Kambô: The Ultimate Guide

Your definitive guide to kambô — the centuries-old ritual medicinal use of the skin secretions of the Amazonian tree frog, Phyllomedusa bicolor.

Overview: Kambô is a secretion obtained from the skin of an Amazonian tree frog, traditionally used by indigenous people to improve luck, health, and strength. It's gaining popularity as an alternative healing agent in the West, but can have unexpected adverse effects. During a kambô ceremony, the substance is applied to small burns on the skin, where it's absorbed into the bloodstream, prompting a strong immune response. Effects start almost immediately and include tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, and fever. It's crucial to research and consult a qualified practitioner before participating in a kambô ceremony

What is Kambô? 

Kambô is a substance that comes from the skin of the Amazonian tree frog, Phyllomedusa bicolor. The frog secretes over 100 bioactive peptides and chemical agents, which make up the thick, yellow-colored substance. The secretion, also known as 'Sapo', 'Campu', 'Acaté', and 'Vacino da Floresta', is a defense mechanism used to deter predators.

For centuries, Amazonian tribes have used kambô by applying it to small burn wounds on their upper arms (men) or legs (women) to improve their luck, health, and strength during hunts. In 1986, Italian chemist Vittorio Erspamer analyzed the peptides in the secretion and described kambô as a “fantastic chemical cocktail with potential medical applications, unequaled by any other amphibian.”

While traditionally used in ritualistic settings in the Amazon basin of Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, kambô has become increasingly popular as an alternative healing agent in the West. People seek out kambô treatment to heal, purify, and transform themselves. However, it's important to note that kambô treatment can have unexpected adverse effects, which has raised concerns about its safety and efficacy.

Kambô Treatment: What to Expect  

The tree frog is carefully harvested in the early hours of the morning after a considerable fall of torrential Amazonian rain, and its secretion is collected by scraping it off of the back and limbs using a wooden stick without harming the frog. When enough kambô has been collected, it is dried on a so-called “kambô stick,” and the frog is freed back into the wild. 

Before applying kambô, a test “point” is often used to determine whether the ceremony participant will experience any adverse effects. The shaman then applies small points of dried kambô excretion to the burns or “gates,” where they are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.

Five points of kambô is a common dose, however, anywhere from 2 and 10 points may be applied to participants depending on body weight, previous experience, reasons for participation, and, sometimes, the shaman's preference.

The superficial burns often leave round scars that may fade over time with diligent care. Many recipients prefer to keep their scars visible as a source of pride or as a reminder of their kambô experience.

The kambô is often applied in a group setting, complete with music and a variety of integrative mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, and alternative therapeutic modalities. The cost of kambô treatment can vary depending on the type of experience one feels they are most suited to and can range from $50 to $400.

Common Effects of Kambô 

Kambô's effects start almost immediately, as the bioactive peptides quickly enter the lymphatic system and blood, prompting a strong immune response similar to anaphylaxis. The immune system's reaction is often intense and can occur within minutes or even seconds of kambô application.

Many believe that kambô's subjective effects cleanse the body, with anecdotal reports and research suggesting that it can relieve gastrointestinal symptoms and increase physical strength, resistance to stress, hunger, and thirst.

Common effects of kambô include: 

  • Tachycardia (faster than normal heartbeat)
  • Feelings of a rush
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Angioedema (Swelling beneath the skin, often around the eyes, lips, or entire face)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Extreme agitation
  • Urination 
  • Sweating 
  • Pain
  • Strong emotions 

During kambô ceremonies, assistants or volunteers are available to help participants who need to use the bathroom or vomit, and to offer reassurance.

The kambô experience usually lasts between five and forty minutes, although gastrointestinal effects and inflammation may persist for several hours in rare cases. If unpleasant symptoms persist for more than an hour, emergency medical attention should be sought.

Additionally, the effects of kambô can vary depending on a variety of factors, including dosage, individual physiology, and the specific context in which it is used. It is important for individuals considering kambô use to thoroughly research the potential risks and benefits, as well as to consult with a qualified practitioner before deciding to participate in a kambô ceremony.

Kambo psychedelic

Peptides in Kambô and their Effects on the Body

Kambô contains several peptides that affect the body in various ways, both in the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems. These peptides have short-term and long-term effects on the body.

One peptide called caerulein stimulates smooth muscle, which can improve physical strength, resistance to stress, hunger, and thirst, and lower blood pressure. Another peptide called sauvagine causes hypotension and tachycardia, which can lead to a decrease in blood pressure and an increase in heart rate. This peptide may also increase corticosteroid levels in the blood, which can explain the reported increases in strength and stamina.

The peptide caerulein is also responsible for the gastrointestinal symptoms of nausea and vomiting. It stimulates gallbladder contraction and stimulates gastric and pancreatic secretions. Also at a peripheral level, phyllocaerulein, a caerulein-like nonapeptide, seems to cause gastrointestinal effects.

The peptides in kambô activate the immune system to get rid of these toxins. The brain's vomiting center, called the area postrema, detects these toxins and induces vomiting to re-establish homeostasis.

Kambô also contains other peptides with known peripheral effects, such as phyllomedusin and phyllokinin. However, the role of these peptides is not yet fully understood due to limited research. Isolating each peptide to determine their effects is a complicated and time-consuming process.

Exploring the Potential Medicinal Benefits of Kambô 

Kambô is a type of plant medicine that is not as popular as other psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin. Unlike these drugs, which affect specific brain receptors to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness, kambô primarily affects the immune system.

This can cause intense physical symptoms like purging, inflammation, and anaphylaxis-like reactions, which have raised concerns about its safety. However, experienced practitioners believe that kambô's ability to modulate the immune system makes it a powerful healing tool, acting as a kind of vaccine. Scientists have identified kambô as a potential source of new antibiotic and analgesic medications because of its immunomodulating properties.

While kambô's effects on the immune system can be intense, many people use it to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. Some users report mood improvements after the physically demanding experience of taking kambô. Traditional kambô ceremonies involve purging, which is believed to purify and heal both the body and mind.

Although there is insufficient scientific evidence to make definitive claims about kambô's medicinal potential, some reports suggest that its bioactive peptides, particularly caerulein and dermorphin, may have analgesic properties that are comparable to morphine.

While kambô is not as well-known as other indigenous medicines, it has a unique set of immunomodulating properties that some practitioners believe can make it a powerful healing tool. Although concerns about safety remain, many people use kambô to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, and there is limited scientific evidence to support its potential as a source of new antibiotics and analgesic medications. 

Risks Associated With Kambô 

In recent years, kambô has become increasingly popular among non-indigenous people. However, with this popularity comes some risks, particularly when it's used without a deep understanding of the traditional ways. This is a common problem when indigenous medicines are adopted outside of their traditional cultural context. It's important to approach kambô with caution and to seek guidance from experienced practitioners who can help ensure that it's used safely and effectively.

There is no evidence to suggest that kambô is inherently more dangerous for Westerners compared to people from other regions. However, it is important to note that the use of kambô and other indigenous medicines may carry certain risks for people who are not familiar with the cultural and ceremonial practices associated with their use.

There is currently limited clinical evidence regarding its medicinal use. Moreover, several case reports have suggested that kambô treatment could be linked to prolonged toxicity, esophageal rupture, and syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone (a condition in which the body produces too much antidiuretic hormone).

Five people have died post kambô administration, as reported in the literature. Prominent plant medicine researchers have therefore stressed the importance of thoroughly investigating the potential harms of kambô administration. Experts have warned kambô users of its reported association with sudden unexpected death, which could be attributed to kambô’s vasoactive properties.

According to The International Association of Kambô Practitioners (IAKP), sudden deaths are rare and generally attributable to pre-existing conditions. However, it remains unclear whether kambô use is linked directly to these reported fatalities and illnesses.

Contraindications for kambô include:

  • Hypertension (higher than normal blood pressure)
  • Hypotension (lower than normal blood pressure)
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Brain hemorrhage
  • Aneurysm
  • Embolism
  • Addison’s disease
  • Epilepsy
  • Pregnancy

It is crucial to be educated and aware of potential harms and medical contraindications before experimenting with new medicine.

Key Takeaways about Kambô: A Potent Amazonian Medicine

In conclusion, kambô is a bioactive secretion obtained from the skin of the Amazonian tree frog, used for centuries by indigenous people to improve their luck, health, and strength. Kambô is gaining popularity in the West as an alternative healing agent, but it should be noted that it can have unexpected adverse effects.

During a kambô ceremony, the substance is applied to small burns on the participant's skin, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream and prompts a strong immune response. Kambô's effects start almost immediately and include tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, and fever.

It is important to research and consult a qualified practitioner before deciding to participate in a kambô ceremony.

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Dr. Ana Holmes, Physican, Philadelphia, US

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