• Psychedelic microdosing has increased as a coping tool for mental health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2021 Global Drug Survey.
  • An international study of more than 8,500 people from 84 countries shows a link between microdosing and reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
  • Conflicting evidence suggests a placebo effect associated with microdosing.
  • The effectiveness of psychedelics for treating mental health conditions may be dose-dependent and is likely to vary between people.

Psychedelic microdosing has exploded in popularity in recent years, with a noticeable uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research is exploring the possible mental health effects of microdosing.

A November 2021 study, by the University of British Columbia (UBC), observed that people who microdosed psychedelics, such as psilocybin and LSD, reported less anxiety, depression, and stress than non-microdosers.

The international study, published in the journal Scientific Reports and the largest-ever of its kind, looked at how different microdose patterns and behaviors affected the well-being of individuals outside the laboratory.

“Microdosers are engaging in the practice with therapeutic and wellness-oriented intentions,” said Joseph Rootman, MA, lead author of the study and doctoral researcher in clinical psychology at UBC Okanagan.

Microdosing means taking a small, sub-hallucinogenic dose of a psychedelic substance.

The 2021 Global Drug Survey (GDS) shows that 1 in 4 people who tried psychedelics in the past 12 months reported microdosing, with some reporting mental health relief.

The effects of smaller doses have emerged as an area of interest in popular culture and scientific literature:

  • Research from 2018 suggests that microdosing may improve creativity and focus, which may have contributed to microdosing’s recent rise in popularity.
  • Research from 2019 suggests that psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and LSD (acid) are among the most commonly microdosed psychedelics.
  • Evidence from 2019 suggests that low doses administered every few days could be considered safe.
  • A January 2021 study posits a therapeutic value to psychedelic microdosing based on self-reports.

As interest in the psychological benefits of psychedelics expands, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently authorized an increase in the production of psychedelics to meet the growing demand for research.

Is microdosing legal?

Psychedelic substances are classified as controlled substances and are illegal in the United States and Canada. Currently, no physician or mental health professional may prescribe psychedelic substances to treat a physical or mental health condition.

To better understand microdosing and mental health outcomes, UBC researchers collected data from 8,703 anonymous respondents from 84 nations between November 2019 and July 2020, with the largest percentage hailing from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain.

Participants responded to a questionnaire at the website microdose.me and were classified as either microdosers or non-microdosers based on their response to the question, “Are you currently engaged in a regular practice of microdosing?” Nearly half of respondents indicated they were microdosers.

Mental health was assessed with questions such as, “Do you currently have any psychological, mental health, or addiction concerns?” (Pandemic-related questions were not specifically asked).

Other questions addressed the following:

  • microdosing substance
  • dosage, timing, and frequency
  • “stacking” practices, which means combining microdoses of psychedelics with non-psychedelic substances such as Lion’s Mane mushrooms, chocolate, and niacin
  • motivations for microdosing

The large observational study is the first of its kind to show a link between microdosing and a reduction in symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and stress, with health- and wellness-related motives among the most prominent factors.

“The legal status of psychedelic substances does not speak to the intentions of the people using them — whether for recreational or therapeutic reasons,” said Rootman.

“It’s clear most microdosers in our study were driven toward the practice as a means of supporting their mental well-being, so it’s certainly likely some of these concerns were pandemic related.”

Psychedelics have a long history of ceremonial use among Indigenous Peoples in the Americas for their health and healing properties and have been adopted and often appropriated by Western culture over the past few decades to enhance well-being.

The bulk of research on psychedelics has focused on the possible benefits of larger, consciousness-altering doses.

As studies on psilocybin and MDMA (the drug Ecstasy) continue to show possible benefits in humans, an opinion article from 2021 suggests these drugs could be among the first to be paired with therapy to address post-pandemic mental health concerns.

Long-term effects of a full dose

Recent studies have examined the possible long-term mental health effects of psychedelics.

An October 2021 study was the first to present direct evidence in mice of long lasting changes in brain neurobiology from a single dose of a psychedelic drug similar to LSD, including a reduction in fear and anxiety.

“Psychedelics disappear from blood or urine within hours; however, their effects on alleviating depression or PTSD can last for several months,” study co-author Chang Lu, PhD, professor of chemical engineering at Virginia Tech, said in an email. “This has been puzzling the field.”

Further research is needed to determine the long-term effects in humans.

Finding the sweet spot

As with any drug, there is a sweet spot for effectiveness, Joe Moore, co-founder and CEO of Psychedelics Today, explained in an email.

“We need to find the right dosages for all compounds — too much could cause unpredictable results, or in some cases, cause negative effects,” Moore said. “Too little could simply not provide enough neuroplasticity or simply agitate without creating a helpful mind state.”

Conflicting evidence suggests that microdosing benefits can be explained by a placebo effect.

Results from a March 2021 study show similar positive results between a microdosing group and a placebo control group after 4 weeks. There were 191 participants in the study, making it the largest placebo-controlled trial on psychedelics to date.

“Placebo-controlled designs are a natural next step,” said Rootman. “But our study revealed an incredibly diverse array of motivations and practices captured under the umbrella of microdosing, which also suggests that there is more room for observational studies to further explore the practice.”

Recent studieshighlight a need for more rigorous, longitudinal research in humans to determine the potential mental health effects of different dosages of psychedelics and possible placebo effects.

Although the UBC study did not specifically address the pandemic, a forthcoming follow-up survey will take a closer look at COVID-related microdosing practices.

“Microdosing research is still in its infancy, leaving plenty of room for novel discovery,” said Rootman.

If you have a mental health condition, it’s best to consult your doctor or therapist before trying microdosing, especially if you take medications. Psychedelics are still in their experimental phase and are not a substitute for medical treatment. Plus, psychedelics are not yet legalized in the United States for medicinal and therapeutic purposes.

“We suspect we’ll see a continuation of liberalization of drug policy in the USA over the next few years,” said Moore. “As countries with legal access currently are being flooded with medical tourism, we expect to see this trend expand to other countries interested in similar revenues.”