Oct 1, 2019

The Right Chemistry: No evidence-based science supports kambo ritual

The Right Chemistry: No evidence-based science supports kambo ritual

Why do people allow some practitioner with no medical training to introduce a mix of toxins into their body?

September 27, 2019

It is not a pretty scene. In the heart of the Amazon, a “giant leaf frog,” also known as a “giant monkey frog,” is spread-eagled in an undignified “X” shape, with each of its limbs secured to a wooden stick stuck into the ground. A shaman then proceeds to scrape a waxy secretion from the amphibian’s back and applies a drop to a small wound inflicted with a burning stick on a person’s arm. Within minutes the recipient experiences projectile vomiting. Just picture the classic scene in the Exorcist. Sometimes other body orifices also get in on the action. After the torturous purging has subsided, subjects say they feel peaceful and refreshed. And undoubtedly, relieved.

This traditional ceremony is called “kambo,” with the same term used to describe the mix of chemicals that the frog with the scientific name “Phyllomedusa bicolor” secretes to deter predators. Kambo has a long folkloric history among Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, and is thought to boost strength, increase stamina and alertness, bring good luck to hunters, cure disease and cleanse the body and soul.

Recently the kambo ritual has emerged from the rainforests of the Amazon to take on a role in Western society as a form of “alternative” medicine. As disenchantment grows with the failure of conventional practice to cure all diseases, people are being increasingly attracted to “natural” substances produced by plants or animals. Isn’t it curious that people who worry about taking a “synthetic” pharmaceutical backed by decades of research will uncritically subject themselves to the poisonous secretions of an Amazon amphibian?

Yet that is just what is happening at ceremonies known as “kambo circles.” These are not conducted by expatriate Amazon shamans, but rather by self-taught individuals who may or may not be members of the “International Association of Kambo Practitioners,” which offers accreditation in the practice. It isn’t clear what accreditation involves. It certainly doesn’t involve applying evidence-based science, because there isn’t any to support this bizarre, albeit legal, ritual.

Why, then, do people allow some practitioner with no medical training to introduce a mix of toxins into their body through freshly burned holes in their skin? It is not because of a quest for euphoria, nor a desire for hallucinogenic effects, because kambo produces neither. Some individuals, driven by desperation, are in search of a solution for their pain, depression or addiction based on some anecdotal accounts they have come across. Most, however, come seeking to “purify their body” by cleansing it of unidentified “toxins.”

The purge that begins within minutes of administering kambo is often accompanied by an increased heart rate and sweating, described by one victim as “like having the flu and food poisoning multiplied a hundred-fold.” Why is it tolerated? Because the expulsion of vomit is seen as ridding the body of spiritual and emotional baggage!

After the symptoms subside, people claim to feel increasingly energetic and in possession of greater “mental clarity,” whatever that means. There are also claims of boosting the immune system, relieving allergies, curing headaches and alleviating sadness, none with any corroborating evidence.

It should come as no surprise that kambo has physiological effects given that it is a toxic secretion meant to make predators sick enough to swear off trying to make a meal of the large green frog ever again. While not all the components of kambo have been identified, chemists have managed to isolate a number of bio-active peptides. These are short chains of amino acids that can have various effects, including stimulating motility in the gastrointestinal tract, boosting adrenalin production and affecting blood pressure and heart rate. Some, referred to as opioid peptides, have an affinity for opiate receptors and can, in theory, alleviate pain, but the concentrations in kambo are too small to have any biological activity in humans.

As far as safety goes, there have been a couple of case reports of death following the use of frog toxins, but whether these actually played a role isn’t clear. There is, however, one documented case of a woman experiencing lethargy, confusion, cramps and finally a seizure after a kambo experience. She had consumed six litres of water, as she was told to do to “flush out the toxins,” but what she actually ended up flushing from her body was sodium, resulting in a case of hyponatremia. This was due to too much water intake coupled with a reduction in the production of a hormone that prevents excessive urination, an effect linked to one of the kambo peptides. Treatment with salt and restriction of water intake solved the problem. Still, relative to the number of people who have engaged in frogging rituals, the risk appears to be small. Even for the frog. The creature is released, apparently none the worse for wear.

Although exploring the chemistry of frog venom is intriguing, I’m not partial to projectile vomit. I think I would rather boost my spirits with another product of the Amazon. Theobroma cacao.


Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.


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