story by NICOLE CHRISTENSEN illustrations by MADALYN STACK

Editor’s Note: Substances mentioned within this piece are considered illegal and, for this reason, certain names have been changed in order to maintain anonymity.

Phoebe (not her real name) microdoses LSD at least once a month, in a way that’s scheduled, regular and ritualistic. She doesn’t feel the need to do so every day. She checks in with herself and sets intentions on what she wants to accomplish on her trip. She likes to microdose in a positive atmosphere, which she describes as during the day, out in nature or in a comfortable environment, with close friends.

Scientifically, microdosing is usually defined as less than 1% of a dose where someone would see a response, so the doses are much lower than ones for any kind of recreational use, said Blairanne Williams, an assistant professor in chemistry at WKU with a background in molecular neuroscience.

“I define microdosing as taking a smaller dose that isn’t necessarily going to fully bring you into a psychedelic experience but more brings you into awareness with yourself,” said Phoebe, a sophomore at WKU.

She meditates into the trip to help ground herself, listening to resonating sounds from Taos Wind Spirits Music on YouTube. While tripping, she engages in activities that offer healing and mind-body connections. This helps her concentrate on what she is doing as she focuses on her thoughts. Afterwards, she uses a journal to help her become more aware of the emotions and self-discoveries she experienced while microdosing.

She has been experimenting with psychedelics for roughly four years and always found it to be a mentally healing experience for her but only started microdosing in the last year.

Phoebe has bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and anxiety and has been on her mental health journey since she was 17 years old. She is in therapy and has been trying different medications to find one that works for her, which she said has taken a mental toll on her sanity, so she did research into other methods that could help her mental health. She uses microdosing as a fresh start for her brain.

“I knew I needed to try something else because I could feel all of the negative energy and stagnancy in my thoughts that I felt like I could not overcome my own self,” Phoebe said. “I basically just wanted to try something that was a little bit more on the natural side of healing.”

The idea of holistic medicine and increased allowance in marijuana for medicinal purposes has played into the popularity of microdosing, Williams said. In the U.S., there are several holistic medicines used for natural healing, like salt caves, candles and essential oils. The popularity of these items is largely driven by women, Williams said.

“There’s a lot of things out there that we are searching for that for some reason there’s some sort of gap in our medical care that people are going elsewhere for things,” Williams said. “I have heard it said that that sort of holistic approach is really driven by the fact that medicine in the United States ignores women’s pain.”

Williams said she thinks there will always be a part of the population that looks for pleasure in places other than what would generally be considered as “typical.”

Phoebe said whenever she was taking a full dose, which she defined as 1 tablet of LSD or 2 grams of psychedelic mushrooms, it was more for fun. She said she was still experiencing and learning a lot about herself, but it was challenging to hone in on exactly what she learned afterwards. She said microdosing is different.

“It helps you dabble in a psychedelic experience without fully engaging in one,” Phoebe said. “This helps me break out of negative habits and thought patterns and helps me bring awareness to how I think and where my thoughts can stem from.”

She said sometimes that self-knowledge can be hard to accept, like when it is rooted in childhood trauma, from emotional abuse to sexual trauma, which she has experienced.

“Microdosing has helped me come to terms with what has happened to me and also allows me to take in that energy and allow myself to heal from it,” Phoebe said.

April (not her real name), a WKU junior, tried microdosing mushrooms for 10 days over the summer of 2020 while feeling lonely during quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I kinda, like, fell into a hole,” April said, “I think the rest of the world fell into a fucking hole,”

April struggles with PTSD, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She heard about microdosing in the summer of 2019 from a friend who read an article on Snapchat about it.

April took psychedelic mushrooms before summer 2020, but it had been 3.5 grams. Knowing this information, she settled on a smaller dosage of 1 gram.

“When I took the gram, you can kinda feel it but not enough to notice it,” April said. “You would have to sit there and remind yourself and make yourself conscious of it.”

April said she saw the world in a high-definition way, as if any setting held the same colorful vibrancy as a bright, sunny day, but not in an aggressive way.

“And you’re just like, ‘Oh wow, shit doesn’t really suck,’” April said. “It really gives you a different perspective on things.”

She felt the energy to be aware and focus on things, and negative thoughts rolled off her like water off a duck’s back, she said.

Williams said she does not think there is any science that concretely shows the benefits of microdosing at this point, calling it “a big black box” of unknowns, where one can see the inputs and outputs but not the complex inner process. Microdosing hit the scene in the last 10 years or so, and Williams said she considers it to be a fad at this point.

“I guess the fad behind it is that it’s supposed to help with creativity and mood and just lift people’s spirits,” Williams said. “There is actually very little evidence out of the small amount of evidence that there is any significance to that.”

April does not really consider microdosing to be a trend, since people have been self-medicating with substances for years, but she said the internet makes it look like a trend by putting it more on display.

“When I think of microdosing, I think of smoking weed,” April said. “It’s very similar in the ways that people medicate with weed because if you know the right people, it’s far more accessible, and also it’s super easy to kinda go off the path and abuse it or take way too much.”

April talked to her therapist about her microdosing mushrooms, to which her therapist said it was illegal and was causing a financial burden for April. Her psychiatrist soon started her on Prozac, a medication commonly used to treat depression and OCD.

“Emotionally, the Prozac levels you out, but the thing I miss from the shrooms is just how much more appealing things were visually,” April said. “Like yeah, it feels OK, but it made life look OK too.”

Michael (not his real name) is a 30-year-old WKU alumnus and recovering alcoholic who has not taken psychedelics for a few years. The first time he did LSD was on WKU’s campus in the Valley, and he did not just take one tablet. He took 13.

“When I did dose, I overdosed, all the time,” Michael said. “If I knew what one could do, I would always wonder what 10 would do.”

Michael said he had never thought of taking one dose and cutting it into smaller doses, and he said that it sounded really new. He thought those who microdose are not going for the same effect as those who take larger doses.

“Anyone I’ve come across or have taken psychedelics with, it’s been for that over the edge effect, that I want to see a whole other world,” Michael said. “I don’t want to see this world differently, I want to see a whole other world, so microdosing seems very trippy to me.”

He said microdosing could be a useful tool in a clinical setting, but it needs to be taken seriously.

“There’s still that chance for more people to take it too far,” Michael said.

Michael used hallucinogens because he did not feel good about himself and wanted to change that. He said if people have that disposition, it may be a bad idea for them, as opposed to someone who is more clear-minded. He said it depends on the person, not the product.

“At this point in my life, I don’t condone any type of drug use unless it’s completely necessary and administered by a doctor,” Michael said. “I just can’t condone that mindset for myself or anyone else.”

Williams said people tend to microdose substances that activate serotonin receptors, and psychedelics such as mushrooms, LSD and DMT are all considered to be schedule one drugs, which means that they have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Dosing in and of itself is not well-defined for any of these drugs,” Williams said. “The problem with that is that these substances we are talking about are class one substances, so they are really strictly controlled, and so most of the data that is out there is limited on what those doses are.”

Farley Norman, a distinguished professor of psychological sciences at WKU who has taught a course on psychopharmacology since spring 2015, said he has heard of the term microdosing for the past few years, but he doesn’t know anything about the efficacy of microdoses. He said he believes that, while there are studies that show beneficial effects at a typical dose, no one knows if hallucinogens will still be effective after diluting the concentration to something much smaller.

“Literally, micro refers to one millionth of something, so a microdose would be one millionth of a typical dose, but that would be so small one wonders whether there would be any effect at all, but maybe there could be,” Norman said with a chuckle.

He said it would be nice to know how small the dose actually would be in a microdose.

“I don’t think anyone knows about how effective these small doses are, but there is definitely a whole lot known about the psychological effects of typical doses that recreational users use,” Norman said.

“Of course, I can’t advocate for anyone to take an illegal substance, yet, on the other hand, it’s perfectly acceptable to look at the science and scientific results that have been obtained for hallucinogens, and the science is pretty clear.”

- Farley Norman

The problem with the studies that do exist is there has to be blinding in the experiment for both the researcher and the person taking the drug, so they are not aware if the drug administered is the real hallucinogen or a placebo. There is a risk of having the study showing a false, beneficial effect if this blinding does not occur, Williams said.

There are many variables that come into play when it comes to studying drugs, from someone’s neurological disorders to the legitimacy and concentration of active substances in the drug. Williams said the dosage of the drug needs to be controlled in a study, including how much and how often it is administered. The dosage level that it takes to feel effects varies from person to person.

“There’s a lack of consistency across all the data — all aspects of the data — and so I think that’s a huge issue,” Williams said.

Williams said the brain is, in a lot of ways, the last scientific frontier since it is very complicated, and there is a lot of interest in psychedelics and how they function in the brain.

“I definitely think it’s a place for study,” Williams said. “I just think people are probably going to start with a dosage you see a response for before they back up to microdoses.”

Norman believes the science for typical doses is well-known and understood.

“Of course, I can’t advocate for anyone to take an illegal substance, yet, on the other hand, it’s perfectly acceptable to look at the science and scientific results that have been obtained for hallucinogens, and the science is pretty clear,” Norman said.

There were some important studies in the U.S. done in the 1960s, but a lot of the recent studies have taken place in Europe, Norman said. The studies appear to show beneficial effects from help with psychological issues from post-traumatic stress disorder and OCD to a decreased rate of alcohol abuse.

“These aren’t speculations,” Norman said. “These are a whole bunch of scientific studies published in quality scientific journals that show that hallucinogens, whether psilocybin or LSD, appear to be effective in treating a wide variety of conditions, which we certainly want treatments for.”

Norman showed a variety of studies, and pointed out one titled “Classic Psychedelic Use is Associated with Reduced Psychological Stress and Suicidality.”

“I’m particularly impressed by the suicidality results. That seems incredible,” Norman said. “If someone really is about to kill themselves, if that could be prevented by a safe and cheap substance, one would think that would be a great thing to do.”

In the data, Norman said almost all of the drugs people tend to abuse recreationally, from cocaine to pain relievers, are associated with increased suicidality, while hallucinogens are the only drugs associated with a decrease in suicidality. The study’s results seem to indicate that hallucinogens seem to behave very differently than other drugs people use recreationally when it comes to psychological health and well-being.

Classic hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin are very simple in how the drug works on the brain, in what is called “the drug’s mechanism of action,” Norman said. They specifically activate the serotonin 2A receptor.

The serotonin 2A receptor’s role in the brain can be studied by administering a drug that activates the receptor and watching for changes in behavior and mental function, Norman said.

Given the mental experiences that people have taking hallucinogens, there must be a lot of serotonin 2A receptors in the parts of the cerebral cortex responsible for perception because when someone takes at least a typical dose of a hallucinogen, they have visual experiences, Norman said.

In studying this reaction, it shows that serotonin itself, the normal neurotransmitter, has something to do with visual perception.

“But then you wonder, if that’s the case, then why do hallucinogens have such a beneficial effect on something like suicidality, OCD, or how does it alleviate depression?” Norman said. “The results with regard to hallucinogens seem pretty consistent from study to study, and the beneficial effects seem rather widespread and not limited to even just a particular disorder.”

Most studies in the last 10 years have data that all seem to agree with apparent scientific findings that seem to be associated with reduction in symptoms in many types of psychological and mental disorders.

Some of the papers have determined hallucinogens are not just effective but are also safe, which Norman said should be important for people to evaluate as policies are developed on drug legality and use.

“Being a scientist myself, I tend to value science and hope that the general public and government will listen to scientific results when making policy, so the science is there, but it does take time to develop appropriate policy, ” Norman said. “I think, as time goes by and as more of these studies are published, I think we might think that the science ultimately will make a difference.”