A woman took 550 times the usual dose of LSD, with surprisingly positive consequences

Psychiatrists are now considering the benefits of LSD and other psychedelic drugs in treatment. Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports.

Posted: Feb 28, 2020 5:31 AM
Updated: Feb 28, 2020 5:31 AM

Drug overdoses can be life-threatening, but for two women who accidentally took massive hits of LSD, the experience was life changing -- and in a good way.

A 46-year-old woman snorted a staggering 550 times the normal recreational dose of LSD and not only survived, but found that the foot pain she had suffered from since her 20s was dramatically reduced.

Separately, a 15-year-old girl with bipolar disorder overdosed on 10 times the normal dose of the drug, which she said resulted in a massive improvement in her mental health.

Their experiences were detailed in case reports published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs last month, along with that of a third woman who accidentally overdosed on LSD during the second week of pregnancy. She ultimately gave birth to a healthy son, now 18, who has not shown any impaired development.

While the experiences of these women were exceptional, their stories can help inform the resurgence of research into the use of psychedelic substances for the treatment of conditions such as addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, the researchers believe.

"No clinical trial research could be done with dosages this high and there are no publications exploring the positive outcomes of very large dosages of LSD," the authors said.

"To understand the effects of extremely high dosages of psychedelics such as LSD, an examination of overdoses in naturalistic settings is required."

However, experts stressed that these cases were unique and warned against experimenting with the drug, which is illegal in the US and UK.

"They don't really show the benefits of LSD, rather they show that in some people exceptionally high doses don't lead to enduring harms and may do some good," said professor David Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London.

The details of each case study came from interviews with the individual women, their family members and friends, drug suppliers, witnesses, health records and case notes,according to the paper.

Mistaking LSD for cocaine

The 49-year-old woman, known as CB, had contracted Lyme disease in her early 20s, which damaged her feet and ankles and left her in "significant pain."

In September 2015, she took 55 milligrams of what she believed was cocaine but was actually "pure LSD in powder form."

The authors defined a normal recreational dose as 100 micrograms -- equal to 0.1 milligrams.

The woman blacked out and vomited frequently for the next 12 hours but reported feeling "pleasantly high" for the 12 hours after that -- still vomiting, but less often.

According to her roommate, she sat mostly still in a chair, either with her eyes open or rolled back, occasionally speaking random words. Ten hours later, she was able to hold a conversation and "seemed coherent."

Her foot pain was gone the next day and she stopped using morphine for five days. While the pain returned, she was able to control it with a lower dose of morphine and a microdose of LSD every three days. After more than two years, in January 2018, she stopped using both morphine and LSD and reported no withdrawal symptoms, although the case report said she did experience an increase in anxiety, depression and social withdrawal.

The case studies were compiled by Mark Haden, executive director of Canada's Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and an adjunct professor at the University of British Colombia School of Population and Public Health, and Birgitta Woods, a psychiatrist in Vancouver.

They noted that in CB's case "ingestion of 550 times the normal recreational dosage of LSD was not fatal and had positive effects on pain levels and subsequent morphine withdrawal."

The authors note in the study that no lethal doses of LSD have been documented, although they said scientists have estimated that a lethal dose in humans would be 14,000 mcg.

First manufactured in Switzerland in 1938 as a potential treatment for bleeding disorders, LSD's (scientific name Lysergic acid diethylamid) subsequent popularity as a recreational drug saw it criminalized in much of the world. In both the United States and United Kingdom, LSD is a schedule 1 drug, the most restrictive classification.

Life with a 'normal brain'

For the 15-year-old who overdosed on 10 times the normal LSD dose at the Summer Solstice party in June 2000, known as AV, the experience led to a dramatic change in her mental health.

The girl was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 15, having suffered from depression and hallucinations from the age of 12, which at times had put her in a hospital, including once after she bit her mother, the case study said.

Her overdose happened when the supplier of liquid LSD made a decimal place error when preparing individual hits diluted in glasses of water, making them 1,000 mcg per glass instead of 100mcg. AV drank one glass and leftover drops from two others.

Partygoers said she behaved erratically for the next 6.5 hours, followed by what they believed to be a seizure, as she was lying in a fetal position with her arms and fists clenched tightly. An ambulance was called, but by the time the paramedics arrived 10 minutes later she was alert and oriented.

When her father visited her in the hospital the next morning, AV told him, "It's over." While he thought his daughter was referring to the LSD overdose, she later clarified that she meant her bipolar illness was cured and she felt able to experience life with a "normal brain."

She was free from all mental illness symptoms (bipolar or other) for 13 years until she gave birth and experienced postpartum depression, the case study said.

In the third case detailed in the paper, a 26-year-old woman, referred to as NM, at the same party drank half a glass of the LSD-dosed water and subsequently found out she was pregnant.

However, the authors said the overdose "did not negatively affect the course of NM's pregnancy." Nor did it have any other obvious negative developmental effects on her son, now 18.

Research renaissance

While LSD has long been used for its mind-bending effects, the drug has also been used to treat mental health problems.

During the 1940s and early 1950s tens of thousands of patients took LSD and other psychotropics as part of research into their effects on cancer anxiety, alcoholism, opioid use disorder, depression and PTSD. Researchers began to see psychedelics as possible new tools for shortening psychotherapy.

This type of research soon stopped in the 1960s when LSD was declared illegal in the United States.

However, in the past decade, research in this area has seen a resurgence, with scientists today exploring the role of hallucinogens on treatment-resistant depression, post traumatic stress disorder, cancer-related anxiety, addictions, and even anorexia.

Fears of any permanent damage from psychedelics were eased by a large 2015 study of 130,000 American adults, comparing users to non-users. The study found no link between the use of LSD, psilocybin or mescaline (the psychoactive compounds in magic mushroom) and suicidal behavior or mental health problems.

However, some studies have found unpleasant effects from LSD, both during the high and after. People with negative reactions can have difficulty concentrating, dizziness, lack of appetite, dry mouth, nausea and/or imbalance for up to 10 to 14 hours after taking LSD; headaches and exhaustion can last up to 72 hours.

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