Microdosing for mental health

Groovy psychedelic background. Vector illustration.
U.S. veterans are using psilocybin found in mushrooms as an alternative to medication. Illustration by Edgar Galvan and Geovanni Esparza

Moliòn Kamauali, a computer science major, served in Iraq and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2016. Kamauali endured many stressors and injuries while in the military. Back at home, Kamauali developed insomnia due to his PTSD and sleep apnea from poor health.

Some of the prescribed medications that Kamauali used helped him, but he wanted to go more holistic after not liking some of the side effects. After doing some research, he decided to self-medicate on psychedelic mushrooms.

“I’m happy with where I’m in my life now,” Kamauali says of his experience with psychedelics. “I’m coping with my mental health. I’ve learned a lot about myself and accepted it and learned how to maintain and be mindful.”

Kamauali is part of a growing number of veterans who have been self-medicating with psychedelics to help treat their mental health by using psilocybin, a chemical found in some mushrooms.

Microdosing on psychedelics involves taking a small amount of the drug to get some benefits but without the effects of hallucination. This is different from taking a so-called “heroic dose” which involves someone taking five grams or more of psilocybin mushrooms.

Many people who try this dosage may experience an out-of-body experience, a loss in sense of time, or stronger hallucinations. Those individuals say they microdose to have mental clarity that can’t be achieved with regular antidepressants.

Recent studies conducted by the Veterans Affairs and at universities such as Cornell and Johns Hopkins University are showing early signs of the mental health benefits of psychedelic treatments for people with PTSD, anxiety and depression.

Studies conducted on mice at Cornell showed the mice had growth in neural connections. People with depression are found to have a reduction in neural connections.

“The fact that this drug can allow for growth of new connections can maybe be one way that it works,” said Dr. Alex Kwan, a lead researcher in psychedelics at Cornell University.

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Taking antidepressants can be trial and error for many people before they find the right one.

“If that doesn’t work along with therapy, then we might want to try the mushroom, the psilocybin, or something else,” said Ellen Lee, a professor at California State University, Fullerton who taught a class called Drugs and Society in the Public Health Department.

Kamauli has since stopped microdosing on mushrooms because psilocybin mushrooms are considered a Schedule 1 drug-deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit.

Oregon and the city of Oakland, CA, have both legalized psilocybin for therapeutic use, but in Australia, psilocybin has already been allowed to treat people with depression and PTSD. Here in the U.S. Veterans Affairs re-launched clinical trials with psychedelics last year after a 60-year hiatus; however, wider testing has been difficult due to their scheduling.

Before there can be any change in the scheduling of drugs and access to certain psychedelics, more research still needs to be conducted for the government to recognize the medical benefits. Researchers like Kwan hope to create a drug safe to treat people without the adverse effects of psychedelic drugs.

“I think there is a lot of room to improve and to engineer better chemicals based on what we know right now… but we need to learn more about the neurobiology that will give us rational ways to engineer manageable drugs,” said Dr. Kwan.

Until then, vets like Kamauali who don’t want to take antidepressants will have to wait for medical research and legal changes to catch up with their experiences of helpful psychedelics.

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