Would you drop acid to boost your productivity?
Once the domain of hippies seeking a kaleidoscopic dreamworld, psychedelic drugs are increasingly becoming the remit of professional women who want to think more clearly, work faster and feel happier. Are they on to something? WH takes a trip inside the world of microdosing
Quarter past seven on a murky Monday morning in February: Rosalind Stone is cutting a tab of paper soaked with acid into tiny pieces. It’s the 26-year-old Londoner’s first day of her exciting new career as a freelance writer and publicist – and her first time microdosing psychedelic drugs. Glowing reports from friends and online forums claim that taking small amounts of the illegal psychedelic will help sharpen her mind and boost her creative thinking. She has been curious to give it a go for months, and now, doing something she loves after shaking off a dull data entry job, conditions are perfect. Placing the mini tab on her tongue, Rosalind tingles with anticipation as she tries to gauge any tangible indication that the drug is taking hold, before sitting down in front of her laptop to begin her day. ‘I felt like me – but better,’ she says. ‘I was focused, kept my social media tabs minimised and made my way through an entire spreadsheet of contacts – all 35 of them – by the time I logged off at 6pm. There was no brain fuzz or energy slump; I had a real sense that everything I was doing – no matter how mind-numbingly boring – was part of an end goal that I was determined and excited to ace.’ Rosalind is one of a growing number of healthy women worldwide who are choosing to take controlled amounts of psychedelic drugs – usually lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or psilocybin (magic mushrooms) – as part of their everyday lives. On anonymous message board site Reddit, the number of subscribers to an online community of microdosers, sharing tips and stories, has grown from 1,600 to over 16,000 selfmonikered ‘psychonauts’ in the past two years. Google searches have soared at a similar rate, presumably because mentions of microdosing appear in tandem with personal stories of professionals winning at life after a sudden surge in productivity.
But how to distinguish between memories of a muddy chai tent on the periphery of Glasto and this new phenomenon? First, it’s the intention: you’re not looking to trip. According to Dr James Fadiman, psychologist and author of ‘microdosing handbook’ The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, the benefits of microdosing depend on sticking to a ‘sub-perceptual dose’ – with which you’ll notice enhanced focus without
any of the infamous vivid hallucinations. This measures up as taking just a tenth of the standard dose of LSD – which works out at between 10 and 20 micrograms – or psilocybin (between 0.2g and 0.5g of dried magic mushrooms) in regular three-day cycles. So, a typical week in a microdoser’s world might be dosing up on a Monday morning (which should keep you alert and focused until Tuesday evening), then rest on Wednesday, before beginning the process again come Thursday morning. While Dr Fadiman is keen not to be too prescriptive, he does suggest newcomers try microdosing for one month in order to evaluate the effects on their body and mind. So, who is doing it? Dr Fadiman’s data reveals that UK women in professions as diverse as hedge-fund manager and charity worker are getting in on the act. Among the hyper-ambitious tech-preneurs of California’s Silicon Valley, taking small, measured amounts of psychedelics, in accordance with Dr Fadiman’s protocol, is standard practice. There, ‘biohacking’ (read: interrupting and enhancing the functioning of your brain and body via nutrition, fitness and legal brain-boosting supplements) is commonplace. The widespread knowledge that Steve Jobs experimented with LSD at college (which many assume gave him a nudge in the direction of his game-changing gadgets) means it’s unsurprising that entrepreneurs hungry to invent the next iphone would be tripping over themselves to get ahead of the competition. Dr Molly Maloof, a general practitioner in San Francisco who treats Silicon Valley high rollers, says that many of the women she sees are taking small amounts of psychedelics not just to up productivity, but to feel at their absolute optimum. ‘These women understand how vital their physical and mental health are in the grand scheme of success,’ Dr Maloof explains. In fact, for many of the anxietyridden, athleisure-clad female biohackers she encounters, wellness has become an end goal in itself. Not convinced? Rosalind, though microdosing primarily for work benefits, was making healthier choices within 12 hours of taking LSD. ‘There was none of the usual fatigue come close of play, so I met a friend for dinner, and opted for tofu pad thai instead of a greasy burger. There was little pull to split a bottle of red; for once I felt sociable and relaxed without booze.’ Over the month that followed, she chose to walk when she’d have normally jumped on a bus, became a regular at her local pool and finally made time to practise yoga once or twice a week. ‘It was as if microdosing gave me the perspective to see that anything is possible if you make time for it,’ she explains. ‘And not just in my working day; I’ve re-evaluated how to better spend my free time.’
FREE YOUR MIND
Such dramatic changes in habit might seem puzzling, but research shows psychedelics can, quite literally, open your mind. A study published in the journal Language, Cognition and Neuroscience found that taking between 40 and 80 micrograms of LSD – anywhere between half and threequarters of a tab – alters the brain’s semantic networks: the ways in which words are linked and organised in your mind. ‘When asked to name an object pictured on a screen in front of them, people on LSD were more prone to say words that were similar in meaning, like saying “sock” when shown a picture of a shoe. They were less likely to censor themselves if they made a mistake, too,’ says lead author Dr Neiloufar Family. ‘This suggests that people might have access to words, associations and concepts stored further away in their brains.’ Months before, a joint team from Imperial College London and the Beckley Foundation (a Unrecognised organisation that aims to increase understanding of consciousness) produced the first brain scan of someone tripping on LSD. This demonstrated that, in the brains of people who were tripping, regions that were once segregated were able to communicate with one another. Beckley Foundation director Amanda Fielding explains: ‘At the top of the hierarchy in your brain is something called the default mode network, made up of the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior singular cortex. All the information gathered by your senses, memories and emotions passes through it, either to be integrated and allowed to enter your conscious mind – or repressed,’ she says. Problems occur when only very small amounts of information are allowed through, resulting in rigid patterns of behaviour. ‘Our research shows that taking a psychedelic reduces blood supply to this network, lessening its activity and the repressive control it has over the brain.’ Cyclical thoughts can be frustrating when you’re struggling to ‘think outside the box’ on a client pitch, or to motivate yourself to begin marathon training. But for those suffering with depression, rigidity of the mind can prove devastating, since you’re
more likely to get caught in a loop of negative thoughts that perpetuate the illness. So, unsurprisingly, the promise of breaking those cycles has led scores of mental health patients to try microdosing. Ayelet Waldman, a 52-year-old mother of four from San Francisco, came to psychedelics disillusioned and desperate. The lawyer-turned-novelist had spent a small fortune on talking therapy and prescribed medication to treat her depression and hypomania, to no positive effect, and was near suicide when she happened upon Dr Fadiman’s website. Waldman got hold of a small blue bottle of diluted LSD from a friend of a friend (possession carries a three-year prison sentence or fine up to $25,000 in the US, and under UK law it’s an unlimited fine and/or seven years in prison) then began her month of microdosing. ‘It isn’t in my nature to break the law, but I was suffering – as was my family – so I was willing to try anything,’ she explains in her 2016 memoir A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life. The results were astounding – and instantaneous. ‘I felt happier, or at least not as profoundly depressed, almost immediately.’ And the results continued, even after she stopped. No clinical trials have been done on the effects of microdosing, so researchers don’t know how it caused these positive effects, or why they lasted. But Waldman is not alone. ‘People have been telling us about the positive impact that microdosing psychedelics has had on them for up to a decade,’ says Dr Fadiman.
You’d be forgiven for thinking taking class A drugs to improve your mental health sounds counter-intuitive. But consider that magic mushrooms and LSD were studied by scientists for their psychiatric properties decades before they were being dropped on the tongues of hippies in the San Francisco sunshine – then subsequently criminalised on both sides of the Atlantic by 1971 – and it makes more sense. Few studies were conducted in the following three decades, but results from a new wave of research suggest that psychedelics could have a seismic impact on mental health treatment. A 2016 study published in The Lancet showed that administering psilocybin in a therapeutic setting eased the symptoms of all participants suffering from treatment-resistant depression after just three weeks. Three months later, five of the 12 participants – for whom no other treatment had worked – were in remission. Although, it pays to note that these people were tripping on a standard dose, not microdosing, for which all that exists currently is anecdotal evidence. Professor David Nutt, director of the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London (who co-led the landmark 2016 brain imaging study) wants to change this. ‘Now we know that normal dosing breaks down old, established patterns of thinking to allow new ideas to be generated, it’s time to find out if microdoses liberate the brain a little so that thinking is easier and more creative.’ Results might not be forthcoming, however, since studies into LSD and psilocybin are tricky to source funding for (so much so that researchers including Fielding and Professor Nutt have turned to crowdfunding for their experiments at fundamental.nyc). Such substances are also caught up in a ton of red tape on account of their classification as Schedule 1 substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act – meaning they are thought to have little therapeutic benefit and high potential to cause harm. ‘The law makes no sense,’ says Professor Nutt. ‘As a doctor, I can write prescriptions for heroin [a Schedule 2 drug], but I need a police check to allow me to hold psilocybin for research, even though heroin is a much more dangerous and sought-after substance.’
‘I FELT LIKE ME – BUT BETTER... I WAS DETERMINED, EXCITED, NOT SCARED’
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Speak to an enthusiastic microdoser like Rosalind, and her psychedelic schedule seems as innocent as your weekly HIIT regime but, lest we forget, many women are, knowingly, choosing to self-medicate with class A drugs. So does this mean microdosers are delving into the murky underworld of drug deals in menacing alleyways? Not quite. Rosalind got her hands on her hit (a drug almost identical in effect to LSD, called 1P-LSD) before it was criminalised under the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. After choosing a 10-pack of 100 microgram tabs for £30 on a website called Lizard Labs (since relocated to another part of the EU), she entered her card details and received a black vacuum-packed bag in the post a few days later, containing the tabs and some handy storage instructions (in the freezer, if you’re interested). Data from the Global Drug Survey shows that the number of people buying illegal drugs online in the UK has doubled since 2014. Lurk for long enough in the right threads of Reddit and you’ll find all sorts of purveyors of LSD and magic mushrooms ranked and reviewed in detail – even people flogging dedicated ‘microdosing kits’. Aside from legal issues, are there any other risks the growing microdosing community is choosing to ignore? Yes and no. Professor Nutt explains that, because your brain quickly develops a tolerance of psychedelic drugs, addiction is impossible. And when it comes to their ability to trigger a psychotic episode or a latent anxiety disorder, experts say that, while this is a legitimate risk of taking hallucinogens, there is no evidence of microdosing psychedelics having this effect, because you’re not reaching the level at which you’ll hallucinate. But Dr Ken Checinski, spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, wonders just how effectively people can measure a ‘micro’ dose. ‘LSD and psilocybin are street drugs, not pharmaceutical preparations, so it’s impossible to truly know what you’re getting,’ he says. ‘There’s a real fear that people could unwittingly take too much, induce a trip, and then the threat of psychosis becomes a concern.’ It’s also interesting to note that, while Dr Fadiman suggests microdosing for a month to gauge whether you feel the positive effects, he won’t be drawn on whether individuals who do that should then continue to use the drug. Some people call it a day after four weeks, happy to have dipped their toe, others repeat the process every few months, and then there are those who pretty much microdose permanently. Another issue Dr Checinski raises is that people will play doctor and turn to illegal substances instead of seeking ‘proper, evidence-based’ treatments from their GP. But Rosalind didn’t sack off the NHS in favour of her twice-weekly morning tab. Instead, she thinks microdosing made her more mindful in the doctor’s office as well as in front of her laptop and on her yoga mat. ‘The thought and care I took over ingesting a tiny amount of a substance made me question everything I put in my body,’ she explains. ‘Last month, I was prescribed antibiotics and immediately asked my GP what effect they would have on my mood.
‘YOU COULD INDUCE A TRIP, THEN THE THREAT OF PSYCHOSIS IS A CONCERN’
People who don’t understand the science might think that I’m risking my health by microdosing, but for me, it’s the opposite.’ Besides, says Dr Maloof, this shift towards me-first medicine is inevitable. She draws parallels between the present day and the heyday of psychedelics, the 1960s, when people combined the very real threat of global destruction with a taste for alternative living. She suggests that our growing appetite for psychedelics isn’t just about the drugs, but evidence that people no longer necessarily trust authorities to have the answers and are looking to define what healthy is – and how they get there – on their own terms. Is this a good or a bad thing? ‘Good question,’ Dr Maloof says. ‘But it’s happening regardless.’