Psychedelics and Sleep: The Promise of Microdosing LSD and Psilocybin

This article is adapted from a chapter in my book, Make Sleep Your Superpower. This text has been revised and updated to include the latest research and additional context.

When sleep won’t come in this era of pervasive anxiety and exhaustion, it’s tempting to turn to any number of promising sleep aids. But the majority of options — from herbal supplements to sleeping pills — range from unproven to ineffective to outright dangerous. Meanwhile, scientists are looking into tiny doses of psychedelics — the stuff of the 1960s hippie movement and ’80s raves — to see if they might help insomniacs and others who struggle with sleep.

While the research remains far from conclusive, psychedelics do show some preliminary promise.

Let’s first understand what we’re talking about. Stimulants amp you up. Depressants wind you down. Psychedelics, also called hallucinogens, cause fundamental shifts in how the brain processes information.

Psychedelics are a class of psychoactive substances commonly touted for their potential to treat mental illness and other conditions. Examples include LSD and psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms) and MDMA (also called Molly or ecstasy, depending on how it’s formulated). Microdosing these drugs is increasingly popular, whether done legally or not. It involves taking a “sub-perceptual dose,” an amount smaller than the hippies might’ve tripped on back in the day.

The drugs are also experiencing a renaissance of interest by scientists seeking to discover potential uses, corporations hoping to capitalize on the commercial possibilities, and the adventurous public, particularly younger people. Among U.S. adults 18–30, past-year use jumped from 3% in 2011 to 8% in 2022.

Hallucinogenic effects can be powerful, and long-lasting.

“Psychedelic experiences change the way you see yourself and how you see the world,” explains Neşe Deveno, a University of Cincinnati researcher and expert on the drug’s medical possibilities. “Psychedelics have the potential to increase intellectual humility — to support people in realizing that some of their assumptions might not be as true as they thought they were.” But, Deveno said, there’s not enough research yet to draw any firm conclusions on the countless claims for psychedelics as blockbuster treatments. “I’m excited about the possibilities, but a lot can go wrong if patients are not supported in an evidence-based way.”

Researchers face considerable challenges, however. Psilocybin is currently classified by the U.S. government as a Schedule I drug, defined as a controlled substance having no accepted medical use and a high risk for abuse.

There are signs that classification won’t hold for long. A survey of psychiatrists, published in 2022, rated psilocybin as having high therapeutic potential and very low potential for misuse. There are moves in several states to increase scientific study of psilocybin and other psychedelics and lift legal hurdles to research and patient use, so the whole field is in a state of tremendous flux.

Compelling but inconclusive research

Much of the promise around microdosing involves lessening symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. Improving those conditions, it’s logical to assume, could help people sleep better, and there’s some evidence this can work.

Results of a 2022 clinical trial, for example, hint at the tremendous potential for psilocybin for addiction treatment. (Stay with me here, as this is relevant.)

Study participants were all heavy drinkers and all underwent psychotherapy along with two trips on psilocybin or a non-trip on a placebo. This was not microdosing, however. These were full-on “mystical, dreamlike journeys.”

Eight months later, almost half the psilocybin group had stopped drinking, compared to about a fourth of the placebo group. While that’s got nothing to do directly with sleeping, cutting back or eliminating alcohol is, for those who drink heavily, about the best sleep aid they could ask for. And, yes, better sleep leads to healthier daytime behaviors and moods, potentially reducing the need for that next drink.

The flip side to all this is also possibly true: Psychedelic trips, or microdosing, might improve sleep, which can improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Much to learn before these relationships can be determined.

Meanwhile, there’s much less research on the direct effects of microdosing for sleep.

One randomized controlled trial, in 2023, suggested some direct benefit. The study, said by the researchers to be the first to rigorously examine the effects of microdosing on sleep, has not been peer-reviewed, however, so the results should be considered preliminary. In the trial, 80 healthy men microdosed either LSD or a placebo (they did not know which they were getting) every three days for six weeks. Sleep trackers found that those taking LSD slept 24.3 minutes longer — not on the night of the dosing day, but on the next night.

“These results show clear modification of the physiological sleep requirements in healthy volunteers who microdose, and may have implications for the proposed therapeutic effects of microdosing in mood disorders such as major depressive disorder where sleep is frequently disturbed,” the scientist concluded.

However, they don’t know why the microdosing seemed to improve sleep duration. (And it’s important to note that sleep duration does not necessarily equate to sleep quality, which is at least as important in facilitating the rejuvenating effects on the body and mind.) And questions remain over why sleep duration wasn’t longer on dosing day. There is other evidence indicating that successful microdosing can be taxing, and requires days off for rest.

If I may be so bold as to add that all up, it seems to equal a giant scientific hmm.

I think it will, I think it will

Presumptions about the benefits of microdosing are rooted in a lot of self-reporting and anecdotes. People may swear they sleep better after taking some certain supplement or drug, rubbing CBD oil behind their ears or sniffing elephant poop (I made those up—please don’t try them) but it’s vital to remember: Anecdotes are not science, and people kid themselves all the time about the things they want to believe.

The placebo effect is widely studied and proven to be a startlingly real thing: When you expect a pill or procedure to work, you’re likely to report positive outcomes even if given a fake pill or a sham procedure.

The placebo effect was in full force in a 2021 study of 191 microdosers. When continuing to microdose in blind tests, those taking a placebo reported similar psychological benefits as those taking the real thing.

“These findings suggest that the benefits are not due to the drug, but rather due to the placebo-like expectation effects,” said study leader Balázs Szigeti, PhD, a research associate at Imperial College London. “Many participants who reported that they experienced positive effects while taking the placebo were shocked to learn after the study that they hadn’t been taking the real drug.”

The phenomenon can occur even when the person is in on the ruse. When people with migraines were given real medications or fake meds labeled as placebos, the people who knew they were taking a placebo experienced symptom relief, on the order of about 50% of the benefit derived from the real meds.

Try this first

Before you turn to any drugs or supplements for your sleep problems, experts advise developing a personalized sleep strategy based on well-researched sleep-promoting behaviors — including but not limited to physical activity, lots of natural daylight, avoiding alcohol, setting a consistent bedtime, and many others that I’ve written about extensively before:

Above all else, don’t turn to conventional sleeping pills. Science has shown they don’t work as advertised, and they have many side effects, ranging from diarrhea to death, as well as the great irony of next-day sleepiness.

If proven tactics for better sleep hygiene don’t help, consult with a physician about your specific sleep problems. Often the elusive remedy requires a proper diagnosis of some chronic pain, sleep apneaanxiety or depression, or some other underlying physical or mental health condition that, whether you realize it or not, is your true sleep kryptonite. Perhaps psychedelics will ultimately prove to be the solution for you, and for many others who struggle with sleep. But for now, nobody can make that claim with any certainty.

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