The first time Tricia Eastman, founder of Psychedelic Journeys (a community that facilitates psychedelics ceremonies) tried kambo, an Amazonian medicine made from the phyllomedusa bicolor frog’s skin toxic secretions, she joked that she was doing it in lieu of a flu shot. She heard it strengthened the immune system and wanted to explore the possibility of arming herself for the season ahead.
During kambo ceremonies, shamans or other trained practitioners create small burns in people’s skin and put the frog venom in them. Afterward, those receiving treatment often purge in the form of vomiting or diarrhea, which is believed to remove “toxins” from their bodies. “It was my birthday and I wanted to release a lot so I could receive more in the upcoming year,” she tells me.
Right after she did it, Eastman felt her heart rate and blood pressure rise before she grew very ill and vomited. She felt pressure build up in her head and threw up again. After the facilitator took the venom off the skin of her leg with the same tool she used to apply it, she ran to the bathroom with diarrhea. She recalls feeling what she deems as toxins and impurities leaving her body. “I also noticed how clear my mind was and how grateful I was to be alive,” she says. “Within 20 minutes, I was ready to get up and go about my day. My intuition and my senses were heightened.”
When Benny Hoffius, a gardener in Belgium, first tried kambo on a retreat as preparation for an ayahuasca ceremony, his lips swelled, he vomited, and he felt physically and mentally cleansed. In the following months, he became inspired to develop healthier habits. “It makes you feel empty,” he tells me. “Once all the poison gets out of your body, you become more aware of what you eat and you pay more attention. I'll do it again in the future just to keep my body and soul clean.”
Legal in the US and many other countries and typically administered by a shaman or trained practitioner, kambo has increasingly become a consideration for those seeking “detoxification” or even recovery from sickness. “I have personally met many people with severe chronic illnesses including Lyme disease that have reported profound healing from the symptoms of their disease [through Kambo],” Eastman says. Federico Zamberlan, a researcher studying the pharmacology behind ethnobotany at the University of Buenos Aires, similarly met someone who had an autoimmune disease but was completely asymptomatic after taking kambo.
Kambo enters through your lymphatic system, which allows a very rapid distribution to other bodily systems, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. The skin secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog contain amino acids chains called peptides, including a number of exorphins, which are similar to endorphins but are produced by amphibians and don’t exist naturally in the human body.
A number of kambo’s effects come from the actions of specific exorphins on your mu-opioid receptors, which can produce pain-relief and a sense of well-being, in part by causing the release if the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, Giordano explains. Kambo’s effects on the opioid system are similar to morphine’s, Zamberlan adds. Another peptide called tryptophyllin directly stimulates the serotonergic system, further improving your mood, along with a rise in dopamine, Giordano says. This effect can last long after you take kambo, perhaps because it recalibrates your brain’s opioid and serotonergic systems.
Yet another exorphin, deltorphin, binds to your delta opioid receptors, which can also induce pain relief. It may actually prime these receptors to become more sensitive, leading to increased responsiveness of the body's natural opioid system and improvement of certain chronic pain conditions, Giordano tells me.
Watch this from VICE:
It’s possible that kambo’s effects on the brain are so strong because certain peptides increase the permeability of your blood-brain barrier, Zamberlan says. “While other venomous animals like vipers and scorpions require fangs or stingers to deliver its toxins, [the kambo] frog utilizes its absorption enhancer poison to allow a fast entry of toxins through the predator’s skin to its bloodstream,” he adds. “This same principle could be used for our benefit in the future, for example, to deliver complex drugs to the brain for the treatment of diverse psychiatric pathologies.”
Kambo’s purgative effects likely come from the actions of tachykinin peptides and opioid activation of dopamine pathways affecting the area postrema, a.k.a your brain’s vomiting center, Giordano says. It’s possible that because you purge so much, there’s nothing left, and fat-soluble toxins bound to bile in your upper and lower GI tract get excreted. Kambo may even help fight infections, as its dermaseptin peptides can help to reduce bacteria by increasing the activity of white blood cells called lymphocytes.
Two other peptides from kambo could also cause your blood vessels to dilate. As a result, your blood pressure will spike, you’ll feel flushed and “like your head’s going to explode,” and then your blood pressure will drop, and your gut will release serotonin, Giordano explains. Typically, people will feel “terrible” for the 20-30 minutes that the kambo’s taking effect but then may feel reinvigorated afterward, he says. As a result of these vasodilating actions, many people with migraines may find that their migraines worsen under kambo but then are reduced afterward.
Most studies on kambo use in vitro testing or animal assays, so there’s not too much hard evidence for its effect on humans, Zamberlan says. However, these in vitro studies suggest that kambo has antifungal properties and could even slow the growth of cancerous cells.
Kambo may not be for everyone, though. Since it increases immune system activity, people with autoimmune disorders like fibromyalgia, MS, or rheumatoid arthritis—whose immune systems are already in overdrive—shouldn’t use kambo, Giordano cautions. Nor should people with heart or blood pressure problems. Since the experience can be very intense, between the vomiting, heart rate increase, and blood pressure changes, people should make sure to do it someplace where they’re supervised and have access to medical care.
If you want to try kambo, Zamberlan recommends starting off with a small dose (like one small dot in your skin) to test your reaction before taking more. Giordano doesn’t recommend doing kambo more than once a month. Otherwise, the effects may either wear off or become too stressful for your nervous system.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.