Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 17/9/2019 (767 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Magic mushrooms aren’t just for hippies anymore.
A growing number of people, including here in Manitoba, are taking them and LSD—a.k.a. acid—not to blow their mind, rather they seek to improve how their brains work.
Unlike the 1960s when hippies gobbled large doses of LSD to turn on, tune in and drop out, today's users are microdosing.
Involving ingesting about a tenth of a recreational dose, these new-era users do not experience hallucinations or intoxication typically associated with these illicit drugs; instead, they claim microdosing offers a bevy of benefits, from a boost in creativity, energy and mood to better management of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"It has really exploded onto the scene," says Mark Haden, an adjunct professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.
Microdosing first gained popularity a few years ago among coders in Silicon Valley, using very low amounts of LSD to help them focus and be more creative, he says.
And early research suggests they may be onto something.
Haden — also the executive director of the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) Canada — says preliminary studies surveying users suggest they experience a variety of perceived benefits.
That’s led MAPS, which has traditionally focused on the medicinal benefits of "macro-doses" of psychedelics (as well as calling for decriminalization for research purposes), to take a closer look at microdosing, he says.
Here in Manitoba, microdosing has caught the attention of a Winnipeg-based psychotherapist. Clinical therapist Kate Bloy recently began counselling a handful of patients who are microdosing the truffle (the root) of magic mushrooms, which contains very low amounts of psilocybin, the key psychoactive ingredient.
Many find it very helpful for depression, anxiety and PTSD, she says, further noting research on psilocybin has shown it stimulates receptors of serotonin, a key neurotransmitter in mood regulation.
"It’s helped them figure out things in two or three sessions that they normally would be mulling over for weeks or months in therapy," she says.
Still, the therapy is not for everyone, Bloy cautions.
Her patients, for example, must first undergo medical and psychological examinations to ensure there are no existing drug contraindications and that the therapy would be suitable in general, although Bloy notes psilocybin is renowned for its safety. It has very low toxicity and has no potential for dependency, research shows.
Study of drugs not new
Although microdosing is a new area of scientific focus, psychedelic drugs have long been the subject of research. Many studies have demonstrated these substances may be helpful in treating many mental health problems, including addiction, anorexia and end-of-life anxiety. Among them is 2016 research from Johns Hopkins University — a leader in the field — that found psilocybin reduced depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer.
But most research has involved larger doses, not microdoses, Haden says.
Some researchers, however, are now turning their attention to microdosing, including two Toronto-based PhD students in neuroscience, who recently completed a survey-style study exploring how many people microdose and for what reasons.
"There are stay-at-home moms that do it, software developers, CEOs, tradespeople, lawyers, unskilled labourers, and (university) students — lots of students," says University of Toronto PhD candidate Thomas Anderson, who, along with colleague Rotem Petranker at York University, published their work last fall.
Although the numbers represent a small fraction of the broader population, interest in microdosing is growing quickly, in part driven by websites that have sprouted up in the last several months selling microdoses of LSD and magic mushrooms. The microdosing section on the social media site Reddit has grown to more than 70,000 users today from just 5,000 in 2016, Anderson notes.
With microdosing’s growing use now established, the two researchers seek to determine whether it is indeed beneficial. In the process of finalizing a research application with Health Canada, they hope to begin a randomized, placebo-controlled trial early next year.
"As it stands, we don’t scientifically know if microdosing does anything at all, so that’s what this research is designed to uncover," Anderson says.
But many people believe microdosing is beneficial, including a woman in her mid-40s who began taking small amounts of magic mushrooms about three times a week in the spring. Jane (not her real name) did not participate in the survey study, but says microdosing has helped manage symptoms of PTSD, a consequence of a past career in front-line health care.
Microdosing’s effects are subtle, says Jane, now a manager for a small business.
"I don’t feel high; I just feel at peace with myself, and my past," she says.
Akin to having a glass or two of wine, only it’s more lasting, Jane says she finds microdosing makes her feel more relaxed and sociable.
"I can go for three days (in between doses) and still feel its benefits."
Despite many users singing its praises, Anderson cautions microdosing is largely uncharted scientific territory.
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What’s more, the drug is still illegal and he doesn’t suggest people start microdosing, especially for self-treatment.
"We don’t know if there are any real benefits and we don’t know if there are any concerning drawbacks," he says.
As for Bloy and her ongoing work, she eagerly awaits more thorough scientific research to support the benefits she’s seeing in patients.
"The hangover from the recreational misuse… in the ‘60s fuels current day prohibition," she says. "What we need now is research to support… the development of responsible standards of practice for the safe and beneficial use."
Despite the potential risk associated with speaking publicly about her work, Bloy says she feels it’s important to step forward.
"It’s time practitioners like myself come out of the shadows. We need to show this is not about drugs; rather, it’s about medicine."
A Q&A with an online provider of microdoses.
Microdoseonline.com is one of the more popular sites selling microdose products. In an interview with the Free Press, the individuals behind it agreed to answer the following questions. (They have chosen to remain anonymous given the substances they sell are illegal.)
Q: How long have you been in business?
A: We have been helping people with microdosing for over a year.
Q: What products do you offer?
A: We offer the two main protocols — LSD and psilocybin mushrooms — as well as Stamets Stack (named after Paul Stamets, who claimed combining niacin, lion's mane mushrooms and psilocybin mushrooms offered health benefits).
Q: How do you mitigate risk associated with these substances, such as taking too much?
A: While we do not recommend it, even if a person were to consume the whole bottle of (LSD) liquid, or a whole handful of the psilocybin capsules, there would be no danger. They would experience a full trip, but the medicines have been proven over and over again even in large doses to be completely safe, provided they (users) are in a safe place.
Q: Why are you in business: for profit, belief in microdosing’s potential, or both?
A: This is not being done as a cash grab, but because we truly believe these medicines can heal in ways that traditional medicines cannot. We believe the psychedelic renaissance is going to bring these medicines into use as therapeutic tools… (and) are looking forward to the day this can be done in full openness. This work we do now is giving us the experience with the medicines to help us best shape their use for areas where they are effective.
(Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.)