Tag Archives: Tim Ferriss

Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (5)

A Brief Aside about Microdosing

A note to new readers: I have recently applied to be included in a Health-Canada-approved study into the use of psilocybin in the management of treatment-resistant depression (TRD). I have survived the first few stages of the screening process and I hope to join the study in a couple of months. I will share the experience with interested readers here. In the meantime, how I got to this point is the subject of this series of blog posts.

The continuing onslaught of absolutely bat-shit-crazy, apocalyptic-type news has probably driven almost every thinking person on the planet into a state of persistent anxiety and depression; such feelings are not exclusive to those of us with baseline life views that have more in common with Eeyore than Pollyanna. There are times when I almost envy people who seem to have found a new sense purpose and community in groups exchanging false information and conspiracy theories. (Kidding.)

These days, in short, most of us would probably welcome a magic pill that could, almost overnight, alleviate our depression and anxiety enough that we could stop doom-dithering and get on with the initiatives over which we do have some actual control. Such outcomes are, of course, among those promised by psychedelics. At times I find it beyond aggravating to know that such substances do exist, but that I am currently unable to access them.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts in this series, one significant barrier to seeking immediate relief through psychedelics is the illegality of their use outside of clinical settings. This doesn’t stop a lot of people from giving them a try, but it does raise concerns about quality control for those attempting to source such products. In my case, there is an additional constraint: the researchers conducting the study in which I believe I am now registered require that participants not use psychedelics for a year before their experimental doses.

If I were free of constraints and concerns about experimenting with psychedelics on my own, before I wrote this post I would likely have started with microdosing. For one thing, the effects produced by a microdose do not lead you to states of mind where you are wise to have a coach or therapist on hand (as I intend to do the first time I try a full dose). Microdosing is “the action or practice of taking or administering very small amounts of a drug in order to test or benefit from its physiological action while minimizing undesirable side effects” (Oxford Languages). In the case of psychedelics, microdosing involves taking doses of LSD or psilocybin that are so low that they are “sub-hallucinogenic,” which means that they do not interfere with the normal activities of daily life.

Microdosing usually involves taking approximately one tenth of a “trip-inducing” dose of a psychedelic drug, once every two or three days. Anecdotal evidence suggests that several such doses may be necessary before the benefits are felt.

I first heard about microdosing on one of the many podcasts now available on the subject of psychedelics. Tim Ferriss’s podcast series, for example, includes an episode entitled “Microdosing, Mind-Enhancing Methods, and More.” It is a recording (with transcript) of a 2019 conference session moderated by Ferriss in which panelists explored psychedelic science and a range of related topics, including “investing opportunities, anecdotal personal benefits, legal challenges, and much more.”

This recording is an excellent general introduction to the use of psychedelics in mental-health contexts. Panelists describe the positive outcomes shown by large doses of psilocybin in relation to end-of-life depression and anxiety, and to drug, alcohol and nicotine addiction. They also explain how psychedelics work on the brain and their effect on consciousness: in contrast to anaesthetics, which lead to a drop-off in brain activity, brains on psychedelics show an increase in the richness of their activity.

The session also featured the anecdotal experience of Ayelet Waldman, who microdosed LSD to treat her long-term, previously untreatable depression. Author of A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life (a promising title if ever I heard one!), Waldman defines microdosing with a psychedelic drug as taking just enough to have an effect on the metabolism without any perceptual effects.

Waldman microdosed LSD every three days for a period of thirty days. She says that within just a few hours of the first dose, she was paying more attention to the beauty of blossoms outside her window and she was feeling happier. After decades of depression, “That was an experience that was really mind-boggling,” she says. During the period of time she was microdosing, her general life satisfaction and productivity increased. Her account of the experience is interesting, and similar results have been recounted by thousands of other adults who have microdosed psychedelics.

However, the evidence in support of microdosing is largely anecdotal. Unlike with full doses, there is little clinical evidence so far to support users’ accounts of improvements to their mental health. In fact, a very recent article in the New York Times reports that some scientists have come to the conclusion that the benefits recounted by those who microdose are no different than those given a placebo.

Hope, Emily Dickinson tells us, is “the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – ” and it is a powerful counterbalance to depression. When it is absent, we feel as though all is lost, that everything is pointless. I suspect that hope plays a role in the similar outcomes reported among those who microdose psychedelics and those who think they are microdosing but are actually receiving a placebo. However, a study reported in the International Journal of Psychopharmacology suggests that hope is not enough to sustain the positive effects: twenty percent of those studied in their cohort stopped microdosing because they experienced no benefits at all.

With the way humanity seems to be self-destructing in every way imaginable, if there were clinical evidence that microdosing made people calmer, happier and more accepting of our differences, I’d start advocating for traces of psychedelics to be added to the water system. But then we’d have to worry about who was doing the dosing, and why. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the populace is given a soothing drug called “soma” to keep it docile. Sparknotes explains that “Soma is a drug that is handed out for free to all the citizens of the World State. In small doses, soma makes people feel good. In large doses, it creates pleasant hallucinations and a sense of timelessness.” Sound familiar?

Mary and the Mushroom: Psilocybin, Chronic Depression and Me (2)

A note to new readers: I have recently applied to be included in a Health-Canada-approved study into the use of psilocybin in the management of treatment-resistant depression (TRD). I have survived the first few stages of the screening process and I really hope to be admitted to the study. How I got to this point will be the subject of this series of blog posts. By the time I’ve written a few of them, I should have learned whether or not I am admitted to the study. If I am, I intend to share the experience with interested readers here.

From There to Here

Despite my normally adventurous (some would call it “foolhardy”) spirit (e.g., I’ve skydived… once. Never again… and travelled to India on my own), if I had seen an invitation to join a study into the use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression even five years ago, I might not have submitted an application. Then, I probably would have been worried that: 1) the treatment would do nothing, and I’d be further demoralized, and/or 2) (at the other end of the spectrum) my mind would change so much that I wouldn’t be “me” any more (specifically, that I wouldn’t feel the need to write any more), and/or 3) that my friends and family would disapprove.

It is not that my fears have gone away – in fact I’ve acquired some new ones since I first contacted the study administrators, and I intend to write a whole post about them when I get closer to the actual experience. But my knowledge about mind-altering substances has increased considerably in the past five years. This learning journey started in an effort to find a meditation program that was suited to my needs and I’m recounting that experience here not because I think other people should learn to meditate, but only to explain how for me, that investigation led me from where I was in regard to psychedelics to where I am now.

Several years ago, a person who is close to me said that he was giving serious attention to the practice of meditation, and he’d found it was giving him some relief from the uproar of the world in general and daily life in particular. He was telling me about it because he thought I might be interested. Even though many people I know have found meditation helpful – most notably my sister, who is actually a meditation guide – I have always resisted it. I used to say, “I’ll have time to sit and do nothing when I’m dead” (totally ignoring how much time I spend sitting and doing nothing even without meditation). But since I was deep in my blue ocean at the time, I decided to give it a shot. He’d been reading Dan Harris’s Ten Percent Happier so I started there as well: first with the book and then with the app, and I used the app fairly consistently for several months.

I loved a lot about Dan Harris’s wildly popular program (which thousands if not millions have found helpful) but I had some issues with it: the spiritual dimensions and something about the tone just weren’t right for me. I was grateful for the introduction to Joseph Goldstein and a few other leaders in the field, and I admired the “heart” and generosity at the foundation of Dan Harris’s meditation program. But I was not interested in becoming a buddhist or a saint, and I decided to investigate what else was out there. I tried Headspace for a while, then Calm.

In the meantime, I had become a regular listener to Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcasts. (Sam Harris is totally unrelated to Dan Harris, by the way.) I know there are people who love Sam Harris’s outlook and some who absolutely do not, but I have always appreciated his (usually) rational approach to issues, his intelligence, and his wide range of interests. I don’t always agree with him, but in recent years particularly, I have found him a reasonable and interesting voice in this increasingly distressing – and often downright frightening – world.

Sam Harris had often talked about meditation on his podcasts, but I’d mainly skimmed or skipped those until now. I went back and started listening to his interviews with others in the field (including Dan Harris and Joseph Goldstein), and I learned that Sam now had his own meditation app. Entitled Waking Up, it was pricey compared to other meditation apps, but it offered a lot of other resources I was interested in as well (more talks by interesting people on psychology, philosophy, etc.). I decided to give it a shot.

In the immortal words of Goldilocks, for me Waking Up turned out to be “just right.” It was not too mystical and “oogie-boogie” on the one hand; nor, on the other, was it too bare bones, intended only to relieve my daily stresses and help me learn how to fall asleep. It went deep and made demands of me. I now meditate several times a week and after quite a bit of practice, I’m finally getting the hang of it to the extent that I do feel better when I do it. I’m seeing the world in a new way, and the possibilities continue to intrigue me.

In the meantime, I continued listening to the Making Sense podcast. I realized that several of the guests Sam Harris interviewed, as well as Sam himself, had begun talking seriously about psychedelic experiences they’d had in the past and, as time went on, ones they’d had more recently. They frequently talked about these experiences in terms of what they had learned from meditating. By now I had a high degree of trust in Harris, and I found the guests he was talking to (Tim Ferriss and Michael Pollan, for example) equally sincere, intelligent and rational. I knew they were respected in their fields, and so my ears perked up when they started talking about recent findings regarding the use of psychedelics in the treatment of addiction, depression, and PTSD. They also reported that psychedelics were showing great promise in alleviating end-of-life fears among those with terminal illnesses, freeing them to more fully engage with the world in the time that they had left.

Of course, psychedelics are not available for therapeutic use in Canada, and many of Sam Harris’s guests had cautioned against using them without a knowledgeable and honest guide on hand (there are sleezeballs out there. More about that in another post). So, even though I found several places online where I could apparently order “magic” mushrooms or the spores to grow my own, I was not about to try something that could actually cause me damage.

Late last year – increasingly frustrated to know that they might help but that I could not access them – I began to look more seriously for someone in my geographic area who might be using psilocybin or other psychedelic substances for therapeutic purposes. When a close friend of ours was dying, someone suggested he check out a CTV W5 program on psychedelic healing. As it turned out, our friend didn’t need it (he was not afraid of dying), but I watched it carefully. Twice. I was amazed to learn that treatments using ketamine to treat depression are available in Canada and the U.S., and that clinics that combine ketamine dosing with psychotherapy are opening in many cities. Soon after that, with the support of my family, I registered to attend a ketamine clinic in Toronto.

Ketamine has been showing astonishing, almost overnight, results for people with depression – estimates of those finding relief after using it have been as high as 70%. As you may have noticed, suddenly this approach to treating PTSD and depression is being written about and broadcast everywhere. However, it wasn’t until after I had been accepted into the program that I started reading the scientific literature about ketamine, and a few weeks ago, before my treatment program had begun, I decided to withdraw.

I’ll write about ketamine next time.

P.S. I welcome your comments on this blog! Please note that I have settings that permit me to approve comments before they are posted (I went viral on another blog once, and I don’t really want to re-experience the downsides of that kind of attention again!) so your comments may not appear until the day after you have posted them.