Is Microdosing Placebo?

There is a ton of hype around self-experimentation with microdoses, but psychedelic scientists aren't convinced.

Is Microdosing Placebo?
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There is a ton of hype around self-experimentation with microdoses, but psychedelic scientists aren't convinced.

After watching a couple of youtube videos, I decided to grind up my little bag of psilocybin mushrooms to create my own microdoses.

Filling the capsules by hand at my kitchen table took an entire afternoon. But I kept going, motivated by impressive stories about improved focus, mood, and creativity. Not to mention dramatic changes for some like managing bipolar disorder, depression, and chronic pain.

At the time, I worked in an apple orchard primarily by myself, so a bit of experimentation seemed safe enough. After a couple of weeks of taking a capsule every three days, I couldn't notice a big difference. So, one morning I popped two capsules and headed to work.

My boss worked in the city during the week, and I loved being alone with the trees all day. But that week, he had a few days off.

The mushrooms I'd eaten with morning coffee weren't on my mind as we chatted by the toolshed. It was early morning, so as I became aware of having trouble focusing on my boss's instructions, I simply took another big gulp of my coffee.

When the wood grain on the toolshed behind my boss started to flow like water, I realized what was happening. So I focused on lots of nodding and making a mental note to grab the list from him after.

Despite a panicky inner dialogue, I was sure he couldn't tell I was high. He was distracted giving directions, and I usually didn't say much anyway. I grabbed his list and ran off into the orchard without saying anything too strange.

Challenges of Self-experimentation and Microdosing

It was clear that mixing up all my mushrooms in a bowl and jamming them into capsules by hand wasn't a very scientific method. I had likely taken two disproportionally strong capsules.

While the result by no means reduced my anxiety around talking to my boss, It actually ended up being an enjoyable day at work. I had lots of energy, was undoubtedly feeling creative, but it wasn't something I could sustain.

On the other microdose days, I'd pop a capsule and be constantly trying to figure out if I was feeling focused or creative. However, in retrospect, if I had dosed myself at all some days is hard to know, as many of the capsules might have just been rice flour.

You often read about this experience on the forums about microdosing — accidentally getting high. Others are unsure if they are "doing it right."

This hiccup shows the weakness of lax citizen scientists like myself — where are the drugs coming from? What is their purity? How was the dose measured? Not to mention how to measure if any real change is happening.

Mushrooms, in particular, are challenging. Different parts of the mushroom, like stem or cap, have variable amounts of psilocybin, and each mushroom itself will have a unique amount of psilocybin in it. Not to mention over a hundred strains being currently cultivated.

Are Microdoses a Nootropic?

Proponents promote microdosing psychedelics as the newest biohack, alleged performance-enhancing drugs for an information age.

Drugs to improve focus and productivity are a hot commodity, as evidenced by the millions of college students using "study drugs" like Adderall or Ritalin.

Add a promise of heightened creativity into the mix, and people get really excited. Silicon Valley, in particular, has developed a thirst for "nootropics," with some willing to order sketchy research chemicals from Chinese chemists to get an edge.

In psychedelic communities online, reports of curing various disorders from depression to traumatic brain injury have inspired considerable numbers to try to self-medicate.

For people suffering from mental health issues, microdosing has become a beacon of hope for many. While still illegal, psychedelics are far cheaper than many prescription drugs and with far fewer side effects.

Microdosing has been promoted for a long time by big names in psychedelics. The creator of LSD, Albert Hoffman, thought it was an under-researched area with huge potential. Other influential psychedelic researchers and advocates like Paul Stamets and James Fadiman promote microdosing.

But, not everyone is sold on the concept, Robin Carharrt-Harris tweeted last year that:

I’m not convinced about microdosing. Among other things, I wonder if it breeds an optimism bias that seems fine until it isn’t — a little like spiritual bypassing. And the data that is out from controlled studies is not particularly compelling. Things to test.

Is Microdosing the Placebo Effect?

The microdosing skepticism has been back in circulation largely because of a study published in March 2021 by the Imperial College of London.

Studying psychedelics, or any drug for that matter is notoriously expensive. Because of this, innovative research methods are being tried, dubbed "self blinding citizen science."

Participants had to source their own chosen substance and make their own microdoses in the study. Then researchers mixed everything up for people participating, so no one knew if they were microdosing or taking a placebo. Participants then scanned a barcode researchers assigned to each dose and filled out a questionnaire on what they experienced.

The results came back with many of the classical anecdotes showing up, like increased creativity, focus, mindfulness, or improved mood.

However, both the placebo and microdosing groups showed extremely similar results, with microdosing not scoring higher than placebo.

When participants were surveyed about whether or not they thought they were taking a placebo or an actual psychoactive microdose, the people who believed that they were microdosing scored the highest.

These results led the lead author of the study Balazs Szigeti so sum up:

Anecdotal reports about the benefits of microdosing are almost certainly biased by the placebo effect

But The Underground Said…

The study result goes against literally thousands of reports across many communities, online forums, publications, and established companies claiming microdosing is real.

But the scientific study is not the only driver of psychedelic drug use, far from it. The underground is still where the vast majority of experimentation is happening. The community of explorers, biohackers, and people desperate for healing has offered convincing experience reports for years.

Indeed, other surveys and scientific studies have published favorable results on microdoses. A back of the napkin explanation of one theory is that microdosing creates neuroplasticity, potentially rewiring the patterns life creates in our brains.

However, these are still just theories perhaps hastily being shared far and wide online by people and publications. This press could be responsible for the now substantial expectancy bias around microdosing.

Some Hope Remains

In a recent podcast interview, a prominent psychedelic researcher from John Hopkins, Dr. Matt Johnson, spoke with Standford Professor of Neuroscience Dr. Huberman.

He explicitly stated there is no science saying it works yet, while Huberman offered his opinion that a constant state of plasticity isn't necessarily what he would think beneficial. Instead, he explained that changing the brain's structure with "directed plasticity" with a therapist during a supported journey ideal.

Both scientists were quick to point out the problems. But Johnson did offer some hope for microdosing yet, saying "it wouldn't be crazy" microdosing to affect depression. This is because many psychedelics work by affecting serotonin receptors in the brain. Affecting how our brains use serotonin is how antidepressants work.

So, perhaps taking a tiny bit of LSD could have a compounding effect on depression, anxiety, or even other serotonin-related functions like sleep or digestion.

It is hard to know what the verdict will be on microdosing. Psychedelic research is still early, and some researchers even contend that we don't wholly understand conventional treatments like SSRIs work. But interest is not going anywhere because there is a big incentive behind microdosing.

Microdosing Would Make Money

The current clinical approach to clinical psychedelic treatment is a large, transformational trip combined with ongoing therapy. Sometimes changes in patients last for years, implying permanent shifts. This change in several weeks, particularly after traditional therapy wasn't effective, is far more groundbreaking than taking a regular pill like a microdosing protocol.

Currently, the only way to microdose is the DIY approach with street drugs, free advice from online communities, various publications selling the information, or for an even higher price point, getting a personal "microdosing coach."

Many people are personally and financially invested in microdosing being effective, and it will take more than a couple of studies to change their minds at this point.

Journalist and psychedelic spokesperson Michael Pollen sounded the alarm when he pointed out microdosing offers a lucrative business model of selling microdoses like supplements or antidepressants.

His point is interesting to consider when examining the hypothetical psychedelic gold rush that is echoing cannabis legalization or debate around the effectiveness of certain supplements turning huge profits.

The Jury is Still Out on Microdosing

My experiment didn't achieve any groundbreaking results, but there is much more work to be done. And keeping an open mind is a key aspect of working with psychedelics.

After all, folks who are far more qualified than I have allegedly changed their lives with it. And thousands of positive anecdotes are hard to disregard entirely too. Check out some tales from the active SubReddit r/microdosing and see for yourself.

However, recommending microdoses also seems premature. Good research is still necessary for psychedelics to be accepted widely, and a solid understanding of how psychedelics work doesn't exist.

For now, I'm off the microdose wagon. But what do you think? Have you experienced positives or negatives from microdosing? Is it a money grab or a game-changer?