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Is Acid Addictive? The Truth Behind LSD Use

Kayla Gill
 April 17th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

The mind-bending and often mystical experiences induced by LSD have captivated and intrigued people for generations. But this strong psychedelic raises a crucial question: can it be addictive in the same way as other mind-altering drugs? 

While the science behind LSD’s effects is fascinating, understanding its true addictive potential requires a deeper dive. We peel back the layers of perception and explore the realities of how LSD works, and whether it truly carries the weight of addiction.

How LSD Works

As we dive into the science behind LSD, commonly known as acid, we confront some crucial questions: 

Can LSD lead to addiction like other substances? 

Is acid truly addictive? 

Let’s demystify the misconceptions surrounding LSD and its potential for addiction, and shed some light on the scientific truths behind its use.

The Science Behind LSD’s Effects on the Brain

Unlike many addictive substances, acid doesn’t directly interact with reward pathways in the brain. Instead, it LSD works by binding to a specific type of serotonin receptor1 called the 5-HT2A receptor. 

Serotonin plays a crucial role in mood, cognition, and perception, and this receptor is a key player in these functions. When LSD binds to this receptor, it disrupts normal communication along these pathways, leading to the cascade of sensory and psychological effects commonly known as an “acid trip.”

These effects include heightened awareness, altered perception of sights and sounds, changes in thought patterns, and intense emotions. People’s individual experiences on acid vary greatly. Your experience can be influenced by factors like dosage, individual brain chemistry, your emotional state, and your environment. While these effects can be intense, it’s important to remember that LSD doesn’t create new realities; it simply alters how your brain interprets and processes existing information.

Understanding LSD’s mechanism of action helps us understand why it affects people the way it does. But it’s only the first step in unpacking the complex relationship between this substance and its potential for addiction. 

So what factors influence the addictive potential of LSD, and what are the effects of long-term use?

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The Debate on LSD Addiction

While the unique effects of LSD have captured imaginations for decades, the question of its addiction potential remains a hotly debated topic. Let’s take a look at the truth behind this enigmatic drug.

Physical vs. Psychological Addiction

Physical addiction means your body is reliant on a substance. If you’re physically addicted to something and try to stop doing it, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms. Unlike substances that cause physical dependency, LSD doesn’t trigger noticeable withdrawal symptoms, and the urge to use isn’t driven by a biological process. 

LSD interacts with your brain’s serotonin receptors, causing altered neural communication. Unlike substances that mainly affect your body’s physical functions, LSD’s impact is centered on perception, emotion, and cognition. People who struggle with LSD use are usually experiencing a psychological addiction.

There is at least one study documenting what researchers considered a physical dependence on LSD:2 

“We describe a case where the person used LSD continuously for a period of two years as his primary drug. He developed a craving, and tolerance to LSD and contrary to known literature the tolerance did not disappear rapidly on discontinuation. Additionally, he developed both physical and psychological symptoms on discontinuing LSD – a factor responsible for continued use. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report of physical dependence to LSD.”

While not entirely impossible, this study also describes how incredibly rare it is for people to develop a physical dependence on acid. 

It’s worth noting that while it’s not physically addictive, acid can be tolerance-building.3 “LSD is not considered an addictive drug–that is, it does not produce compulsive drug-seeking behavior as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine do,” says the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center. “However, LSD users may develop tolerance to the drug, meaning that they must consume progressively larger doses of the drug in order to continue to experience the hallucinogenic effects that they seek.” 

Research Findings on LSD Dependency

The scientific community’s findings on the addiction potential of LSD are different from other addictive substances. Psychiatrists Annelie Hintzen and Torsten Passie, authors of The Pharmacology of LSD,4 note that “Interestingly, in contrast to many other dopamine-activating substances, it does not show any relevant dependence potential.”

Contrary to substances known for fostering addiction, people who use acid show less desire to consume it frequently. 

Because LSD abuse has not been at the forefront of popular concern since its heyday in the ‘60s (aside from a recent resurgence among high school students5 and millennials), not much research has been done on the long-term effects of LSD. This could also be because prior studies led to such conclusive evidence that acid was not physically addictive. According to researchers, 

“While behavioural animal studies have examined the effect of chronic treatment with LSD, no research has been conducted yet to examine long-term behavioural changes in healthy individuals after repeated administration of LSD. This lack of long-term studies is likely due to the evidence that LSD is a drug taken occasionally by recreational users6 that does not produce addiction.”

Perceptions of LSD in popular culture, and opinions on LSD use within the behavioral health community, evolve with the times. But at any given time, it can be said that LSD and other psychedelics challenge conventional notions of substance dependency.

Factors Contributing to LSD Misuse

That’s not to say that LSD use is always safe.

LSD’s intense psychological effects can create the potential for misuse. Psychologically, it produces profound alterations in perception, emotion, and cognition. This can make it an attractive tool for escapism, where users find solace or diversion from reality. People who repeatedly use LSD are drawn to its profound impact on their consciousness, rather than a typical drug craving for physical relief. 

Examining your motivations for using LSD can provide more valuable insight into whether your behavior is becoming a problem.

Risks of Frequent LSD Use

Frequent LSD use carries inherent risks, particularly for mental health. The unpredictable nature of LSD can result in “bad trips:” distressing experiences commonly known as marked by intense anxiety, paranoia, or hallucinations. For some, these negative encounters have lasting psychological effects, such as persistent anxiety.

The risk of exacerbating existing mental health conditions, especially on the schizophrenia spectrum, is a major concern. 

There are cases of LSD triggering psychotic episodes, and people with (diagnosed or undiagnosed) schizophrenia may be at greater risk. However, it’s unclear whether LSD itself is responsible for the psychosis or if it plays a role in surfacing underlying conditions. According to one study on LSD psychosis and schizophrenia,7 it’s possible that “LSD psychosis as a drug-induced schizophreniform reaction in persons vulnerable to both substance abuse and psychosis.”

It should also be noted that while LSD and other psychedelics are increasingly used to treat addiction and mental health conditions, this is done in a therapeutic setting under professional supervision, and is different than recreational use. 

Addressing Misconceptions About LSD

Having accurate information is the first step toward effectively addressing concerns. Dispelling myths around LSD requires a more nuanced view of the drug, its safety, and its potential risks and benefits. Rather than relying on popular belief, it’s important to evaluate LSD and other substances based on evidence-based information to make informed decisions about their use.

Myth LSD Is Inherently Addictive

Reality: Scientific evidence consistently shows that LSD is not physically addictive. If users do develop habits around LSD use, it’s because of psychological addiction, unlike most narcotic substances which can cause dependence. 

Myth: LSD Induces Immediate and Irreversible Insanity

Reality: This myth oversimplifies the complex effects of LSD. While it can lead to intense and unpredictable experiences, describing it as an instant pathway to insanity lacks scientific support. Research indicates that adverse effects are usually temporary, emphasizing the importance of context and mindset during LSD use.

Myth: LSD Stays in the Body Forever

Reality: Acid trips last for a notoriously long time (up to 12 hours), but LSD typically leaves the body within a day. Claims of LSD residing in the spine indefinitely, contributing to “flashbacks,” lack scientific backing. There have been few cases of people developing hallucinogen perception disorder (HPPD),8 but this is a “rare disorder characterized by the presence of flashbacks of visual hallucinations as a result of previous hallucinogenic drug use.” Persistent effects are more likely linked to psychological factors than physical remnants of the substance.

Myth: LSD Use Results in Uncontrolled and Dangerous Behavior

This may be because of LSD’s association with high-profile cults9 in decades past. 

But in reality, while LSD alters perception, instances of uncontrollable violence or harm during trips are exceedingly rare. According to pharmacologist David E. Nichols, “LSD has rarely been associated with accidental deaths and suicide, LSD is known to be non-toxic10 and physiologically safe when used at moderate dosages, and forensic investigators should understand the true causes of LSD-related fatalities.” Most users experience a sense of wonder, introspection, and enhanced sensory perception rather than engaging in harmful activities.

Set and Setting: How Your Mindset and Environment Play a Role

The effects of LSD are profoundly shaped by what people who take psychedelics often refer to as “set and setting:” your mindset being the set, and your environment being the setting. Both of these factors play a significant role in shaping the psychedelic journey.

A positive mindset, marked by feelings of safety and openness, often leads to more pleasant experiences, which can include heightened creativity and self-reflection. A negative mindset, on the other hand, can contribute to challenging experiences marked by anxiety and discomfort. Some people refer to this as a “bad trip.” 

Likewise, a familiar, comfortable setting can support feelings of security and promote positive outcomes. But unfamiliar or unsettling surroundings may increase anxiety and, as a result, a heightened risk of negative experiences. Recognizing the importance of these factors can lead to a more controlled and positive psychedelic encounter.

Getting Help for Problematic LSD Use

Recognizing signs of problematic LSD use, and intervening when necessary, is crucial for maintaining your mental and emotional well-being. If you experience persistent distress, impaired daily functioning, or escalating use while taking LSD, it’s a good idea to get outside guidance. Mental health and addiction treatment professionals can help you work through issues underlying your drug use, change unwanted behavioral patterns, and create the life you want for yourself.

See our list of addiction treatment centers to learn more about getting support for life change, and contact centers directly to get a professional opinion on treatment options.

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