The results were not what you’d think.
I’ve always been an anxious person, but it wasn’t until one night this summer when things took a turn for the unmanageable — and I blame my oven. On this particular evening I couldn’t stop asking my husband if the dinner he was cooking was burning, panicking whenever he left the kitchen and the electric demon inside it unattended. Later, I lay awake convinced the oven was still on. Just past 3 a.m., I tiptoed to the kitchen, checked the dial that said it was off, stuck my hand inside (just to be sure), climbed back in bed, and started researching psychologists.
Like many other anxious people in our country, I soon learned that our mental health system is severely broken. It was weeks before I was able to secure a consultation with someone and in that time, I experienced sucker punches to my serotonin levels in the form of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the unexpected death of a beloved uncle. I had no tools to cope with the rage and grief I was dealing with on top of the anxiety, so it was with relief that I entered into the appointment. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a common form of anxiety typified by persistent worrying over things that are out of proportion to the impact of the events, fear of making the wrong decision, and perceiving situations as threatening even when they are not.
His suggestion to me was regular talk therapy and to put me on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). I’ve been prescribed SSRIs for migraine maintenance in the past and, while I know they can be life-changing for many people, for me personally, I’ve found they make me feel dulled and removed from the world around me. I left the appointment feeling broken and lost.
Call it kismet, call it random chance, but a few days after that appointment a package arrived in the mail from my friend and Flora + Bast founder Derek Chase. He had reached out to tell me excitedly about a new venture of his with mushrooms called Psilouette. Thinking he was getting into the functional mushroom category, my grief-stricken brain didn’t probe too much further. Imagine my surprise when I opened the card to read all about my new psilocybin gummies.
Functional mushrooms — like reishi, lion’s mane, and chaga — are adaptogens with widely accepted health benefits but no hallucinogenic effects. “Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic found in all sorts of different species of fungi,” explains Vilmarie Fraguada Narloch, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and co-founder and director of the non-profit Sana Healing Collective in Chicago. In recent years, psilocybin has been gaining ground in the scientific community as a promising potential treatment for anxiety, depression, OCD, and addiction. “Psychedelics are a type of psychoactive drug that can change perception, mood, and cognitive processes [in the brain],” explains Fraguada Narloch.
While research is still ongoing, the running theory, she says, is that psychedelics impact what’s called the Default Mode Network. “That’s the intellectual part of yourself, or maybe the anxious part of yourself that’s running the show,” says Fraguada Narloch. “Essentially that gets turned down and other parts of yourself — emotions, other memories — have a chance to come up and be experienced, sometimes very literally and sometimes in a more symbolic way. And through that turning down, you’re able to explore parts of yourself that are otherwise shut off or being protected.”
Microdosing is the practice of taking a psychedelic substance in a dose that is too small to have any kind of hallucinogenic side effects, over an extended period of time — usually in a protocol of every other day or four days on and three days off. Macrodosing is taking a full dose of a psychedelic substance to experience a “trip,” complete with auditory and visual hallucinations. Explains Ellen Wong, a medicine journey guide, “Macrodosing is like literally opening the door wide and stepping fully into a whole new way of being and thinking. Microdosing is equally transformative, but in a quieter and more subtle way.”
All of this data sounds promising except for one teeny speed bump — psilocybin and its psychedelic sisters are classified as Schedule I drugs by the DEA. Psychedelic substances have ceremonial and medicinal roots in indigenous cultures that date back to the ancient world, however they didn’t become popular in the Western world until the ‘50s and ‘60s. The War on Drugs soon followed and with it came the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. In the ‘80s, executive and activist Rick Doblin, Ph.D, established Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), whose advocacy work has helped convince the government to grant approval to do clinical research into the potential for psychedelic treatment. “In the ‘90s, the FDA had to create a group to oversee and look at these different research protocols that were coming through,” says Fraguada Narloch. “Now we have research groups like Johns Hopkins exploring psilocybin and other psychedelics for therapeutic use.”
Legal Gray Area
Today, we’re experiencing a shift in the legal landscape around psychedelics as some states and cities move to either decriminalize or outright legalize certain psychedelic substances. What’s the difference? “Decriminalization is where a state [or municipality] says we are going to move this to a very low law enforcement priority status,” says Vince Sliwoski, Managing Partner at Harris Bricken LLP, a firm that specializes in controlled substances work. “It’s treated somewhere on the misdemeanor continuum, [meaning] you’ll get a citation that’s almost tantamount to getting a parking ticket. So you’re still doing something that breaks the law, but it’s no longer a criminal law.” Currently psilocybin is decriminalized in Denver (where I live), Washington D.C., and parts of California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington. It will be fully legal next year in Oregon and in Colorado in 2024.
Back to my own shrooming experience. Feeling a bit less anxious knowing that my gummies and I were existing in a sort of legal limbo instead of full on criminality, I set out to learn more about the actual psilocybin experience.
“When I work with people I always tell them that macro dosing is not a cure all,” says Wong. “You cannot expect to just pop a pill and have your troubles disappear. It’s so much more about the practices that you bring in — the inner work. You can’t expect to go and take this crazy trip out into the quantum dimension and then come back and be like ‘OK, that was that.’ There has to be something you bring back, that you take and put into your relationships and all aspects of your life.”
What you bring back is called integration, and it’s a core part of psychedelic-assisted therapy. “Integration is weaving in the lessons learned or the insights gained from a psychedelic experience,” says Fraguada Narloch. Journaling and meditation are two common examples of integration work.
Chase connected me with Cole Crawford Millette, a psychedelic integration coach and founder of The Work, who offered to help me on my journey to getting my anxiety under control.
In our first session, Crawford Millette informed me that our treatment protocol would focus on intention work (using a psychedelic substance with a clear experience or goal for yourself that you want to achieve) and what’s called dosage discovery. How doses are labeled can be a bit confusing, as I soon found out.
Some practitioners use the fruiting body (i.e. the actual mushroom) weight to dose, while others use the specific psilocybin content. Crawford Millette explained dosing to me in fruiting body weight. “A macro dose or a ceremonial dose of psilocybin is anywhere between three and up to six grams. Traditional microdosing is between 100 to 300 milligrams as the optimal dose.” If you were to convert that to psilocybin content, a macro dose is about 30-50 mg and a micro dose is 1-3 mg.
Predicting a dose with an actual mushroom is tricky because there is no way to test the psilocybin content of a mushroom at home. Not a huge deal for macro dosing but it can make a big difference when you’re microdosing and need to be precise. Chase is remedying that issue with Psilouette — the gummies are all tested in house and precisely dosed and labeled. They come in five variations: 0.25 mg (given during the consultation process), 0.5 mg, 1 mg, 2 mg, and 4 mg. “We realized that 2 mg is about the peak that people want for not really feeling it and the lower range is about 0.5 mg,” says Chase. “We made 0.25 mg, which functions as a find your dose pack because you can titrate up by 0.25 mg every time. The difference between 0.5 and 0.75 mg for some consumers can be a major difference. We want to give people more control to go up and down without huge swings.”
As I had never tried any psychedelics before, we decided that we would start me off at the lower end of the spectrum of microdosing with 1 mg, dosing every other day and titrating up by 0.25 mg to see how it affected me. It’s key to note that all of the scientific studies that have been done have focused on macro doses — the benefits associated with microdosing are anecdotal as it has not been studied enough in a clinical capacity to truly gauge its efficacy.
Crawford Millette would speak with me each week and curate some therapeutic exercises to practice. There was a risk of the psilocybin causing me to feel jittery, so she suggested I lay off the caffeine and take my dose in the morning along with some brain-boosting and calming supplements like l-theanine, GABA, and vitamin B3. Higher doses have been linked to feelings of upset stomach and nausea, so she also recommended I replace my morning coffee with ginger tea and that I take it on an empty stomach before my first bite of food.
I also added functional mushrooms into my rotation, courtesy of the incredibly delicious chocolates from buzzy new wellbeing brand Alice. I had heard functional mushrooms like lion’s mane described as the CBD to psilocybin’s THC — that is, non-psychoactive but still beneficial to your brain. Something Alice co-founder Lindsay Goodstein says is somewhat accurate. “Lion’s mane is a non-psychoactive mushroom that has great health benefits and it’s been proven for thousands of years,” she says. “It’s a great gateway to psilocybin because it’s a completely legal way to get the brain health and energy that people are seeking through microdosing psilocybin.
Putting the Psych in Psychedelics
On my first day of microdosing, I had already had my first session with Crawford Millette, who had provided me with some helpful therapeutic exercises to help ground me in the present and focus my mind not on the what if’s, but rather the what is. “Worry about the future is a common theme for my client base with anxiety,” says Crawford Millette. “The psilocybin in the brain brings you back to the here and now and plugs you into a more expansive perspective.” Coupled with some breathing exercises and journaling, I felt ready for my first dose.
The Psilouette gummies tasted pleasant — no earthy aftertaste or grittiness — and I didn’t experience any jitters or stomach issues. In fact, it took me a while to notice the key differences as it was a very gradual onset, but about an hour after my dose I realized I just felt good. Colors seemed brighter, people seemed nicer, and I was happier and more at peace than I’d felt in a very long time. I tried to meditate but I didn’t want to sit still, so I popped in my headphones and went on a walk in my neighborhood, smiling as I bopped along to the beat of my music.
Apparently that euphoric feeling is a common sensation for many first timers: Notes Wong, “I remember my very first microdose, I walked around through downtown Los Angeles just completely at peace with all the chaos happening around me. I found everything to be beautiful and interesting, which is a complete 180 from how I normally feel walking through downtown.”
My euphoria and contentment wore off after a few hours, but I thought about how inspired I was by the world around me and at peace with myself I had felt for many hours later. Typically I spend my time agonizing over decisions — either ones I have yet to make or ones I have made that I am worried I made the wrong call on and are now going to haunt my personal and professional life in perpetuity. It’s not a fun way to inhabit one’s mind and the possibility of training my brain to not obsess over these what ifs so that I could feel, if not carefree, then perhaps care a little less, was a different kind of intoxicating.
I increased my doses dutifully over the next few days, finally finding that my maximum threshold was 2.5 mg. Every session that I worked with Crawford Millette brought more to the surface that helped me understand not only why I was feeling and acting the way I was, but working on practical exercises to help me in the moment when I felt anxious or hurt. I had some incredible breakthroughs, some very difficult conversations with important people in my life, some uncomfortable realizations, and a lot of tears.
I’ve been microdosing for almost two months now and will be coming to the end of my mushroom journey soon…at least for now. As Crawford Millette notes, many psychedelic therapists recommend a three months on, one month off schedule for microdosing as “the body can build up a tolerance over the course of time, so you want to give yourself a break,” she says. “But also, it’s to see what has stuck, in a sort of reverse feedback. With this time off, you can see your progress independently of the substance. The purpose of microdosing is not necessarily to microdose for the rest of your life and become dependent on your microdoses, which is the big difference between pharmacological intervention.”
For those seeking out microdosing experiences, the path is not an easy one — especially if you don’t live somewhere that has decriminalized psilocybin. There are still very real consequences for possessing even personal amounts, as one nurse in Indiana found out recently when she lost her job and was sentenced to 18 months in jail for microdosing. “It really shines a light on no matter how trendy these practices are becoming, there are still real legal consequences to people who choose to engage with substances that are federally illegal,” notes Adriana Kertzer, a founding partner at Plant Medicine Law Group, a corporate law firm which specializes in corporate services for infrastructure psychedelic companies and cannabis companies.
You can talk to a therapist about microdosing, but they will typically speak to you about it through the lens of harm reduction, meaning they are able to give advice that focuses on reducing the negative consequences of using that substance. “Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean your therapist can’t talk to you about it,” explains Brooke Balliett, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist, psychedelic therapist, researcher, and co-founder at the California Center for Psychedelic Therapy. “There are very clear lines about when a therapist needs to share with the authorities or a hospital that something might be dangerous and choosing to use a drug consciously, even an illegal drug, is not one of those scenarios.”
If you are choosing to get help from someone who is outside of a regulated system, says Sara Gael, MA, LPC, a harm reduction officer and sub-investigator for MAPS MDMA assisted therapy clinical trials, do your research on the person’s background with the medicine and don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. “All medicines, even synthesized medicines, have a lineage,” she says. “Ask them about their mentor, because this work is taught through mentorship, so if somebody doesn’t have teachers that they’ve worked with, that’s a potential issue because they don’t have someone holding them accountable.” For those that choose to self administer, Fraguada Narloch notes that you also need to be aware of what is called your set and setting. “Your own mood or mindset, sort of what you bring to the experience is considered the set,” she explains. “And the setting is where you’re going to use it, who you’re with, if you have good music on.” If you find yourself having a bad trip or just need someone to talk to about any of the revelations that came up during your trip, there is a peer-supported hotline called the Fireside Project that you can call to talk you through your experience.
The big question: Did microdosing cure my anxiety? I wish. I still am anxious and I still have to force myself to consciously not people please at every opportunity. But I’m also learning to find positive motivation that quiets the voice in my head that is constantly telling me everything is going to go terribly wrong. With every microdose and integration session, I’m slowly training my brain to think differently. And, I’ve even managed to call a tentative truce with my oven.