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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Can microdosing magic mushrooms help you quit drinking?

It’s January, which means it’s time for “new year, new me” related guilt and anxiety. This year, the enforced lethargy of the pandemic is finally starting to feel like it’s behind us, and this cautious optimism might explain why more people are doing Dry January in 2022. According to Alcohol Change UK, one in six UK adults planned to do Dry January this year, a 22% increase compared to 2021. Given that increased drinking and instances of alcohol dependency rose during the height of the pandemic, it’s perhaps not surprising that people are choosing to cut down now. While apps like Try Dry and an ever-growing market of non-horrible alcohol-free craft beers might make sobriety easier for many, some people are trying an alternative technique: microdosing psilocybin (magic mushrooms) to help them abstain from booze. 

The scientific evidence that psilocybin can help people kick bad habits and addictions is compelling. Two studies by Johns Hopkins University found that just two full doses of psilocybin (that is, enough of a dose to produce the full-blown psychedelic effects of a trip) administered on separate occasions under close observation in a lab were enough to help both smokers and people with alcohol dependency to overcome their addictions. Out of 343 people involved in the latter study, 83% no longer met the criteria for alcohol dependency after taking part. 

But when it comes to microdosing, there are currently no scientific studies relating to addiction or habitual behaviour. This is partly down to the difficulties still surrounding psychedelic research — in order to accurately study the effects of microdosing, participants would need to microdose within their usual routine and while going about their usual daily activities, which raises a whole host of ethical, legal and safety concerns for researchers. But within the psychedelic community, microdosing is lauded as an extremely useful tool for overcoming negative behaviours, including excessive drinking. 

“I began microdosing last week of February and quit drinking first week of April, have not had a drink since…”

On Reddit forum r/microdosing, which has over 184K users, advocates discuss how the practice has helped them to kick unwanted habits, up to and including problematic drinking and alcoholism. “I began microdosing last week of February and quit drinking first week of April, have not had a drink since… microdosing has definitely been a huge contributing factor,” writes one user. Another said: “Compared to when I started I’d estimate my alcohol consumption is down 90%.” 

When I embarked upon Dry January this year, I hoped that microdosing would help. I’ve been doing it on and off for the past year, but since the start of 2022 have been keeping a more careful record of my microdosing, including journaling how I feel on the days that I microdose (I do so every third day, microdosing every day is not recommended as your body can build a resistance). I’m currently 10 days without a drink (which is the longest I’ve gone without booze in probably 10 years), and I feel great. I’m more clear-headed, more energetic and more creative. These are all effects that I’ve noticed in the past from microdosing while I was still drinking. Perhaps now, the two are working in harmony: microdosing plus a lack of alcohol are coming together to improve my mood, and as I’m in a better frame of mind overall, staying sober is easier.

Michelle Janikian, author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, agrees that microdosing can be beneficial for its subtle mood-enhancing effects, but shouldn’t be thought of as a magic solution. “I’ve had a fan reach out to me on Instagram recently and say that she’s been microdosing to try to stop doing cocaine,” Michelle tells me over Zoom from her home in southern Mexico. “She said she was microdosing and still doing coke every weekend. I really didn’t know what to say to her because, you know, it doesn’t really work like that. Microdosing can be a tool, but you have to come to it with the right intentions; you have to want to change your behaviours. Microdosing can definitely help, but it won’t fix your problems for you.”

“Microdosing helps me to remember why I cut down in the first place” 

Tom, who is using an alias, had been binge drinking (defined by the NHS as more than eight units in a session) several times a week to deal with his high-stress job. Six months ago, he took a full dose of psilocybin and has since followed this experience with regular careful microdosing. He now rarely drinks in the week and drinks far less than he used to at weekends. “The initial trip was really intense and made me realise I was drinking largely out of boredom more than stress,” he explained. “It was like my brain had two modes: totally stressed or bored. Like I’d forgotten how to be on a scale in between. So I was drinking to attain some kind of other mood.” Once he’d had this realisation, drinking lost its appeal. By microdosing, Tom feels he can more easily keep that experience in mind, and maintain the good intentions he set after his initial trip. “I don’t know if it’s a placebo effect or what, but microdosing helps me to remember why I cut down in the first place.” 

Psilocybin, like other psychedelic drugs, is understood to be a useful way to unlock introspection and to access thought processes that we might not have understood before. It’s even being used successfully as an aid to therapy to help people suffering from severe trauma to delve deeper into their subconscious — with striking results. Small doses then, too small to be felt on a conscious level, could be enough to subtly impact how the brain deals with everyday challenges: from a creative problem at work to resisting the urge to hit the pub hard at 6pm. 

Michelle pointed out that one of the benefits of microdosing is that it can be a great tool for improving self-awareness. “Journaling alongside microdosing is good. Just taking that time to check in with yourself and take notice of how you’re feeling. You have to do that talking with yourself, to figure out why you do certain things.” 

“When it comes to overcoming addictions, there is never a magic solution,” clinical psychologist Dr Stephanie Hicks tells me. “Be clear about why you want to make this change and remind yourself of this when it feels like more of a struggle. Spend time noticing what draws you back to old habits and work out new ways to manage these situations. You may not find a solution immediately — it’s about using trial and error to discover what works for you.” 

So while microdosing won’t necessarily make Dry January (or a dry 2022 and beyond) straightforward, it might help us to remember why we wanted to change our habits in the first place. And this greater self-awareness, in turn, may help us to create positive change. 

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