD despite the potential dangers. The hallucinogenic effects can seem pleasant. Because of the distorted perceptions and hallucinations that the drug can create, people often feel a sense of specialness or creativity, as if they are achieving an understanding that they could not normally reach without the drug.

The problem for LSD users is that all of these effects, pleasant or unpleasant, are so difficult to predict. The same dose of the same batch of LSD can affect one person in a completely different manner from another person. Moreover, a user can be affected differently from one trip to the next taking the same amount and same kind of LSD.

Off-Label Uses

While LSD cannot be legally prescribed, research on the therapeutic potential of LSD is ongoing and some promising findings have emerged. Studies suggest that the drug may promote neuron growth and may be beneficial in the treatment of drug dependency, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A 2014 study looked at the use of LSD-assisted psychotherapy in a small group of patients with anxiety. Results suggested that when used in such a controlled setting, LSD could be effective at reducing anxiety, although further research is needed.

Common Side Effects

Some of the most dramatic effects of LSD reported by researchers in smaller or case studies include:

  • Dramatic changes in sensations and feelings.
  • Feeling several different emotions at once.
  • Swing rapidly from one emotion to another.
  • Altered sense of time.
  • Altered sense of self.
  • Crossover senses, synesthesia (hearing colors, seeing sound)

These altered perceptions and sensations can cause panic in LSD users. Some experience terrifying thoughts, feelings of despair, fear of losing control, fear of insanity, and fear of death. These experiences are what is known as having a "bad trip."

Scientists have also not been able to explain why some LSD users have flashbacks —a sudden recurrence of aspects an LSD trip without warning. These flashbacks can happen within a few days of the original use of the drug or sometimes more than a year later.

The physical side effects of using LSD include loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, tremors, dry mouth, seizures, and nausea.

Signs of Use

Signs of LSD use can be distinctive, so you may be able to recognize that someone is using this substance.

Some of the common signs of LSD use include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Disorientation
  • Convulsions
  • Flushed skin
  • Increased body temperature
  • Rambling, incoherent speech
  • Bizarre comments
  • Anxiety or paranoia
  • Poor appetite
  • Hallucinations
  • Drug paraphernalia such as tablets, blotter paper, sugar cubes, or gelatin

Symptoms of an LSD overdose can include panic attacks, psychosis, seizures, and delusions. If you suspect that someone has overdosed on LSD, contact emergency services immediately and try to keep the individual calm until help arrives.

Myths and Common Questions

One of the most common misconceptions about LSD is that it is the key to unlocking the inner mind. While people might feel that they are unlocking the secrets to inner awareness during an acid trip, such insights tend to be subjective. The perceptual and thought changes that take place when using the drug are not necessarily a way of understanding the self.

Another common myth is that LSD leads to mental health problems. Although LSD can produce some extreme, short-term psychological effects, the use of psychedelic drugs (including LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline) have not been linked to the development of mental health problems.

A study published in the British Journal of Psychopharmacology that involved 19,299 psychedelic users found no link between LSD use and past year:

  • Serious psychological distress
  • Mental health treatment
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Suicidal plans
  • Suicide attempt
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

The researchers concluded there was no evidence that psychedelic use is an independent risk factor for mental health problems.

Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal

LSD is not considered a physically addictive drug, but continued use will lead to tolerance. When people become tolerant to a drug, they need to take more in order to achieve the same effects. This can be particularly dangerous in the case of LSD because tolerance tends to build quickly and the effects of the drug can be so unpredictable.

Even more troubling is the fact that LSD tolerance fades quickly, usually within 72 hours. This can result in people inadvertently using a potentially dangerous or deadly amount of the substance.

How Long Does LSD Stay In Your System?

People begin to feel the effects of LSD approximately 20 to 90 minutes after taking it. These effects can last up to 12 hours, although it may take up to 24 hours for the individual to return to their normal state.

LSD can be detected by urine tests for up to five days and by hair follicle tests for up to 90 days.

Addiction

Fortunately, LSD is not addictive and most users eventually get tired of it and simply quit voluntarily, or decrease their use over time.

While people do not become physically dependent or addicted to LSD, it is possible to develop a psychological dependence on the drug. People will often seek the drug as a way of reducing or eliminating the unpleasant symptoms associated with psychological withdrawal.

Withdrawal

Unlike many other substances, withdrawal from LSD is not usually accompanied by a host of negative physical symptoms. People are often able to stop using LSD on their own without experiencing unpleasant symptoms of physical withdrawal.

Psychological symptoms, however, can be quite common and may include: 

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations

How to Get Help

LSD misuse can have a serious impact on both the individual and their loved ones. Treatment approaches can include outpatient or residential approaches that may incorporate cognitive-behavioral therapy, individual counseling, family therapy, and group therapy.

While there are no medications available to treat LSD use, other medications may be used to treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other psychiatric conditions.

Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your LSD use. You can also call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357, or use their online treatment locator to find treatment services in your area. 

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