Microdosing reports are awe-inspiring online, and the practice is ancient. Yet, even in the middle of the best press psychedelics have gotten in decades, skepticism about microdosing exists too.
That's why we dug into existing hard science to find out how exactly microdosing works inside your brain and body.
Does Microdosing Have Side Effects?
Putting any kind of substance into our bodies is something to do a bit of research on. And the truth is taking a microdose - for optimization, mental health, or mindfulness - all are part of a huge experiment at this point. Science is just beginning to explore how and why so many people have such powerful experiences and if there are any side effects to microdosing.
Overall, microdosing is "well tolerated,” as Kim Kuypers of Masschrschmit University puts it in her paper Therapeutic Potential of Microdosing. When experts examined the physical effects of microdosing substances like LSD and psilocybin, they found only a small increase in blood pressure several hours after taking LSD.
Some people who microdose do report increased anxiety when microdosing. Scientists have speculated that these could be part of the mechanism of microdosing psychedelics with unacknowledged emotions bubbling to the surface. But honestly, nobody knows why this happens yet.
The biggest concern brought up is the way psychedelic drugs interact with serotonin receptors. Psychedelics are thought to produce effects by binding to a receptor called 5HT2a, along with other receptors. When drugs or neurotransmitters interact with different receptors throughout the body, an overwhelming amount of complicated actions can occur.
One of the receptors psychedelics can bind to is 5-HT2B. In the past, other drugs that interact with this receptor have been linked to heart conditions. These findings have made some researchers speculate that there could be issues with microdosing psychedelics, particularly microdosing every day. (which isn’t recommended by most protocols) There have not been any studies about this particular issue and microdosing just yet.
What Effects Does Microdosing Have on the Brain?
With all the stories about folks overcoming depression and anxiety, and becoming more creative, focused, and productive, you could assume that psychedelics are making some interesting stuff happen in the brain.
When researchers dosed subjects with psilocybin and put them into an fMRI brain scanner, they did indeed find some unique activity. Specifically, limbic parts of the brain associated with emotions, memory, and mood were talking to each other. All these results were recorded without any psychedelic effects being reported.
Researchers are interested in how emotional processing because how psychedelics affect our emotions is a key component of how psychedelics work. Feeling all sorts of feelings is a big part of reports about microdosing, so while this research hasn’t completely decoded microdosing, it has inspired more scientists to keep trying to understand the puzzle.
Microdosing for Pain
A somewhat unexpected application of microdoses has been pain management. You might think stubbing your toe on acid would be amplified, but some research suggests psychedelics might help.
For quite some time, folks have been posting online about magic mushrooms curing headaches. In the 2020s, several online surveys experiemanting microdosers have discontinued using their pain medication.
Researchers at Maastricht University investigated these claims by giving people low doses of LSD and found that 20mcg decreased the amount of pain people reported by 20%. Researcher's figured out this number by giving people acid and putting their hands in cold water. Apparently, this is comparable to taking 10-20mg of morphine and statistically significant.
Why would LSD make you not feel pain? Scientists aren't sure. A theory from the 60s suggested that LSD would distract people from their pain, but 20mcg only gives people very subtle shifts in consciousness, so researchers didn't buy that idea. Other studies in rats showed LSD interacting with 5-HT1A serotonin receptors in a part of the brain (dorsal raphe) associated with pain perception. Yet another microdosing mystery waiting to be solved.
Psychedelics and Neuroplasticity
The notion that psychedelics can "rewire" or "reset" your mind is because of studies in animals and people suggesting that psychedelics are "psychoplastogens." The name implies that psychedelics are able to make neural networks in parts of the brain more "plastic" or malleable. As you might imagine, changing your brain could explain a lot about psychedelics.
At high doses, there is some pretty neat evidence that psychedelics do create neuroplasticity. A neuroplastic drug is attractive because diagnoses like depression are associated with decreased plasticity. Many equate neuroplasticity with a potential for change, although another side to it exists - excess plasticity has been thought to be part of schizophrenia.
Neuroplasticity is a good example of why set and setting are so important with psychedelics. The environments, people, and experiences that happen while altering our consciousness can be good or bad. For example, if you hate your job, don’t microdose shrooms to make it better; instead, focus on changing the environment.
Microdosing and Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is often measured by looking for something called brain-derived neurotropic factor or BDNF in people's blood. BDNF has been linked with lessening symptoms of depression and interactions with limbic parts of the brain associated with emotions, memory, and mood.
One study showed people taking microdoses of LSD had a spike of BDNF in their blood, in some cases up to 6 hours after eating the drug. Scientists have speculated that this could be a therapeutic window and period of cognitive enhancement while the brain is in a malleable, plastic state.
BDNF has been called “Miracle-Grow for the brain,” although some of the scientist's work you just read would be pretty skeptical of that statement. That being said, BDNF does regulate neurological growth, its simply that its presence in the blood doesn’t guarantee the restructuring of your brain. But, because of some studies finding BDNF in people taking microdoses of LSD, there will likely be more research around this topic in the future.
Takeaway - How Does Microdosing Work?
As you can see, microdosing has super interesting potential - changes in emotional states, pain management, and neuroplasticity. Also true is that there is a lot we don’t know, and microdosing side effects are a bit of an unknown. Thousands of people are microdosing safely and having a great time, but in terms of hard science, we still don’t know what we don’t know.
For the time being, microdosing is choose your own adventure. Taking a psychedelic regularly is a personal choice, and it’s essential to be confident that the benefits outweigh the risks before embarking on the journey.