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  • Microdosing psychedelics may offer unique health benefits, according to a growing body of research.
  • A new study found that people who reported microdosing psilocybin saw improvements in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress compared to people who did not microdose psychedelics.
  • Psychedelic research is expanding and the results seem promising, but more rigorous studies are needed to determine whether psychedelic microdosing may be effective for treating mental health conditions.

Repeated use of small quantities of the psychedelic substance psilocybin can improve mood and mental health, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that people who microdosed psilocybin saw “small- to medium-sized” improvements in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress over a 30-day follow-up, compared to those who did not.

This observational study, published June 30 in Nature-Scientific Reports, included over 900 people who reported microdosing psilocybin during the past month, and a control group of 180 people who did not engage in microdosing psychedelics.

“This is the largest longitudinal study of this kind to date of microdosing psilocybin and one of the few studies to engage a control group,” study author Zach Walsh, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus in Kelowna, said in a press release.

“[The results] add to the growing conversation about the therapeutic potential of microdosing,” he added.

When it comes to psychedelics, microdosing involves consuming psychedelic substances in amounts too small to impair daily functioning. The dosage may vary but could be taken 3 to 5 times per week.

The 2021 Global Drug Survey (GDS) found that 1 in 4 people who used psychedelics reported microdosing psilocybin mushrooms or LSD in the past 12 months. These two substances are the most widely used for microdosing, but the survey also found that about one-third of people who used psychedelics microdosed another psychedelic substance.

Although most people have a sense of a microdose as being very small, Dustin Hines, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience in the department of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said one challenge for this kind of research is accurately defining the size of that dose.

“In establishing a microdose, people are looking to have normal cognitive functioning — they can still carry out their work duties or other responsibilities without noticing a negative impact,” he said, adding that the appropriate microdose may vary from person to person and situation to situation.

In the new study, participants reported on their recent use of microdosing psychedelic mushrooms and completed a number of assessments on their mood and mental health, noting a number of improvements.

Possible psychomotor benefits

In addition to studying mental health outcomes, researchers took a smartphone finger-tapping test that has been used to assess psychomotor symptoms of neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis.

People 55 years or older who microdosed psilocybin experienced improvements in psychomotor performance, as measured by this tapping test.

Researchers also assessed whether combining psilocybin with a non-psychedelic substance, a process known as “stacking,” changed the outcomes.

Combining psilocybin with lion’s mane (a non-psychedelic mushroom) and niacin (a B vitamin) did not affect the changes in mood or mental health, the researchers found. However, older individuals who microdosed and combined psilocybin with both of these substances were more likely to have improved psychomotor performance.

The new study used a subset of participants from a larger, prior study from the same researchers that was published in November 2021 in Nature-Scientific Reports.

The earlier study found that people who microdosed either psilocybin or LSD reported lower levels of anxiety, depression, and stress than those who did not mircrodose psychedelics.

What’s more, a smaller 2019 study found that people who microdosed psychedelics had reductions in symptoms of depression and stress, and lower levels of distractibility. However, this study did not include non-microdosers as a comparison group.

And though the new study is the largest of its kind to date, it’s important to note that it’s still observational rather than a randomized controlled trial (RCT). As such, researchers were unable to fully account for other factors that might affect the outcomes, such as age, gender, mental health prior to the study, and other types of treatment.

Factors such as these may also affect how people respond individually to psilocybin.

“One thing that varies hugely in these studies is who people are going in. Some people are resilient to depression but have lots of problems with anxiety, and vice versa,” said Hines. “So a microdose may affect somebody with high levels of anxiety very differently than somebody with high levels of depression.”

Results may vary based on ‘expectancy’

Due to the way the new study was designed, the researchers were unable to control for “expectancy,” an effect in which people know they are taking psilocybin, so they expect to experience positive benefits.

This is a common problem in psychedelic research, as well as with other research in which a treatment is difficult to mask from the participants (i.e., studies of acupuncture, ice therapy, and electrostimulation).

“The power of expectancy is huge, and it’s very difficult to control for in these kinds of studies,” said Rochelle Hines, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience in the department of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “This study wasn’t even really designed to try to take expectancy out of it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the results are not accurate.”

Psychedelic research has historically been challenging because psilocybin, LSD, and other psychedelics are currently illegal in the United States under federal law.

Although prior clinical trials on psychedelics have been challenged in the past, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has since granted “breakthrough therapy” status for psychedelics and is now encouraging scientific research.

And despite the potential therapeutic potential for psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, the adverse risks are not fully understood, hence the need for more rigorous research.

One concern with psilocybin mushrooms is that long-term use might lead to valve damage or cardiac valvulopathy. When ingested, psilocybin is metabolized by the liver and converted to the pharmacological compound psilocin, which binds to serotonin receptors in the heart.

Rochelle Hines said in order to accurately assess the risks and benefits of microdosing psilocybin, these kinds of potential risks need to be investigated long-term.

“For the occasional use, it seems like psilocybin might not pose too much threat in that regard,” she said. “But I don’t know that we have a lot of longitudinal data looking at regular chronic users to understand what is the potential role that this compound has on the heart.”

While Dustin Hines is pleased with the design and results of the new study, he said one thing that strikes him when studies like this come out is that researchers have to continue proving to the general public that some of these psychedelic compounds are beneficial.

Part of the problem, he said, is the negative stigma attached to psychedelics, even though psilocybin and LSD carry a low risk of addiction, especially compared to legal substances such as tobacco and alcohol.

“These are not highly risky medications to microdose,” said Sherry Walling, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and host of Mind Curious, a podcast exploring the benefits of psychedelics for mental health. “The risk profile for addiction and overdose is really low.”

In fact, psilocybin-related deaths are rare since the substance is considered to have extremely low toxicity. As such, researchers are investigating psychedelics as possible treatments for various substance use disorders.

“There’s a really nuanced story here around how substances can be dangerous to us, but can also be incredibly healing,” Walling said.

As the field of psychedelic research continues to advance, more evidence is showing the therapeutic potential for microdosing substances like psilocybin.

Yet despite the potential benefits seen, experts like Walling caution that more research is still needed, particularly when it comes to using psychedelics as a treatment for anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions.

“As a psychologist, my job is to help take care of vulnerable people,” she said. “So that’s where the level of research does matter significantly, in terms of what I am comfortable saying to patients about these compounds.”

Dustin Hines agreed, but only if the studies are well-designed, as these can help advance psychedelic therapies to clinics without the risk of re-stigmatizing these compounds. “We really want this to roll out well because I think it will have profound effects on humanity,” he said. “But it has to be done right, and we have to have all the facts.”