Microdoses of psychedelic mushrooms may improve mood and mental health

What is microdosing?

Naturally occurring psychedelic substances such as psilocybin extract from magic mushrooms and mescaline have been used for their beneficial health effects for thousands of years. The classification of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin and LSD as drugs of abuse without any medical use has, however, hindered research on the therapeutic effects of these substances.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of scientific and popular interest in the potential use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. For instance, psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has shownTrusted Source promise in the treatment of individuals with depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.

These studies have generally used regular doses of psilocybin that produce euphoric and hallucinogenic effects. However, the use of regular doses of psilocybin can also produce unpleasant and terrifying experiences, also referred to as “bad trips”.

This has led to the adoption of a practice called microdosing,Trusted Source which involves the consumption of small amounts of psychedelic substances that do not produce hallucinogenic effects.

Most ‘microdosers’ use about 10% of the regular dose of psilocybin, equivalent to about 100-300 milligrams of dried mushrooms, between 2-5 times a week.

Challenges of studying psychedelics

Anecdotal reports and observational studies suggest that microdosing psychedelics can improve cognitive function, enhance mood, and reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. Most of these observational studies have used a cross-sectional design, with only a few longitudinal studies comparing the effects of microdosing psilocybin with a control group over a period of time.

However, there are obstacles to conducting longitudinal studies on the effects of hallucinogenic substances.

For instance, a significant number of participants in previous placebo-controlled microdosing studies were able to recognize the effects of psilocybin during the study. In other words, participants were aware of the treatment, i.e., not blinded, introducing the possibility of bias.

Moreover, studies Trusted Sourcesuggest that individuals tend to have strong expectations of positive effects due to the use of psilocybin and this can result in placebo effects.

To further characterize the potential health benefits of microdosing, the authors of the present study used a naturalistic design by tracking changes in the mental health and mood of individuals who were already microdosing.

Specifically, the researchers compared changes in the mood, mental health, and cognitive function of microdosers over a period of 1 month with individuals who were not microdosing.

Microdosers who use psilocybin often combine it with other substances such as the mushroom lion’s mane which may also possess therapeutic effects. For instance, there is some evidence to suggest that lion’s mane mushrooms could alleviate symptomsTrusted Source of depression and mild cognitive impairment.

Microdosers combining psilocybin and lion’s mane are also known to incorporate vitamin B3, also known as niacin. Niacin is thought to improve the absorption of psilocybin and lion’s mane and could potentially enhance the effects of these mushrooms.

To better characterize the impact of these combinations on well-being, the researchers also included participants who were microdosing psilocybin along with lion’s mane and niacin.

Effects of microdosing psilocybin

The present study consisted of 953 microdosers using psilocybin and 180 individuals who were not microdosing. The participants completed a series of questionnaires and tasks on their mobile devices at the onset of the study and at one month after recruitment.

These assessments included self-report questionnaires to assess mood and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. The researchers also assessed cognitive function and psychomotor ability, which refers to physical movements that require cognitive processing.

The researchers found that microdosers showed greater improvements in mood and larger reductions in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress over the study period than non-microdosers.

These positive effects of microdosing were observed in all participants, regardless of whether they used psilocybin alone or a combination of either psilocybin with lion’s mane, or psilocybin, lion’s mane, and niacin.

Moreover, microdosing psilocybin resulted in similar levels of improvements in mental health and mood across age groups, genders, and among individuals who did or did not have mental health concerns.

The only exception was female microdosers who showed larger reductions in depressive symptoms than males.

The researchers also found that older microdosers showed larger improvements in the psychomotor test, but not cognitive function, than non-microdosers. This effect was largely due to older participants over the age of 55 years using a combination of psilocybin, lion’s mane, and niacin.

In sum, the results of this study add to the current evidence on the beneficial effects of microdosing psilocybin on mental health and mood, including among individuals with mental health concerns.

Microdosing benefits: More research needed

Although the study had a large sample size, the number of individuals in various subgroups according to age, gender, and substances used for microdosing was relatively small. Thus, these findings need to be replicated with larger sample sizes.

Dr. Balázs Szigeti, a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London, also noted that the present study used a control group but placebo effects in the microdosing group cannot be ruled out.

Dr. Szigeti explained:

“This study used a natural history control condition, meaning that the control group did not have any treatment. This is a weak control condition, although certainly better than not having any control group as in purely observational studies.”

“Relative to this weak control, microdosers showed some improvements, mostly with moderate effect sizes. This means that on most scales the magnitude of the improvements was only modest. Therefore, this study helps to establish that in uncontrolled / weakly controlled studies microdosing shows some benefits,” he continued.

“The major weakness of the study is the lack of placebo control. Therefore, it is unclear whether the source of these improvements is positive expectancy or the pharmacological action of microdosing,” he pointed out.

MDMA for social anxiety?

Many researchers see psychedelic drugs as unsafe, and they are banned or heavily regulated by governments across the world, but this might change in the future; scientists argue that such substances could be a useful add-on to psychotherapy.

Currently, a clinical trial is seeking prove that MDMA, or ecstasy, can help those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as co-chair Adam Snider, of the Alliant International University in Los Angeles, CA, also notes.

Moreover, a recent study — the findings of which were presented at the APA convention — has gathered some evidence that MDMA, in combination with psychotherapy, can treat social anxiety in adults with autism.

A total of 12 participants with autism who experienced moderate to severe social anxiety participated in that study. They agreed to take two treatments of pure MDMA, alongside their regular, ongoing therapy, and they reported long-term and significant improvement of symptoms.

“Social anxiety,” explains study author Alicia Danforth, of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, “is prevalent in autistic adults and few treatment options have been shown to be effective.”

“The positive effects of using MDMA and therapy lasted months, or even years, for most of the research volunteers,” she stresses.

A larger role for spirituality’ in therapy

Another study whose findings were presented at the symposium suggested that LSD, psilocybin (or magic mushrooms), and ayahuasca could help manage anxiety, depression, and some eating disorders.

Researcher Adele Lafrance, from Laurentian University, argues that psychedelic drugs can help with psychological symptoms partly by improving a person’s sense of spirituality, and how they relate to their own emotions. This, she says, is what a study of 159 participants who took such drugs reported.

According to the study’s findings, the use of psychoactive substances led to a heightened sense of spirituality, better emotional balance, and therefore a reduction of anxiety and depression, as well as disordered eating.

Lafrance says, “This study reinforces the need for the psychological field to consider a larger role for spirituality in the context of mainstream treatment because spiritual growth and a connection to something greater than the self can be fostered.”

As for ayahuasca, another study discussed at the symposium suggested that the brew can support the management of depression, addiction, and trauma-related symptoms.

“We found,” notes researcher Clancy Cavnar, from the Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos in Brazil, “that ayahuasca also fostered an increase in generosity, spiritual connection, and altruism.”
Cancer, emotions, and psychedelic drugs
Psychedelic drugs could also bring comfort to people dealing with cancer, as they may reduce anxiety and psychological distress.

According to a study of 13 participants that Gabby Agin-Liebes — from Palo Alto University — led, psilocybin in addition to psychotherapy can help people deal with their fear of death and their distress with regard to loss.

“Participants made spiritual or religious interpretations of their experience and the psilocybin treatment helped facilitate a reconnection to life, greater mindfulness and presence, and gave them more confidence when faced with cancer recurrence,” Agin-Liebes explains.

The debate regarding the usefulness and safety of psychoactive drugs is ongoing, but those who participated in the APA symposium agreed that there is a need for more studies examining the potential of such substances more closely.

In particular, they said, psychedelic drugs pose sensitive legal and ethical questions that should be properly addressed going forward.

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