Long before microdosing was being touted as the Silicon Valley life hack du jour, Dr. James Fadiman was investigating the potential mind-enhancing effects of ingesting psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, more commonly known as magic mushrooms.
In the 1960s, Fadiman conducted pioneering psychedelic research, including one study in which he gave LSD and another hallucinogen, Mescaline, to scientists, mathematicians and architects to see how it affected creative problem-solving. (His research was one of the last investigations into LSD due to the Food and Drug Administration’s mid-1960s research ban of the substance.)
More recently, Fadiman authored “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide,” a how-to manual for safe and therapeutic psychedelic drug experiences.
Now, his research has taken a new turn.
Fadiman is examining the effects of administering psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin in amounts so small that they are below the perceptual threshold. As part of an ongoing research project, Fadiman is collecting the self-reported testimonies of hundreds of people from around the globe who have experimented with psychedelic “microdosing” to treat ailments from anxiety to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or simply to improve productivity or break through writer’s block.
How does one microdose? You take a very small dose of either LSD or psilocybin (roughly one-tenth to one-fifth of a normal dose), on a regular schedule. Fadiman recommends dosing in the morning, once every three days. The dose isn’t enough to “trip,” but for some users, it can lead to subtle yet profound internal shifts. Many microdosers report experiencing improvements in mood; enhanced focus, productivity or creativity; less reactivity; and in some cases, even relief from depression or cluster headaches.
“What it seems to do is rebalance people,” Fadiman told The Huffington Post.
HuffPost Science recently sat down with Fadiman to learn more about how microdosing works, and its potential for enhancing well-being and treating a range of health problems.
Where did this idea of microdosing come from?
Dr. Albert Hofmann (the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD) had been microdosing for at least the last couple decades of his life. He lived to be 102 and at age 100 he was still giving two-hour lectures. Hoffman said that he would mainly use it when he was walking in trees, and it would clarify his thinking. So he was the person who first introduced this to many people, and he also said that this was a very under-researched area.
And of course, for thousands of years, indigenous people have been using low doses of mind-altering substances as well.
What types of people are microdosing, and who do you think can benefit most from the practice?
Microdosing seems to improve a vast range of conditions. I’ve explored microdosing as a safer way of doing psychedelics than the high doses that have been used before. Roughly 95 percent of the people who write me have considerable psychedelic experience. I’ll basically tell them, this isn’t going to harm you, let me know what happens.
The general response is that they feel better. There is an actual movement towards increased health or wellness. What that means, for instance, is that people who write in for anxiety seem to get help with their anxiety. People who use it for learning, improve their learning. One Ivy League student said he was using microdosing to get through the hardest math class in the undergraduate curriculum, and he did wonderfully in the class. Another young man used it for severe stuttering, and others have used it for social anxiety. One young woman, an art historian, even found that it regulated her periods and made them painless.
What does your microdosing protocol look like?
On day one, you dose. Day two, you're still having the effects. Day three, you should be noticeably not having the effects, and on day four you dose again. For self-study, that's ideal because it gives you a chance to see what's going on. After a month -- which is all I ask of people -- most people say that they're still microdosing, but not as often.
You’ve worked with hundreds of people on a self-reported microdosing study. How did that get started and what have you been finding?
Over the past number of years, people have written to me and said, "I’m interested in microdosing" for this or that reason, "can you help me?" They ask me to tell them what I’ve been suggesting to people, and they ask to be in the study. I then send them a protocol I’ve developed for a self-study and ask them to get back to me. I’ve probably sent out 200 or 300 of these, and I’ve gotten about half as many back as reports. A number are in process right now.
The range of interest goes from "Hey man, new drug, cool" to "I have post-traumatic stress, I’m recovering from cancer, and I hate my meds." It’s a very wide range. I get a lot of people who say "I have anxiety or depression and I’ve either gotten off my meds or I hate my meds. Could microdosing help?" And my response is, "It’s helped a lot of other people and I hope it helps you. Here’s the protocol."
I've heard there's potential for enhancing focus and improving symptoms of ADHD, too.
What people basically say is that they’re better. They focus more in class. A number of people have told me that it’s like Adderall but without the side effects. Now these people are coming off Adderall and have used microdosing to help them taper off pharmaceuticals, or at least to take their pharmaceutical use way, way down.
In your study, are you seeing a lot of people turning to microdosing as a way to come off pharmaceuticals?
For some people, it can take a year or two to come off of a pharmaceutical. A number of people have simply said that with microdosing it was much easier. They said they could do it without incredible suffering. A woman who was coming off of some anti-psychotics that she probably should never have been put on said that it wasn’t that she didn’t have the same symptoms, but she didn’t identify with them as much. She said that she could think of her mood swings as her brain chemistry rebalancing.
"A number of people, by the time they’ve finished a month, say, 'I’m sleeping better, I’m eating more healthy food, I’ve returned to yoga and I’m doing meditation.'"
What’s going on beneath the surface to create these changes?
What microdosing seems to do is rebalance people. Here’s a generalization, which is how I’ve come to this conclusion: A number of people, by the time they’ve finished a month, say, “I’m sleeping better, I’m eating more healthy food, I’ve returned to yoga and I’m doing meditation.” They’ve improved their relationship to their body ― or their body has improved their relationship to them.
One man quit smoking. He said that he knew smoking wasn’t good, and it was as if his body could actually help him make the decision. What seems to happen with microdosing is that you’re more attuned to your own real needs.
Why has there been so little research into microdosing?
There are two main problems. One is that nobody was interested in microdosing, even a couple of years ago. The early research was always high-dose, and the fact that you could take psychedelics as a microdose didn’t occur to people. The only person we knew of who microdosed seriously was Hofmann … It was basically invisible during the time when research was legal and most of the time when it wasn’t.
On the other side of it, I talked with a major researcher who’s done a number of psychedelic studies and who said that he would love to do a microdosing study. I asked him what was stopping him. He said that the Institutional Review Board is not going to say, “Oh you want to give a Schedule I drug to people every few days and have them just go run around?” It’s going to be really hard.
Now, there are two groups, one in Australia and one in Europe, who are starting microdosing studies. I’m working with both of those groups on designing the studies.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Fadiman’s protocol involves dosing once every four days. In fact, it is once every three days. We regret the error.
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