LSD — a tool for mental health?

Know Your Stuff NZ with KnowYourStuffNZ

Image, chemical structure of LSD

You’ve probably heard stories of people taking LSD, losing their minds, and doing dangerous things. Other people say it helped them find themselves, or that it’s a groovy time. What’s to be believed?

Firstly, LSD is illegal in NZ, so you’d best believe there’ll be consequences if you’re caught with it. But that doesn’t stop people from taking it. The team at KnowYourStuff believes “just say know” keeps you safer than “just say no”. So here’s some neutral, evidence based harm reduction info:

Harm Reduction

  1. LSD is usually taken as something soaked in liquid – often little sheets of paper called blotter or tabs. Obviously, just because you have a tab, doesn’t mean it was soaked in LSD. Get it tested!
  2. Make sure you’re in a stable, positive mindset. LSD enhances emotion and may trap you in loops of thought. That means it’s very risky to take if you’ve been struggling with mental health! Yes, there is research on its benefits, but we’re a long way from safely (and legally) taking a trip for therapy.
  3. Make sure you’re in a safe, comfortable environment. Feeling unsafe around people or being in overwhelming environments increases your risk of dangerous psychological effects. Also the visual effects can make it hard to do complex tasks. You should definitely not drive while you’re tripping, that’s a good way to wreck your car and also yourself.
  4. LSD effects can last for up to 10 hours. Feeling energetic and emotional for that long often leads to low mood and motivation – sometimes for up to 48 hours! Lack of sleep can increase your risk of psychosis, so – make sure you don’t have anything important planned for the next day and have a good sleep.
  5. As always, start small and check in on yourself. Substances affect everyone differently and it can take up to 2 hours to feel the full effects, so resist the temptation to have more if you’re not “feeling it”.
  6. If you’re going to microdose, have a frank and honest conversation with your doctor or therapist first. Tell them what you’re going to do, when, and how much you’re going to take. Keep in mind that testing can’t confirm the dose of your tab, so it’s easy to misjudge the dose you’re taking. Drug-induced psychosis is no joke and we’re a long way from being able to safely (and legally) microdose. Don’t risk your mental health, it’s important!
  7. As always, avoid combining with other substances. Some substances mask the effects of others, so mixing could increase your chance of overdose. This includes antidepressants and anti-anxiety / mood stabilising medication but if you’re taking those please read number 2 again!
  8. Keep hydrated and have regular snacks. It’s common to not notice you’re hungry or thirsty. If you start feeling anxious or nauseous, try having some water and a snack.
  9. Some people find LSD increases their sex drive. It should go without saying, but ensure you have enthusiastic consent and use contraception.

A classic tale of accidental discovery

LSD is a psychedelic first made from a fungus in 1938 by Albert Hofmann. The chemist claimed to notice mind altering effects after accidentally getting some on his fingers. As passionate chemists tended to do before health and safety regulations were a thing, he later put a known dose in his mouth to learn more.

Based on what we know today, the dose he took was high. He reported hallucinations so terrifying that he thought he was dying. After the paranoia faded, he was fascinated by his apparent ability to “see” sound and kaleidoscope patterns.

A whirlwind rise to fame

After more experiments, Hofmann’s company figured LSD was a good way to give “normals” psychosis for a short time. By 1947, they were selling it as a tool for studying disorders such as schizophrenia. Later it was considered an inaccurate model and sold for therapeutic use.

Read more about Hofmann’s research in his book LSD, My Problem Child

Hang on… how can it be useful for therapy if it causes psychosis? Glad you asked. When LSD enters your brain, it acts like serotonin and dopamine. You probably know those as the “happy hormones”. At low/common doses LSD can positively affect your mood, energy, and empathy. It can sometimes make you more aware of your thoughts and help you reach higher levels of understanding.

Read more about LSD’s action in the brain on Psychonaut Wiki

Brain scan of someone after they've taken LSD and someone who hasn't. The brain of the person that took the LSD shows a lot more activity than the one that hasn't
This is your brain. And this is your brain on LSD. Image from The Beckley Foundation

The Brain on LSD – Read the full study on the Beckley Foundation’s site

The “trippy” sensory effects also made LSD popular with artists. Musicians such as members of The Beatles and Pink Floyd admitted to taking it for creative inspiration. Intellectuals saw potential for “consciousness expansion” and one guy even started a psychedelic religion. Eventually, members of the public were inspired to take it.

Read this BBC opinion piece on LSD’s impact on Western culture

Check out this New York times article on The League of Spiritual Discovery

Still picture from the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine showing John, Paul, George, and Ringo against a psychedelic background.
The Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine is a good example of LSD’s influence on art. Image from Yellow Submarine, United Artists, 1968

The Beatles in The Yellow Submarine video

A Ruined Reputation

After a brief claim to fame, LSD’s reputation started to go up in flames. Remember the psychosis? Turns out heavy use (high doses and/or taking it often) can have serious consequences. Syd Barrett became a poster child for this when he was kicked out of Pink Floyd.

Read what the Guardian what to say about Syd Barrett’s LSD use

There was also concern it was involved in the spread of rebellious ideas. LSD can sometimes make you more suggestible and see personal meaning in things you normally wouldn’t – making it a perfect tool for cult leaders. So, research ground to a halt and LSD was banned in many places.

To throw gasoline on the flaming dumpster fire of LSD’s reputation, there were reports of secret CIA experiments on its potential for mind control. Apparently some participants were uninformed or unwilling and there was even a death. Scary stuff right?

Hear more about the MKUltra experiments from investigative journalist Stephen Kinzer

Renewed Interest

Some people aren’t willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. You may have heard Joe Rogan discuss its life changing potential, or Silicon Valley engineers swearing a small amount every day is better than coffee. There’s even a study at Auckland Uni on the benefits of microdosing. Confused? So is anyone that tries to understand the human mind.

Learn more about the microdosing trend in this article by The Conversation
Read about the microdosing study at Auckland University

Looking Past the Hype and Fear

Drugs aren’t good or evil – they’re just chemicals that have both positive and negative effects. Promoting them as life changing cure alls or reducing them to stigma-fuelled hatred gets us nowhere.

LSD is a Class A substance in NZ. Plenty of people claim it has benefits, though there are very real psychological risks. Research is underway into its potential therapeutic use. Could strong evidence of mental health benefits change this classification? We’ll have to wait and see!

Published by Hannah Gordon

Hannah studied biochemistry and likes writing about science more than being stuck in a lab. When she's not lost in research, she's probably lost in a rave.

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