Are Psychedelic Drugs Good For Your Health?

Health Benefits of Psychedelics | Courtesy of Ian Mutto / Flickr
Health Benefits of Psychedelics | Courtesy of Ian Mutto / Flickr
Photo of Esme Benjamin
Wellness Editor7 November 2016

A small but vocal group of advocates claims “microdosing” with tiny measures of psychedelic drugs has dramatically improved their health and wellbeing. Could the mainstream finally be waking up to the potential medicinal benefits of consciousness-altering substances?

California-based psychologist Dr. James Fadiman has been studying psychedelics and championing their medicinal value since long before the FDA quashed research back in the 1960s. He believed microdosing — a regimen Albert Hofmann, the “father of LSD,” allegedly followed right up until his death aged 102 — was full of potential, but illegality blocked further research.

Over the years, requests for the microdosing protocol laid out by Dr. Fadiman — 10 micrograms ingested every third day for a month or more — flooded his office. People all over the world wanted to self-study and report back.

For many who came of age in an era of psychedelic prohibition, LSD equals Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s Hunter S. Thompson trying to keep his mind together at hotel check-in, while paisley print slithers off the carpet and up the wall. Microdosing is not like this. One New Yorker we spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, described microdosing as “being a tiny bit stoned. But with clarity, no brain-fuzziness. Whatever you’re doing it allows you to get fully immersed. If you’re sitting on the couch watching TV you can totally relax. If you’re working, you get really focused on that.”

A deluge of recent media coverage calls psychedelics the nootropics du jour; brain boosting supplements that are quickly replacing Adderall in Silicon Valley. But the individuals contacting Dr. Fadiman are hope microdosing is an under-the-radar treatment for their psychological disorders and physical ailments.

“I read a case from an individual who had tried more than eight antidepressant meds, and five different therapies,” he said. “They reported back, ‘I’ve been microdosing for six weeks and I no longer need any of them’.”

The study reports are compelling. In some cases they confirm what many psychologists have believed for years — that psychedelics can decrease anxiety and depression — while also unearthing unexpected benefits, including relief from premenstrual cramps and migraine/cluster headaches.

Dr. Fadiman is receiving feedback from individuals across 16 different countries, but all of this is currently self-reported and anecdotal. Matthew Johnson, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, has done extensive studies on the benefits of larger doses of psychedelics, with promising results. He also jumped through the necessary hoops in order to conduct FDA approved research with microdoses, and told Culture Trip: “my impression is that many of the effects people claim are actually placebo effects, although claims of special microdose effects are certainly plausible and testable.”

“If it’s placebo it’s the most effective placebo we’ve ever found, as it seems to work better than most medication,” Dr Fadiman responded.

Based on his research he believes psychedelics activate and accelerate the body’s natural healing response. “It’s a holistic improvement that isn’t restricted to just one organ or just one part of the brain,” he said. Microdosers have also discovered a desirable side-effect: making healthier life choices feels effortless. Perhaps they started the regimen to manage depression, but suddenly find themselves eating organic, practicing yoga, sleeping better, and meditating (which, incidentally, it is also said to enhance).

One junk food eater exclaimed: “I looked at the menu and I wanted the salad.” Even more incredibly, a pack-a-day-for-five-years smoker lost his tobacco cravings overnight, a phenomenon supported by a 2014 study by Johnson that showed 80% of participants taking psilocybin were still not smoking after six months, compared to the 35% average quit rate achieved with pharmacological therapies (though this was after a larger dose, not a microdose). “The body has only one interest, which is staying healthy,” said Dr Fadiman. “We have many more: dancing until dawn, f**king our brains out, drinking too much. Somehow microdosing seems to help people achieve better equilibrium and overcome internal obstacles.”

Courtesy Baylee Farris / Flickr

Psychedelics work by activating the 5HT-2A receptor. This floods the brain with feel-good serotonin and can disrupt the normal communication networks, forging new connections. It’s almost as if a subtle wringing out of the neural pathways takes place, which perhaps explains why these substances, when consumed in larger doses, are so effective at treating psychological disorders like PTSD, depression and OCD. The physiological benefits, especially using such low doses, aren’t so clearly defined, and without government approved investigations they will remain difficult to corroborate. Until then, people will keep conducting their independent studies with microdosing.

Which begs the obvious question: is it safe? Dr. Fadiman dissuades people with acute anxiety from dabbling with psychedelics, or anybody who is coping with an unstable external environment, stating: “if you’re being bombed, don’t microdose. Unless, of course, you need to run faster.” (Athlete James Oroc believes “LSD can increase your reflex time to lightning speed, improve your balance to the point of perfection, increase your concentration…and make you impervious to weakness or pain“.) For everybody else though, he believes it’s safe and frequently effective.

Matthew Johnson wouldn’t recommend microdosing individually until more research has been done. “Yes, there is a chance it could be dangerous,” he said. “I’ve had folks report to me that they have unintentionally had full psychedelic effects when they had only intended for a microdose. This can be dangerous because proponents advocate going about one’s daily life, such as work, driving, etc. while microdosing.”

Although psychedelics are not thought to be addictive, The National Institute of Drug Abuse notes “little is known about the long-term effects of hallucinogens.” Its website continues: “risks or health effects of many hallucinogens remain unclear and need more research,” the bind being, of course, that research is currently restricted in the U.S.

In Spain, Sweden and Denmark, however, microdosing studies are underway, and if the results come back favorable, it might end what Professor David Nutt, the British government’s former chief drugs adviser, calls “the worst censorship in the history of science.”