person serving kambo

The Strength and Teachings of Kambô Medicine

"The spirit of the kambô is strong because it heals many diseases, and that’s why we are preserving this knowledge.” —Panã Kamãnawa

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Updated March 29, 2024

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Years ago, I was on an ayahuasca retreat when, on the third day, we did kambô — a substance derived from the secretions of the Amazonian Phyllomedusa bicolor frog. The facilitator burned tiny holes in our skin, then put the medicine on them so it would reach the bloodstream. As soon as it set in, I became very hot and got up to use the bathroom. My vision went black just as I reached the door, and the next thing I remember, I was sitting on the bathroom floor as another participant tapped my shoulder to wake me up. Even though I’d just passed out — something the facilitator should have prevented or at least helped me through by accompanying me to the bathroom — I felt refreshed and like a weight had lifted off me. 

I worked with kambô many times over the ensuing five years, with a different facilitator who was more attentive, using it to address symptoms of chronic Lyme disease and mold illness. Each time, I’d experience a few miserable minutes of vomiting and diarrhea — which is typical — then I’d feel lighter, more optimistic, more energetic, and able to sleep better in the following weeks. The effects were mainly physical until my eleventh ceremony, when I faced long-standing body image issues and cultivated newfound self-love. I walked around in a state of bliss for months.

As my story illustrates, kambô can be dangerous and is not for the faint of heart—no pun intended. But it can also have physical and emotional benefits when done in a safe, well-supervised setting: Multiple Amazonian cultures have used the medicine for centuries to deepen their spirituality and heal various maladies. 

READ: The Quiet Wisdom of the Ayahuasca Vine

kambo cleanse process
(A) Kambô frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor); (B) Removal of amphibian skin secretion P. bicolor; (C) Application of Kambô; (D) Marks on the shoulder after application of Kambô. | Image by Silva FVAD, Monteiro WM, Bernarde PS via Wikimedia Commons

Where Does Kambô Come From?

Kambô, also called “frog medicine” in some plant medicine communities, originates from Indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest such as the Matsés in Peru and the Noke Kuin, Huni Kuin, Yawanawá, Puyanawá and Asháninka in Brazil, according to kambô facilitator and ayahuasca academic researcher Benjamin Mudge, though it has since spread throughout the world. Indigenous kambô servers are called pajés. Panã Kamãnawa, a pajé of the Noke Kuin tribe in Brazil, describes kambô as “a spirit transformed into a frog.”

“Kambô is the common name to refer both to the Phyllomedusa bicolor frog of the Amazon rainforest as well as its secretions used by local tribes for ceremonial and medical purposes,” says Federico Zamberlan, a pharmacology researcher at the University of Buenos Aires and Tilburg University. These secretions contain peptides that “produce potent stimulation of the intestinal motility accompanied by gastric and pancreatic secretions, resulting in a purgative process that includes unavoidable vomiting and, in many cases, involuntary defecation,” Zamberlan explains. “This physiological response to this voluntary poisoning is considered by modern practitioners as a detoxifying and therapeutic cleansing.”

phyllomedusa bicolor kambo frog
Phyllomedusa bicolor | Adobe

What Does Kambô Do? The Kambô Cleanse.

Though kambô is not psychedelic, it is, for some, euphoric. “You can get this kind of feeling of bliss from the rush of endorphins as a result of your body’s response to discomfort during the session,” explains Tricia Eastman, an initiated medicine woman, founder of Psychedelic Journeys and Ancestral Heart, and author of Seeding Consciousness: Plant Medicine, Ancestral Wisdom, and Psychedelic Initiation. In addition to “purging” — vomiting and/or defecating — people will often feel an increase in heart rate, and their faces will swell up temporarily; I’ve heard it called “frotox” due to its plumping effects on the face.

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Some evidence suggests that kambo could have antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and anti-tumor properties. Though there’s not yet enough data to draw firm conclusions, as most of the research comes from in vitro tests or animals, “a lot of anecdotal evidence from people who already tried it suggests that these molecules have great potential for a wide range of pathologies” such as autoimmune diseases, says Zamberlan. “Kambo secretions have opioid peptides whose mechanism of action and effects are comparable to those of morphine.” 

READ: How To Vet Your Psychedelic Guide

burn marks from kambo ceremony
Usually, the practitioner will put an ointment called dragon’s blood on the dots where the skin was burned at the end to help them heal | Adobe

Mudge says he’s seen people heal through kambô. People come in with seemingly any variety of ailments— Llyme disease, sexual trauma, fertility issues. He says he’s worked with someone who overcame sexual shame through kambô and stopped getting urinary tract infections, which she believed were connected. But kambô isn’t medicine in the Western sense; its safety isn’t verified in clinical trials, although there has been some research. Kambô is sometimes offered on ayahuasca retreats under the belief that it helps clean the body out for a better ayahuasca experience. The Matsés recommend using kambô three times a month for optimal healing, says Eastman. The Noke Kuin take kambô weekly, which Kamãnawa says helps them avoid “fever, headache, diarrhea, or other diseases.”

What Happens During a Kambô Ceremony?

Participants begin a kambô ceremony on an empty stomach and drink a large amount of water (usually one and a half to two liters) when they arrive to enable purging — though drinking plain water can cause problems; see “risks and contraindications” below. Then, it’s time to apply the medicine. “The practitioner takes a little stick of incense, lightly burns the skin, and then wipes away the dead skin,” Eastman explains. “They then sterilize the area and apply a little bit of the secretions from the frog. The ‘poison’ fluid secretions are typically dried and reactivated with water.” 

Once the medicine sets in, people may actively purge for a few minutes to an hour, and then have the chance to rest. They may also be offered two milder medicines — rapé tobacco and sananga eye drops — at the end. “Rapé is used to help clear any blockages and is supportive of individuals that are having a hard time purging to induce the purge,” says Eastman. “Sananga is believed in the Amazonian traditional practices to open up the third eye or the spiritual eye, but can also be very healing for people who have conditions in the eye,” she claims. In Western medicine practice, the medical benefits of sanga haven’t been studied. “It creates an intense burning effect for a very brief period of time, followed by releases of endogenous endorphins activated by the burning sensations.”

Usually, the practitioner will put an ointment called dragon’s blood on the dots where the skin was burned at the end to help them heal. Though the burns hurt a bit, kambô scars usually fade partially or completely, depending on where they are on the body.

Experiences With Kambô

Freya Hathaway, a 36-year-old massage therapist in Los Angeles, used kambô to heal her plantar fasciitis and quit smoking marijuana. “I went two years without smoking weed, and that was my intention when I sat with kambô,” she says. “When I quit after doing it, I just did not have the same cravings I had before.” 

kambo being extracted from frog
“Sustainable harvesting practices are essential to ensure the long-term viability of kambô medicine and the well-being of the frog populations.” says Tricia Eastman | Adobe

She also feels kambô has helped her release trauma from self-harming when she was younger, strengthened her ability to assert boundaries, improved her mental clarity and self-trust, and inspired her to live a healthier lifestyle. “It’s forced me to be more real with myself and move in the direction of things I really want to do,” she says. “It sort of did something to my system where it’s very hard for me to do things that are not good for my soul.” For instance, she now takes more time off and doesn’t push herself to work more than she needs to. However, the experience itself is challenging — between the heat, rapid heart rate, vomiting, and diarrhea — and she dislikes the scars it leaves on her skin.

Daniel Santos, a spiritual healer and curandero initiated by the Shipibo in Peru, began working with kambô during a transitional time in his life when he had just moved and started a new business. “My gut was not functioning at its best, and I was having a lot of anxiety,” he remembers. “I felt like the kambô ceremony was perfectly timed to get me back on the right track. It completely refreshed my gut, my mental space, and my overall spiritual state of being. Kambô energetically helped me cut the low vibrational frequencies following me, like a sword of protection.”

Kambô Risks and Contraindications

There have been several news reports of kambô-related deaths over the past few years. Most of these deaths could have been prevented with greater attention to safety and adherence to Indigenous practices, according to Mudge. For instance, some practitioners place the dots on different meridians in the body based on what the person is looking to treat, in a similar way to acupuncture. However, this is not an Indigenous practice and can cause issues if the dots are placed too close to the heart. 

“If you ask any of the 15 pajés from Indigenous tribes that I’ve trained with, they all say, ‘Whatever you do, do not apply kambô anywhere near the heart area,’” says Mudge. Instead, they tend to apply kambô on the upper arm (for men) or lower leg (for women). Mudge says the misplacement of kambô on the chest is what led to the death of one Australian woman due to cardiac issues from kambô. Another thing Indigenous tribes do differently from the West is that, rather than water, they drink caiçuma, a diluted broth made from the cassava plant that contains probiotics and electrolytes. Giving someone lots and lots of water by itself can cause hyponatremia, or low sodium concentration in the blood, says Mudge, who believes this condition is responsible for several kambô-related deaths. 

There are also some people who simply shouldn’t use kambô. “Due to its vasodilator and muscle contraction effects, kambô shouldn’t be tried by people with heart conditions, circulatory system problems, or respiratory issues,” says Zamberlan, adding that anyone who is pregnant should avoid it. It’s also possible for kambô to trigger an asthma attack, which has caused at least one kambô-related death, so anyone with asthma should tell the facilitator and make sure they have access to an inhaler during the ceremony, says Mudge. In addition, most facilitators will give participants just one dot to gauge their reaction before offering more; you should make sure the leader of your first ceremony does this.

People shouldn’t use kambô soon after using 5-MeO-DMT, which can exacerbate the negative effects of the kambô, says Eastman. She also urges waiting at least a month post-kambô before using iboga or ibogaine. “Specific questions should be directed toward an experienced practitioner,” she adds. “There are new safety guidelines being updated as organizations such as the International Association of Kambô Practitioners gain experience with this medicine in the framework of the complexities of the western world, including new medication interactions or contraindications.” 

Finding a Kambô Facilitator

Before deciding to do kambô, it’s important to find a well-trained facilitator. You can find a database of trained kambô facilitators on the International Association of Kambô Practitioners (IAKP) website; I interviewed several before selecting one. However, being a member of the IAKP is not enough, as joining this organization only requires people to complete a two-week course. “We need to really know the medicine before we apply it, and it’s not in one or two weeks that we become knowledgeable,” says Kamãnawa, adding that many “are appropriating from our cultural tradition and working for greed, not for love and to heal people. This is becoming a trend in the West: People work for money and they have never been to the village and say they have become shamans.” Among the Noke Kuin, people need to receive 100-150 kambô points at once before serving kambô. (For most people, 10 is considered a lot).

Eastman believes it’s best to receive kambô from someone with at least five years of experience. “The level of training, in my opinion, should be quite extensive for this practice, as it requires a vast knowledge of the body,” she says. For instance, a kambô facilitator needs to understand how kambô interacts with other plant medicines, drugs, and pharmaceuticals to keep participants safe. Eastman also recommends finding a facilitator trained in first aid, as while serious incidents are rare, you would not want to be without help should one occur. If someone is purging, for example, vomit could block their airway, and they’ll need someone who knows what to do. To really ensure optimal safety, the facilitator should have a defibrillator, blood pressure meter, and inhaler on sight, says Mudge.

Not to mention, being an effective kambô facilitator requires sensitivity. “It’s reasonably common for someone receiving kambô to faint,” Mudge explains. “Now, they’re really vulnerable; are they going to feel taken care of?” You don’t want to end up in my situation and pass out without someone to attend to you because the facilitator is distracted.

Some people use kambô to heal from sexual abuse, Mudge adds, and a ceremony leader could re-trigger someone if they aren’t good with boundaries: “Women usually receive kambô on the legs, so the facilitator’s got to be touching their legs. But is the facilitator really going to have the emotional maturity and self-awareness to be respectful of energetic boundaries such that women feel safe?” To make sure your facilitator is emotionally competent, Mudge recommends working with someone who either has years of kambô experience and training with an Indigenous tribe or has other training in a modality like psychotherapy or massage therapy in addition to the IAKP’s training. 

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Getting Through Difficult Kambô Ceremonies

Unlike other substances within the plant medicine family, kambô isn’t fun — at least not while you’re on it. Every time the physical discomfort sets in, thoughts flood my mind like why am I doing this again? and I’ll never do this again. Then, afterwards, I’ll remember why I did it, and I will end up coming back. Hathaway similarly finds herself in fearful thought spirals during kambô ceremonies, worrying she took too much or is in danger when it gets difficult. As this happens, she’ll remind herself “just breathe, and I’m not going to die.” 

Because kambô ceremonies are so difficult to get through, people often emerge with “a feeling of resilience,” says Eastman. “It’s something that you can resource when things are difficult in life. I believe that kambô is a medicine for developing the inner warrior.” As with other medicines, it’s important to integrate your experience afterward by speaking with a professional and reflecting on how you can apply the learnings to your life. “You need to contribute with what you have learned,” says Kamãnawa. “There’s no point in learning and then escaping.”

Legality of Kambô 

Kambô is legal in many countries including the United States. However, some countries, such as Australia and Brazil, ban or restrict the use, possession, or distribution of kambô, says C.L. Mike Schmidt, a lawyer at Schmidt & Clark LLP. In the U.S., kambô is not FDA-approved, so it’s not legal to market it as a medicine or supplement, and there’s no oversight regarding quality or contaminants. 

“Practitioners or enthusiasts who make health claims about kambô, such as diagnosing, treating, curing, or preventing any disease, are violating the law and may face legal consequences,” says Schmidt. “Additionally, kambô may be subject to state or local laws that vary from place to place. For instance, some states may have stricter regulations on the use of animal products, or may require a license or certification for administering substances to humans. Therefore, it is advisable to check the laws and regulations of your specific location before using or offering kambô.”

Ethics Around Kambô Usage

“As the global interest in kambô therapy grows, concerns about the potential overharvesting and impact on frog populations must be monitored and stewarded,” says Eastman. “Sustainable harvesting practices are essential to ensure the long-term viability of kambô medicine and the well-being of the frog populations.” Unfortunately, the “overwhelming majority” of kambô in the West comes from “ frogs that have been exploited to say the least and tortured to say the worst,” says Mudge. “You’ve got a really impoverished population that has been selling something to a gringo market, and basically, if you torture the frog, you can get more product.”

Rather than keeping frogs for themselves, kambô suppliers should be visiting frogs in the wild, extracting the medicine, then letting the frogs be, says Mudge. His own supplier “goes down to the riverside, picks up the frog, puts some water on it, sings to it, gives it a little massage, and gets enough medicine from that,” he says, explaining that frogs will voluntarily secrete medicine when they’re ready. When vetting kambô facilitators, make sure their medicine is harvested using practices that are not harmful to the frogs or local communities; they should not harvest frequently from the same frog populations or harvest during the frogs’ breeding season. “Above all, involve local communities in the sustainable management of kambô harvesting and ensure that benefits support local tribes,” says Eastman.

“When you connect with nature and the medicines, you are next to the Indigenous people, the spirit of the forest, the healers,” Kamãnawa adds. “You need to have a lot of responsibility to work with these medicines. This is a very serious thing. The spirit of the kambô is strong because it heals many diseases, and that’s why we are preserving this knowledge.”

DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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