TRIP HAZ­ARD

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - words ROISĹN DERVISH-O’KANE pho­tog­ra­phy PAVEL DORNAK

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.

PEAK PER­FOR­MANCE

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.

MEN­TAL HELP

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.’

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