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DoubleBlind: Giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) on black and white flame background. In this article, DoubleBlind explores kambo treatment, how it works, and whether or not it is safe.
DoubleBlind: Giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) on black and white flame background. In this article, DoubleBlind explores kambo treatment, how it works, and whether or not it is safe.

Kambo: Is Burning Frog Venom into Your Skin a Wonder Cleanse or Risky Procedure?

Getting poisoned with frog venom doesn't sound fun, but enthusiasts swear by it.

Anna Wilcox // August 12, 2020

Sometimes you just need a reset. For the majority of people, that means starting a diet, beginning a meditation practice, or changing up your environment. But, for a select few, the desire for a complete life overhaul can lead to some unusual solutions—like kambo. Kambo is the name for a frog secretion that’s applied to fresh burn marks on the skin; it’s a practice that’s becoming increasingly popular in the West. But, what is kambo, really, in regard to how it acts upon the body and mind? And is this frog-based cleanse even safe? Here’s the scoop on the shamanic ritual that’s ripe with controversy. 

What’s Kambo?

Kambo (Kambô or Sapo) is the name for sections of a specific Amazonian tree frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor). The frog skin secretes a liquid that contains over 100 different chemical constituents. The most famous of these chemicals are a series of peptides that trigger temporary hyperactivity in the immune system. Basically, kambo treatments provoke intense flu symptoms, including vomiting and diarrhea.  

The shamanic use of kambo is a tradition amongst several different Amazonian tribes, especially in the Brazillian Amazon. The word “kambo” comes from the Kaxinawá people, but other indigenous communities have their own word for the frog secretion. The Amahuaca, Katukina, Kulina, Yawanawá, Matses, Marubo and Mayoruna communities all reportedly use some form of kambo in either their hunting or healing practices.

Each Amazonian culture has unique values and beliefs that they place upon kambo, and it is impossible to do justice to each of these intricate perspectives in this brief article. But, to speak in a very general sense, most scholars report that kambo is used to purge “bad principals” from the body. This “purge” often inspires a very severe bout of vomiting, which thereby expels bad principals and reinvigorates the participant with good health.  

Kambo “cleanses” are quickly gaining popularity in the Western world. Many consumers are drawn to kambo for it’s believed healing properties; those with addictions, depression, and sometimes serious health issues partake in a kambo detox in an effort to reprogram their immune system and purge unwanted “buildup” in their systems. Whether that buildup is physical or psychological, it’s up to the individual to decide.  

Shelby Hartman, co-founder of DoubleBlind is no stranger to kambo. “Kambo is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. There are no visuals, but it’s very physically intense and it can cause all kinds of reactions, from a racing heart to hot flashes.

What is a Kambo Treatment?

DoubleBlind: Giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor). In this article, DoubleBlind explores kambo treatment, how it works, and whether or not it is safe.
Giant leaf frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor), via Wikimedia Commons.

During kambo treatment, a practitioner burns a series of spots on the skin with a piece of charred wood or incense. Next, dried kambo is applied to the open wounds. Within mere minutes, the peptides in the kambo trigger an intense immune response, similar to allergic anaphylaxis. Here are some of the main symptoms of a kambo experience:

  • Fever
  • Swelling of the face
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Pain 
  • Rapid heart rate 
  • Urination
  • Overwhelming emotion

Most kambo treatments consist of five to six dots. However, a practitioner might recommend more or less depending on your unique needs. Many individuals also fast for at least 24 hours before a kambo treatment.

In Western contexts, the setting for a kambo ceremony also varies. Many kambo rituals are performed in a group setting, complete with music, and may integrate other new age practices like yoga, crystal therapy, and sound therapy. Some kambo treatments, however, are given in a more clinical setting. Ultimately, it’s up to the consumer to research and decide what type of experience is more suitable.

How Long Does Kambo Last? 

For most people, the active effects of kambo are short, lasting between five and 40 minutes. But, in some rare cases, nausea, vomiting, and inflammation can persist up to several hours later. If kambo symptoms last more than an hour, it’s important to get to an emergency room. Persistent vomiting and diarrhea can quickly dehydrate you and drinking excess plain water may worsen the problem—electrolyte-rich fluids are needed after intense bouts of vomiting, and only medical professionals will be able to give you the precise care that you may need and stop allergic reactions. 

How Much Does Kambo Treatment Cost?

Kambo treatments don’t come cheap. They can often run between $50 and $400 USD depending on the style of treatment and your practitioner. Many people purchase numerous kambo sessions in bulk, which reduces the price per session. And no, insurance does not cover kambo treatments. 

How Does Kambo Work?

DoubleBlind: Image of kambo frog secretion on piece of wood being prepared for treatment.
Frog secretions being prepared for kambo treatment.

The plant medicine community has tentatively embraced kambo, but it is very different from a traditional psychedelic. Medicines like psilocybin and ayahuasca dramatically alter your consciousness and temporarily pull you into a different reality. In general, psychedelics produce a profound mental experience. Kambo is different, however. It exerts its most significant effects on the immune system, not the brain. 

The peptides in kambo are noxious to the human body, so the immune system becomes hyperactive in an attempt to purge the toxicant from your system—hence, the vomiting, inflammation, and severe flu-like symptoms. Many practitioners describe kambo treatments as “vaccinations,” due to its ability to intensely activate the immune system. The immunomodulating properties of kambo peptides are a topic of increasing fascination to the scientific community; kambo peptides are being studied in cancer, pain, addiction, and more. 

Read: What You Should Know to Have a Safe Kambo Experience

But, while the frog secretions produce extreme physical reactions, they may produce psychological responses as well. Most Westerners attend kambo ceremonies because of the feel-good effects of after the purge. (Although, of course, many attend for relief from physical ailments as well.) For attendees, kambo can feel like an intense cleansing experience, where old habits and ailments are purged from the body; there’s a belief that the bad, the harmful, and the ugly are quite literally vomited out. “I got really hot, almost like I had been running in the heat,” says Hartman. “I started to feel a little bit out of it and then I vomited a lot.”

And while this may sound odd or extreme to some, feelings of health after a purge are not unheard of, even in Western culture. For example, it’s not uncommon for vomiting to end the intense pain and disorientation caused by migraine headaches. There may also be a correlation between some types of fasting and recovery from the flu. Although, it’s important to note that the science behind these phenomena doesn’t support these activities as beneficial treatments for either illness. 

Nonetheless, the classic kambo purge had a positive impact on Hartman. “In the days following [the kambo experience],” she explains, “I had more energy than I remember ever having. I always have difficulty getting out of the bed in the morning, but all of a sudden I was waking up, refreshed, at 7:00 a.m. ready to start my day. I do feel it pulled some negative energies and, maybe even traumas, out of me.”

Of course, the idea of a “purge” can also be a slippery slope. For those recovering from eating disorders or other self-harming habits, the idea of “purging out the unwanted” may be triggering and cause for alarm. Still, the idea is still appealing for many who struggle with ailments as diverse as addiction, depression, chronic pain, and a multitude of other ailments. 

“Some people don’t like the physical intensity of the experience,” says Hartman. “But I actually didn’t mind it, because I appreciated how lucid I was the whole time. Unlike when I’m on a psychedelic, there was never a moment where I didn’t understand what was happening or when it would be over.”

Is Kambo Legal?

Kambo is perfectly legal in the United States, Canada, and in most of the world. Thus far, Brazil is the only country to ban the commercialization of kambo. Kambo is also illegal to import in Chile. But, apart from these two countries, kambo is legal to buy, sell, possess, and administer. In most countries, kambo is not regulated as a medicine or as a food. So, there are no set regulations for kambo safety. However, the International Association of Kambo Practitioners offers independent training and accreditation to help ensure the safety and consistency of the natural treatment. 

Is Kambo Safe?

There’s no doubt that kambo is growing in popularity around the world. But, with the export of this indigenous tradition comes numerous potential risks. Thus far, health authorities report that five people have died after kambo administration. For this reason, several researchers call for investigations into whether kambo is linked to sudden death. 

In the cases thus far, it’s unclear whether or not the actual causes of death are linked to kambo directly. This is mostly due to a lack of knowledge about kambo’s actual effects. Nevertheless, it’s important to remain mindful when experimenting with any type of alternative health treatment, especially one as intensive as kambo. 

Kambo is not Sufficiently Studied 

It often seems that Western scientific and indigenous healing practices are at odds with each other. On one hand, kambo is a centuries-old tradition amongst several Amazonian cultures. On the other hand, the practice is being commodified and exported to different cultures around the world. Exporting kambo means that larger populations are engaging with the remedy. Interest in kambo is growing, thanks to the frog’s new status as an alternative health trend.

But here’s where things get tricky. The more people use kambo, the greater the risk. The greater the risk, the greater the need to look into the safety of the practice. Before the health trend kicked in, kambo was limited to a relatively small population of people. As demand for kambo increases, so does the need to discern whether or not some people may be more vulnerable to harmful side effects than others. It’s also extremely important for people to vet their practitioners to ensure that they’re in safe hands. 

Water Toxicity 

One of the most significant risks of kambo is one that few people expect: drinking too much water. Drinking too much water can cause water intoxication—a.k.a. hyponatremia—which occurs when the body holds on to too much water relative to available electrolytes, like sodium. The central nervous system relies on electrolytes to function correctly. When too much water is on board, things go awry—muscle spasms, feelings of drunkenness, seizures, and even death are all possible consequences of water toxicity. 

Water intoxication is particularly risky during kambo ceremonies, where vomiting and diarrhea are commonplace. Both vomiting and diarrhea cause dehydration, removing much-needed electrolytes from the body. Thus, easy access to emergency electrolyte powders and electrolyte drinks is a recommended precaution for those who partake in kambo ceremonies. 

For the record, the National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that men drink about 3.7 liters of water per day, and women should drink 2.7 liters. But it’s not recommended that you drink all of this water in one sitting. The human kidney can reasonably excrete around one liter per hour. So, unless you’re vomiting immediately after, exercising intensely, or in extreme heat, it’s not recommended to drink more than one liter of water every one to two hours. It’s also not advised to drink this much for several consecutive hours. It’s important to remain mindful of this fact should your practitioner recommend that you drink more.   

Unknown Drug & Medical Interactions

Many people look to kambo to heal from often debilitating health conditions—mental and physical alike. But, it’s important for those exploring kambo—or any alternative healing practice, for that matter—to be mindful that mixing kambo and your daily medications may increase your likelihood of potentially dangerous side effects. If you have a medical issue prior to trying kambo, it’s recommended to read the International Association of kambo Practitioners’ list of contraindications

Staying Safe with Kambo 

DoubleBlind: Image of kambo ceremony burn marks on arm.
Kambo ceremony burn marks.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are always risks with kambo. Healthcare providers know very little about kambo treatments, their side effects, and their risks. So, it’s important that you find a qualified practitioner to administer the medicine. In an effort to reduce harm, here are a few safety tips to consider before trying kambo.

Find a Qualified Practitioner 

If you’re engaging with kambo outside the Amazon, you may want to find a licensed practitioner. Many practitioners in the United States, Australia, the UK, and Canada receive training from experienced teachers. The International Association of kambo Practitioners lists licensed practitioners all over the world in an interactive map. Or, you check out this kambo safety checklist while you’re searching for a practitioner. 

Keep Doses Low

Kambo is not like a psychedelic. Higher doses do not make you more likely to have a divine experience or slip into a different realm of consciousness. Instead, the higher the dose, the greater the side effects, and the more difficult the experience can become. So, most practitioners will recommend that you start small and test  your reaction to kambo first. 

“When I did it, we were instructed to drink a lot of water right before it was administered to us,” says Hartman. “I chugged about half a gallon of water and then the practitioner did a test point on me, which is essentially a little bit of kambo to make sure that I was okay with preceding with the experience. We decided that it made most sense for me to start with three points.”

The idea of starting slow is also recommended by Dr. Jan Keppel Hesselink. Keppel Hesselink gave three general recommendations about kambo safety in a 2018 paper. In the first session, he recommends starting small and testing just one kambo dot. But, he also warns that not all kambo is created equally. So, some doses may be quite strong, while others may be weak. Finally, he explains that higher doses “may induce severe adverse events, and may also lead to health risks making hospitalization necessary.”

Stick to Traditional Placement 

Shamanic practitioners traditionally apply kambo to the ankle, shoulder, or arm most often. However, some practitioners may recommend applying kambo to chakra centers, which align vertically up the middle torso. As ABC News Australia reports, applying kambo to the chest may give the noxious peptides a shortcut to the bloodstream. At least one doctor believes that this application style may make you more likely to experience heart complications, although the validity of this concern is hard to prove at this point in time. A trained practitioner should be able to work with you to find the best dot locations for your body. 

Avoid Overhydration 

A kambo experience takes a toll. But, over-hydrating can worsen the experience by causing its own series of side effects. To avoid hypernatremia, don’t drink more than one liter of water per hour, and do not drink this much for several hours in a row. Ask your practitioner about drinking water with added electrolyte powder instead of plain water if you vomited or had diarrhea during your kambo experience. 

Don’t Self-Administer 

A 42-year-old man died after self-administering kambo in his home. Autopsy could not reveal an exact cause of death. But, coroners did find that the man may have had a pre-existing heart condition, which caused a thickening of the walls of his heart. In any case, it is not recommended to take kambo alone or to self-administer kambo.

*This article was not reviewed by a healthcare professional. Please do not use this information in place of medical advice or treatment. 

Anna Wilcox is a writer, anthophile, and perpetual student. Published on Herb, Leafly, and Green Flower. Reach out on Twitter @anna_wlcx. 

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