Whenever you have alcohol, do you get blackout drunk?
Whenever you have caffeine, do you get so amped up that you have to be scraped off the ceiling?
Hopefully, the answer is no to both. There’s the full-blown experience of consuming drugs like alcohol and caffeine, and then there’s the much tamer, low dose experience.
The same, it turns out, is true with psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms.
Reading through James Fadiman’s book on psychedelics, I was fascinated by the ongoing citizen science research he and his peers are doing on “microdosing.” Taking very small amounts of LSD and mushrooms on a regular basis to enhance your daily life.
A microdose is when you’ve had just enough of a drug to have a subtle effect, but without the full experience. A cup of tea is a microdose of caffeine. One beer is a microdose of alcohol. And starting in the ‘60s, curious psychonauts like Fadiman began experimenting with microdosing LSD and mushrooms.
If you take a full recreational dose of psilocybin (shrooms) or LSD, you’re pretty much out of commission for the next 6-18 hours. You’ll be introspective, curious, appreciative of the world around you, but you won’t be able to do much else.
Fadiman suggested, though, that by taking a “microdose” of these drugs, you could get many of the beneficial creative and mindfulness effects, without the hallucinations or trippiness.
Now, when I read this, I was immediately skeptical.
Wouldn’t you get addicted?
Wouldn’t there be some bad side effects?
What if you started tripping out in the middle of something important?
Could the benefits be true, or was it just nonsense that a bunch of hippies made up out of their own cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias?
So… I tried it.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, this is not medical advice, this is for informational purposes only. Always consult a medical professional before doing anything. Don’t be stupid. And hopefully, it goes without saying that I would in no way encourage you to break the law, considering these substances are illegal in many places. This is just my experience.
Unlike a 5-day water fast where you have a complete narrative arc, the day-to-day microdosing experience is broken into three-day “chunks.”
You build up a tolerance to psychedelics very quickly, so it’s not practical to take a microdose every day. Instead, practitioners will take a dose every 4 days, usually consuming 1/10th of a standard “recreational” dose each time.
I should note that this is where many articles about microdosing screw up. In them, the person doing the experiment takes it every day, which is much too often.
A recreational dose of LSD starts around 100ug (micrograms) and a tab usually has 100-150ug. So for a microdose, I would take ~10ug, though some people will take lower amounts around 5ug or as high as 15ug.
The goal is for the dose to be “sub-perceptual,” meaning no audio or visual hallucinations, just enhancements.
So on day 1, I took the microdose in the morning. It would set in after 30 minutes, and I’d start to feel more calm, thoughtful, and focused. The benefits would stay throughout the day, though alcohol and stimulants would dampen them.
Now, what’s weird with microdosing is that it can affect you for two days. It’s more subtle on the second day, but it’s also more balanced, possibly from coming down from the peak of the first day. This effect is exclusive to microdosing: a full dose will wear off in around 6 hours for shrooms, 12 hours for LSD, but for some reason, a microdose lasts longer.
The third day was the return to normalcy to “recalibrate” and create the contrast between microdosing and not. If I immediately dosed again on the third day, I would always be in that state and might forget what normal life is like.
Then on day four, I would dose again. Or, give myself a second “rest” day to balance it out. What I found effective was dosing on Monday and Thursday, since then I’d have Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday off, and it was easier to stay regular with in terms of scheduling.
So what effects did I have from microdosing?
Your alarm goes off at 7, and after silencing it you roll out of bed, stretch, and walk into your kitchen. Your coffee maker has gone unused for weeks now, having switched to tea since noticing how overpowering the caffeine was to your thinking. As the water comes to a boil, you check your calendar and confirm that today is a microdose day before placing a sliver of a tab on your tongue. A few minutes later when it feels it’s dissolved and your tea is ready, you swallow the tab and sip your tea as you go about your day.
On the drive to work, you play the radio at a lower volume so it doesn’t drown out your thoughts or experience. Spring has begun, and though you haven’t noticed it much in years past, you can’t help but experience a subtle internal warmth from the emerging foliage around you.
At work, a few minutes early but unrushed, you settle in for the day. You’ve silenced your phone and computer alerts, as you became more aware of how negatively they were impacting your attention since you started the dosing. Picking your most important task, you focus on it intently for the next 90 minutes, pausing only to make a few notes of ideas to circle back on later.
When you do finally take a break, you step into the kitchen area for your team and pause to talk to a coworker for a few minutes. While before you might have been rushed to get back to work, you no longer feel that frenetic desire to get to the next thing and have gained a greater appreciation for spending time simply enjoying another’s company.
Back at the computer, you’re alerted to an urgent problem. The total sales for the last week, the number you’re supposed to ensure the success of, are below par. Recognizing the problem, you list out what could be causing it, pick the most reasonable cause, and set to work righting it. You’re not scared or stressed, rather, you recognize the urgency and act on it deliberately, allowing the negative fearful emotions to pass from your mind as if they were messages on a highway billboard.
Later that evening, out at a bar with some friends, you’re not drinking but don’t feel any compulsion to. While you drank in the past to lower your inhibitions and to relax, you no longer feel the need to do either as you’re more comfortable speaking your mind sober and have maintained a relaxed state throughout the day. Your fears of starting conversations with attractive strangers have been lowered, too, and you find yourself leaving the bar with a new phone number in your contacts.
At dinner, you pass on dessert and ignore the less healthy entrees. You aren’t exercising any willpower by not indulging. Rather, you don’t feel the need to indulge. Your life is calmer, more even-keeled, and largely stress-free.
I packed most of it into the story, but let’s go through the benefits that many people experience while microdosing.
Assuming you aren’t dependent on it, coffee gives you a manic focus hyper-tuning you to the task at hand, but that soon dies off and leaves you more tired than before. While you might have been highly focused and productive during that period, the resulting crash typically leads to a net loss for what could have been an effective day.
Drugs like Adderall give you a less manic focus, but they turn you into a sort of automaton just “doing things” because you have to or they seem urgent. This is probably why parents like giving it to their kids and schools like their students having it. It makes you more obedient and task oriented, and less creative or curious.
The calm focus of microdosing is very different. Instead of feeling like “RAH I’M SO FOCUSED” it’s more like “I know what I need to do and I’m not distracted.” I had significantly fewer impulses to jump over to Facebook, texting, or email, and was more content to go for a long period focusing on one thing without additional stimulation.
Psychological stress comes from one of two places: worry about the future, and regret over the past.
With microdosing, both bothred me less than normal. I might start to freak out for a second, as we all do, but then I would naturally return to that present state awareness. It’s not that I never got stressed, rather that I was significantly better at letting it go quickly.
One of the odder effects of microdosing is that I more regularly shifted into a third person observer perspective of my life.
This sounds absurd to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but it’s not an uncommon phenomenon in flow states. Athletes who are completely lost in the moment report feeling like they were watching themselves competing, public speakers say they “watch” themselves giving the presentation, you can even feel it when you’re driving and you “come to” after a few minutes and have to ask yourself “wait, who was doing the driving!”
When you take a full-blown dose of LSD or mushrooms, your senses go into overdrive. Music sounds beautiful, the color saturation gets turned up to 11, and a subtle breeze is as euphoric as a warm blanket by the fire in winter.
I had maybe 10% of this enhancement from microdosing. Colors looked a little brighter, music sounded a little better, food tasted a little richer.
It’s not that the experience is any different, though, it’s that I had a greater appreciation for all of this typically missed beauty. Instead of briskly passing the trees I might ignore out of a preference for Candy Crush, I would pause briefly and appreciate how nice they looked.
As a more introverted person, one of the effects I found was a newfound ease striking up conversations with strangers.
That helps with dating, obviously, but it’s also useful when walking around or hanging out in cafes. Being able to more effortlessly connect with people around me made me happier and resulted in some interesting new connections.
I also found while microdosing that I was generally disinterested in adding any other substance to the mix. Even as a casual drinker, I was less motivated to pick up a glass of wine in the evening or to indulge nearly as much with friends.
The same is true with stimulants. Instead of mindlessly imbibing coffee, I would pause and consider why I wanted it, realize that it’s a form of escape from reality, further realize that I rather liked my present reality, and settle on a cup of tea or water instead.
This shouldn’t be surprising, though. It’s been well established that psychedelics can help with alcoholism and other addictions, so taking them in small doses could be the nudge we need to maintain our willpower.
If you’re at all familiar with the concept of flow, then you should have noticed by now that it’s the underlying theme to all of these benefits. Microdosing is the easiest way I’ve found to effortlessly maintain a constant state of flow throughout the day, without being stimulated or crashing later.
The calm focus is from the ease of entering flow, the lack of stress is from defaulting to a present-minded flow state, the third person perspective is from being able to watch my actions instead of judging them, the sociability is from being in the moment instead of past or future, and the substance aversion is from enjoying my present state enough to not want to alter it.
Simply put, microdosing was a way to nudge my mind into a flow state without the nasty side effects of coffee or other stimulants. This is the main reason I (and many others) have found it much more effective and sustainable than caffeine, Adderall, modafinil, or other common work-performance-enhancing drugs.
“But Nat!” You may be thinking… “Surely there are some side effects!”
Well, let’s look at that.
Before we go into the side effects of microdosing, we need to understand what the side effects are of LSD and psilocybin are in general.
We can break the side effects into two camps: immediate, and long-term.
The immediate potential side effects of large alcohol consumption could be anywhere from dizziness to death. The immediate potential side effects from LSD and psilocybin could be anywhere from a bad trip to, well, actually, not much worse than that. That bad trip could make you do stupid things, like wander into traffic, but the drugs themselves don’t really do any physical harm as far as we know.
The long term effects of alcohol are damage to the liver, brain, and hormone production, as well as various cancers. The long-term effects of LSD and psilocybin are, well, we haven’t really found any. Habitual use as an escape mechanism can lead to depression, but the same can be said of video games. I know this is going to come across as biased, but as far as we know, there really aren’t anywhere near the long-term risks of LSD like you get from alcohol, which is why it ranked so low in my analysis.
So let’s bring that back down to the microdose level. A glass of wine each night probably won’t do much damage to you, despite alcohol at large doses being harmful. So what will a low dose of LSD do considering that at high doses it basically does nothing? Well, basically nothing, as far as we know.
To be fair, this can happen. The proper method for microdosing is to dissolve the LSD into distilled water, and weigh out the water as you take it so that you’re always getting the perfect amount. I… didn’t do this. I did it in the most ghetto way possible, cutting up tabs of LSD into 15ths with an X-Acto knife, which, naturally, led to some unevenness.
I never accidentally had a full trip, there were a few times where I was working on something and found myself lost in the beauty of my music and thought “shit, a bit too much this morning.”
But it was never a big problem. It’s not as my pupils were saucer-sized and and I was drooling on the floor listening to Dark Side of the Moon, I was just a little more chill and introspective than usual. No one ever noticed or called me out on “being off.”
Here’s where things get strange. I have an addictive personality. Alcoholism runs in both sides of my family. A glass of wine tonight means wanting one every night for the next week. If I have a cup of coffee today, the craving to have one will hit me every day for at least the next three or four mornings.
With microdosing, it was the opposite. It’s such a subtle effect, and I took it so infrequently, that I would regularly forget to take it. I became so irregular with it that I had to add it to my calendar!
The curious thing with LSD is that we very quickly build up a resistance to it. If you take a full dose one day, the next day a full dose will do much less if anything. It takes a while to get back to your baseline level of tolerance, so it’s hard to do it regularly. And on top of that, it doesn’t have the same chemically addicting properties of caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine, so you don’t develop the same type of cravings.
And when I ran out and stopped microdosing? I didn’t feel any “need” to start doing it again. I don’t feel any latent desire to, the way I can with coffee, Adderall, liquor, etc.
I tried microdosing twice but stopped after those experiments. When friends are considering trying it and ask me about it, one of the most common questions is “why did you stop?”
I didn’t stop for any health reasons or bad side effects. I stopped mostly because, well, it’s illegal to have these drugs, and I didn’t feel strongly enough about starting again to go get more. If you could go buy LSD or mushrooms at a CVS I might do it regularly, but so long as they’re illegal it’s inconvenient.
The second reason is that just because we haven’t found any concerning long-term effects doesn’t mean there aren’t any. History tells us that just about every drug (especially man-made) that gets touted as having no bad side effects is proven wrong once we look at a long enough time scale. Thalidomide was great until the first babies were born. Adderall, I’m sure, is going to start proving itself highly damaging in the coming years. LSD has been used for so long that it’s unlikely there’s some effect we aren’t aware of, but you never know.
But the main reason is that with a little diligence, you can get 80% of the benefits of microdosing simply through meditation. The effects aren’t as pronounced, but daily meditation will give you many of the same feelings of presence, flow, and focus.
And the nice thing about meditation is that you’re never hunched over your kitchen counter with an X-Acto knife, trying to keep your portions even so you don’t start hallucinating bears attacking you while writing.
Then consider joining the 30,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles and book notes.