The Rise And Risk of Microdosing

'An increasing number of people are turning to psychedelics to feel more present, connected and creative – but are they safe?'


by Phoebe McDowell |
Updated on

‘It made me feel detached in the best possible way, and like everything was more manageable,’ says Maddy, a 29-year-old producer who began microdosing in lockdown. Three mornings a week she’d dispense a single drop of psilocybin (the psychoactive part of magic mushrooms) on to her tongue. ‘In winter, when everything was so bleak and my anxiety began affecting my relationship with my housemates, I knew I needed to do something,’ she says. The introduction came from a friend who had long extolled the virtues of mind-altering microdoses. They’re not alone. According to LifeSearch, the number of people microdosing increased by 43% during the pandemic, with 19% of 18 to 34-year-olds currently partaking. The practice involves taking miniscule – though still illegal – amounts of psychedelics to boost psychological function.

For many, the substance of choice is the original hippie drug LSD, which was first co-opted by Silicon Valley back in 2017. These days, microdosers range from coders and creatives to stressed and strait-laced parents. While the reasons for microdosing are many, the objective, says US-based professional microdosing coach Paul Austin, is singular. Whether in pursuit of creativity, productivity or a mind free from fog, ‘It’s about being able to face difficulties without numbing the pain, and opening up channels in the brain so we can all better understand ourselves and our behaviour,’ he says.

A microdose is approximately a tenth of a regular recreational dose. So small, it’s sub-hallucinogenic. Nevertheless, it ‘binds to serotonin-sensitive components of neurons and excites them, promoting broader and richer communication styles’, says Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College London. ‘The brain can easily get stuck in unhealthy patterns, but psychedelics shake things up. If the opportunity is seized with the right kind of psychological support, you can revise pathological habits,’ he says. Austin agrees, although he stresses that microdosing must be done a) for at least a month, and b) in tandem with good sleep and mindfulness practices, like meditation.

Most recently, the conversation around psychedelics has been captured by Nine Perfect Strangers, the series that sees the leader of a cultish wellness retreat, played by Nicole Kidman, lace her guests’ smoothies with psilocybin. It’s popular culture vignettes like these that Austin credits with moving the practice to the mainstream. Celebrity endorsements also help. Podcasting giant Joe Rogan is a vocal proponent, while Kristen Bell has openly discussed using mushrooms to treat depression. The connected and curious go to Mike ‘Zappy’ Zapolin, a US-based ‘psychedelic concierge’ who helped Khloé Kardashian’s ex, Lamar Odom, with his recovery from addiction.

Evangelists would say we’re in the midst of a psychedelic revolution. It’s certainly true in Maddy’s world. ‘Coming out of lockdown, I couldn’t believe how many of my friends had been doing it,’ she says. So confident is she of its efficacy, she’s even told her parents. Beyond a Millennial friendship group in west London, there’s a 169,000-strong community of microdosers on Reddit, who exchange emphatic endorsements, mushroom harvesting tips and more. The forum introduced Rebecca, a frazzled mum of two, to LSD. ‘My temperament is so much more mellow.

It’s like putting glasses on and your view coming into focus,’ she says, sparkly eyed. She gets sheets of the stuff from a colleague who likes house music and takes at least 10 times more than her in any given sitting. For the more cautious, however, there are specialist microdosing dealers who insist on consultations before handing anything over. Others prefer the dark web, where the primary payment method is cryptocurrency.

Anecdotes aside, the science is less than conclusive, with some suggesting its effects are simply a placebo. That said, ‘The benefits appear to be at least as good as the current treatments and probably better, in terms of both side effects and effectiveness. I think it’s likely that psychedelics boost the placebo response which, as an important part of all treatments, is great news for patients,’ says Carhart-Harris.

But aren’t people concerned about ingesting illegal substances? ‘I think it’s safer to medicate with something that comes out of the ground, rather than a prescription pill,’ says Maddy. ‘Yes, people who suffer with mental health problems are increasingly sceptical of synthetics,’ Austin says, while also making clear that those who try microdosing should proceed with caution and, crucially, under supervision.

As a coach, he determines the best substance for someone’s psyche and situation, and ensures it’s administered in a controlled way.

So are we all about to start palming pills at breakfast? Not quite – things are still pretty murky. Carhart-Harris concludes, ‘Microdosing as a phenomenon is a little ahead of the scientific evidence, meaning the jury is still out,’ which is as good a time as any to remember that things can go wrong. While the chaotic portrayals in Nine Perfect Strangers might be fiction, there are risks involved in everything from finding a dealer and perfecting the dose, to anticipating the effects and your mood. ‘I was too punchy at first,’ says Rebecca, who after an initial positive experience thought, ‘Hey, why not prolong or enhance this,’ before realising that’s not how it works.*

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