Microdosing, Depression, and the Trippy Future of Mental Health Treatments

It’s a tough time to be a woman. Carina*, a 59-year-old therapist in Oregon, sees the ripple effects of the anxiety and stress of our current cultural climate every day in her work—and in her personal life. She has struggled with depression for much of her career, managing it with regular therapy sessions and movement practices like yoga and dance, but when she found herself struggling with a particularly challenging depressive episode in the wake of the #MeToo movement, she began exploring alternative treatment modalities.

That’s when she was introduced to microdosing for depression. “So much of depression is feeling stuck,” says Carina. “Microdosing has helped me get out of preservation mode; it helped me get out of the stuck places and see that there are options.”

Shrooms (aka psychedelic mushrooms) and LSD have a rich résumé of providing a hallucinatory high, and we’re in the midst of a psychedelic resurgence. The recent interest in psychedelics isn’t a throwback to the ’60s so much as it is the potential future of mental health treatment—especially for depression and anxiety.

The goal of microdosing is not to get you high. As the name implies, the practice involves taking a small amount—a microdose—of psilocybin (in the form of mushrooms) or LSD every few days. Unlike higher doses of psychedelics, which typically produce the “trip” experience these substances are most known for, the effect of microdosing is much more subtle. Most people start with “around 10g of LSD (around a tenth of a tab) or 0.1g of dried psilocybin mushrooms,” according to The Third Wave, a psychedelic education resource. (The “right” dose varies from person to person. You should never take any substance without consulting your doctor first.)

Psychedelics aren’t legal—they’re currently classified as Schedule I drugs by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning there’s “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” (For the record, cannabis is also classified as a Schedule I drug by the DEA.) That poses some considerable risks. Because psychedelics aren’t legal, they aren’t regulated. There’s no way of knowing what you’re getting, where it’s coming from, or how strong it is, which can put your safety in jeopardy.

Carina has been microdosing for a little over a year and says her experience has been positive; she takes one tenth of a gram of mushrooms (which contain psilocybin, the naturally occurring psychedelic compound) two to three times per week and occasionally supplements with LSD. “What’s really significant with microdosing is that you don’t really feel it,” says Carina. “The whole point of microdosing is that if you feel it, that’s too much. Take less.”

The Science Behind Psychedelics

While the aim of microdosing isn’t to get you high, the therapeutic potential relies on the same bit of brain chemistry. “Psychedelics inhibit a particular neural network pattern that is associated with ego—what we typically describe as our sense of self,” says David M. L. Rabin M.D., Ph.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and neuroscientist currently conducting a large-scale controlled study on the therapeutic benefits of microdosing for treatment-resistant mental illness. Neuroscientists call this neural network pattern the default mode network. Psychedelics like shrooms or LSD disrupt this pattern; when you’re on them, your brain functions differently, operating on a different—perhaps higher—plane, Rabin explains.

This can cause a profound shift in the way people think, he says, allowing them to see the world, themselves, and their experience in a new way—free from the restriction of their past experiences, deeply held beliefs, and biases.

Rabin uses a skiing analogy to describe the psychedelic experience. “You have an opportunity to decide, ‘Am I going to go down the same groove, the same run, in the same way that everybody has gone down before me—or am I going to take the fresh-powder route and make my own path?’” he says. Your brain on psychedelics is like taking the fresh powder.