Gwyneth Paltrow has always seen herself as something of a bellwether in the world of wellness. As far back as 2004, Paltrow introduced the world to the ancient Asian art of cupping when she showed off the telltale circular bruises on her upper back at a New York premiere.
Since then – mostly via her wellness website, Goop – she’s bought us vaginal steaming, conscious uncoupling and even once claimed that nobody would have heard of yoga if it wasn’t for her.
Continuing with her theme, in a recent interview with the New York Times, Paltrow said: “When we [Goop] talk about something incendiary, I always see in six months other people starting to write about it, and 18 months later, businesses popping up around it.”
So, what’s the next gluten-free or conscious uncoupling, asked her interviewer? “I think how psychedelics affect health and mental health and addiction will come more into the mainstream,” she replied.
Paltrow’s comments follow a new study on rats from the University of California that found evidence that small doses of hallucinogenic drugs could have therapeutic benefits, including a reduction in the symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD and pain. Microdosing LSD has been used for a while among a growing number of Silicon Valley professionals who claim that taking it in small doses offers a “productivity hack”, making them sharper, more creative and less stressed.
One of Silicon Valley’s biggest stars – the late Steve Jobs, creator of the iPhone – once said that taking LSD was “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life”. He went on to say that Bill Gates, his biggest tech rival, would have been “a broader guy if he had dropped acid”.
Microdosing involves taking a 10th of the recreational dose of psychedelic drugs such as LSD (which is the most commonly microdosed drug) and psilocybin, more widely known as magic mushrooms.
Its proponents say that, while a regular dose of LSD can powerfully alter your mood and cognitive processes, and cause hallucinations, small doses can heighten alertness and creativity and can help with things such as stress, anxiety and even PMT.
Or in the words of Countess Amanda Feilding: “Microdosing just adds a little sparkle. It loosens your state of consciousness a little, but not to the point it’s perceptible. It’s like a psychedelic vitamin.”
Lady Feilding is the Countess of Wemyss and March, and in 1998 she founded the Beckley Foundation, a charitable trust that promotes drug policy reform. Feilding was introduced to LSD in 1965 – before it had been criminalised – and says: “I was studying comparative religion and mysticism and found LSD fascinating. Then I realised, at a lower dose, it could improve mood health, thinking and creativity. It became a major interest of mine, especially its potential to be used in a very low non-toxic dose.”
However, in 1966, LSD was made illegal in the UK and in the United States.
“Ayelet Waldman, the American novelist who at the time was a magistrate who had never broken the law, told me when I met her that she had become quite depressed and had writer’s block,” says Feilding. “She discovered microdosing, and within a month wrote her bestselling book, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life.” In it, she talks of putting 10 micrograms of acid under her tongue every three days for a month.
“The US, in particular California, is very interested in microdosing right now,” says Feilding. “It’s particularly caught on in Silicon Valley, the thinking powerhouse of the world. They’re very forward-thinking with their health and interested in peak performance, and I know several high-up people who have taken up microdosing quite enthusiastically. These are people behind some of the big breakthroughs of our time.”
She won’t name them, of course, because microdosing is still illegal. However, LSD is about to enter more scientific trials to see if there is any evidence whether its medical effectiveness, displayed during the 50s and 60s, holds true today against the more rigorous standards of modern science.
“We’re currently studying psilocybin [magic mushrooms] for depression,” says clinical psychologist Rosalind Watts, who works for the psychedelic research group at Imperial College London. “In the last study, with a small sample size, we saw a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. We are now in the middle of a larger study, comparing psilocybin to antidepressant medication.
“Microdosing is interesting, but there haven’t been many scientific studies yet. A ‘self-blinding’ microdosing study (part of the Imperial Beckley research programme) is under way, where voluntary participants who are currently or planning to start microdosing with LSD track their own progress. It will be a while before robust scientific evidence can shed more definitive light on microdosing. Until then, it’s too early to say. But the model for microdosing has potential for creative mood management, PMT, anxiety and a whole host of things.
“One of the interesting things with psychedelics is they may work on something much deeper down. In other words, mental health problems – from eating disorders to depression – may share similar roots. We hear sufferers feel disconnected from other people and the world around them and psychedelics may help with that disconnect. But we need studies to answer those questions.
“However, research into psychedelics ground to a halt in the 60s. Psychedelics showed promise as therapeutic treatments in the 50s but soon became tarnished due to a number of factors, including irresponsible recreational use. Hopefully, this is starting to change now, thanks to a new wave of modern psychedelic research which in the UK was spearheaded by Amanda Feilding, and my colleagues at Imperial, David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris.”
However, Watts says that LSD and other psychedelics can be unsafe in an unsafe setting or where the purity of the drug isn’t known, or if they’re taken alongside other drugs or alcohol. During trials, she sits with study participants during their trips, as they can elicit very strong emotions.
“These emotions can be beneficial in a therapeutic context but could be frightening and counterproductive otherwise,” she adds.
Feilding’s trial is about to test 25 volunteers who will take microdoses of LSD, fill in psychological questionnaires and play the Go. “It’s a no-luck Chinese board game involving pattern recognition,” she says, “and I’ve found that it [LSD] has improved my playing of Go over the years.
“However, much more research is needed on the effects of LSD, and hopefully this study will start the conversation again.”
The highs and lows of psychedelic therapy
“I’d taken psychedelics in a recreational way in my teens and early 20s, but in my late 30s I began to read about the trials looking into psilocybin for depression and other mental health issues. I’m a health journalist so I did my research, and, while I wasn’t depressed as such, I was at a low point and feeling stuck. I felt a psychedelic experience might shift me. I got hold of the mushrooms from a friend and took them in a quiet, calm setting – in my living room, with a friend sitting with me – which was a totally different experience to taking them at a party, as I had when younger. I got huge visions and had some important messages about my life. It was challenging at times, but I felt amazing afterwards – trusting, peaceful and confident. It was like a reset. So I decided to microdose to maintain some of the effects. That’s very different – you don’t get any visions – but it definitely boosts my mood and makes me calmer and more creative.”