Explaining Kambo: A Look at this Traditional Medicine and Its Reported Benefits


Kambo, also known as Sapo or Vacina do Sapo, is the name for a natural frog secretion derived from the giant monkey frog, Phyllomedusa bicolor, native to the Amazon rainforest regions of South America.

Indigenous tribes in South America have used Kambo for centuries, but it has recently sparked interest across the world as a potential treatment for various health conditions.

But what exactly is Kambo and what benefits does a "Kambo Cleanse" offer?

This article will explore what this substance is, how it is used traditionally and modernly, and what the research says about its purported effects and side effects.

Kambo Frog Awaits Milking at the Yawanawá
A Kambo frog, also known as the giant monkey frog, caught the night before at the Yawanawa tribe's village. During the ceremony, its secretion will be directly harvested and applied as Kambo medicine.

What is Kambo?

Kambo refers to the waxy secretion from the skin of the giant leaf frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor), also known as the giant monkey tree frog. It is a complex mixture of peptides, proteins, and other bioactive compounds.

The Matses, Katukina, and other Amazonian tribes traditionally scrape the secretion from the skin of the giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor). The secretion is either used immediately or stored for later use.

Kambo harvesting is done seasonally to avoid disturbing the frogs during their mating cycle. Indigenous peoples have developed specialized techniques to humanely source Kambo without harming the frogs. When harvested sustainably, the frogs fully regenerate their secretions and survive to breed in the next season

If the Kambo secretion isn't to be used immediately, it is applied to flat wooden palettes, often fashioned on the spot. Here, it dries into a hard glaze, creating what are known as 'Kambo sticks'.

Alternatively, the tribes dry and grind the Kambo into 'Kambo Powder', which is then stored in an airtight container.

During Kambo rituals or ceremonies, the Kambo glaze from the palettes is reconstituted with water and applied topically to the 'gates'. However, the powder is usually sprinkled dry onto the dampened gates and is not reconstituted with water. It can often be stronger due to having a larger surface area.

There are no known synthetic versions of Kambo, and therefore, the survival of the Kambo frog is paramount for preserving this important natural medicine.

Kambo Dots being Applied to Open Gates in the Arm in Kambo Ceremony
Kambo dots being applied to open gates on the arm during a Kambo ceremony. The underlying white skin indicates that the gates are properly prepared to receive the Kambo

How is Kambo Collected?

The collection of Kambo is a magical, traditional practice carried out by tribal shamans. It occurs during the rainy season before breeding time. The shaman must first determine the precise area and night he will find the frogs. Mimicking the unique call of the Kambo frog, he waits patiently in darkness, listening for a reply and repeating the process until he locates the tree where his elusive prize is perched.

Hiking through the jungle at night seeking the Kambo frog.
Trekking barefoot through the jungle at night, a Kambo shaman sets out to locate the prized giant monkey frog, or Kambo
Shaking the tree to dislodge the Kambo frog
After locating the Kambo frogs by mimicking their call, the shaman tries to dislodge one from the tree using a long stick

Once under the tree, the shaman shines a flashlight up into the branches, searching for the telltale glow of the frog's reflective eyes in the dark. When spotted, the shaman either climbs the taller trees or shakes the smaller ones to capture his quarry.

With the frog secured, simply handling it causes the flow of secretion, which can then be collected by carefully scraping the frog's back and legs. The shaman must take care not to touch his eyes or mouth afterwards, which could have adverse effects.

Shaking the tree, trying to get the Kambo to fall
When the long stick proves unsuccessful, the shaman resorts to shaking the tree to dislodge the Kambo frog
Kambo holding onto the tree, trying not to be caught
As Kambo frogs only come down to the ground to breed, catching them can be quite challenging

The Matses stake and stretch the frog between wooden posts to maximize secretion, while the more restrained Katukina favor a polite holding method. Often a superficial nick is made on the frog's leg to mark it was harvested, preventing a repeat collection.

Traditional Uses of Kambo

Indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest, including the Matses and Katukina, have utilized Kambo for various purposes ranging from ritual cleansing, protection from tropical diseases, and shamanic hunting practices; they report that participating in a Kambo ceremony prior to hunting gives them superhuman strength and suppresses their human smell. These tribes have extensive knowledge of the medicine and use it not only for hunting, but also as a treatment for illness, a general health tonic, and to remove "panema"—viewed as bad luck or negative energy.

Traditionally, Kambo is administered by an experienced shaman within the tribe or by trained providers in the West. Ceremonies range from simple to more elaborate rituals depending on the specific needs.

Kambo Shaman Prepares to Apply Kambo after mixing dry Kambo with water
A Kambo shaman from the Yawanawá tribe works with the fresh secretion from a giant leaf frog, or Kambo, prior to applying it in a riverside ceremony

The medicine is applied topically by first making small "gates" or burns on the skin using an ember vine. This removes the outer epidermis layer and reveals the dermis.

Once the gates are ready, Kambo is applied, initiating an intense short-term reaction including biological effects like sweating, purging, vomiting, and other symptoms.

Each of these reactions is considered a normal response to Kambo and ultimately beneficial to the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies.

Kambo Participant at the Yawanawá village works with Kambo
A participant receives Kambo at the Yawanawá tribe and prepares to purge

From the Amazon to the World: How Kambo Went Global

Kambo's origins trace back centuries as a traditional medicine used by Amazonian tribes like the Katukina, Yawanawá, and Matses. But it would first reach the wider world in the late 1800s due to a cultural collision deep in the jungle.

At this time, the Amazon rubber boom was peaking to meet high global demand. Hordes of rubber tappers entered the forests along the Amazon River, with cities like Manaus and Iquitos ballooning. But tropical diseases soon plagued the industry, including malaria, yellow fever, and parasites.

On the brink of an epidemic, the rubber tappers encountered the forest's indigenous inhabitants. Though initially distrustful, the desperate workers accepted an unlikely remedy – the application of a waxy frog secretion the tribes called Kambo. To the tappers' astonishment, Kambo not only cured their afflictions, but regular use optimized health in the tropical climate.

In gratitude, they traded metal tools like machetes to the tribes. Through this exchange, Kambo crossed cultures from solitary tribal rituals to mainstream global recognition.

Former Katukina chief Fernando Katukina stands before a rubber tree bearing the scars of his family's history. His father and grandfather tapped this same tree during the Amazon rubber boom, their markings etched into the bark over decades.

Modern Applications of Kambo

While indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest continue to use Kambo for spiritual and medicinal purposes, its use has spread to other parts of the world including Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Today, this alternative medicine is often used to help with the following:

  • Boosting immunity: Some of the peptides in Kambo are thought to stimulate the immune system.
  • Chronic inflammation: Kambo's anti-inflammatory properties may help reduce swelling and pain associated with chronic inflammatory conditions.
  • Chronic pain relief: Kambo's analgesic effects may alleviate certain types of chronic pain.
  • Creating clarity and promoting groundedness: The purging process can provide mental, emotional, and spiritual clarity.
  • Depression/Mood disorders: Kambo is used to alleviate depression, anxiety, PTSD in some cases.
  • Detoxification support: The vomiting and diarrhea are thought to flush toxins from the body.
  • General health: Kambo is used by some as a general health tonic and preventative medicine.
  • Increased energy: Some users report feeling energized and stronger after Kambo treatment.
  • Lyme disease: Kambo is used to help manage Lyme disease symptoms by some people.
  • Migraines: Kambo may help prevent or reduce migraine pain for some individuals.
  • Overcoming addiction: By reducing cravings and pain, Kambo may support overcoming substance addiction.
  • Reducing anxiety and PTSD: Kambo is said to help calm the mind and reduce anxiety/trauma.

There is no definitive scientific evidence that Kambo benefits any of these medical conditions, but there are many anecdotal reports of people receiving positive results from Kambo.

Kaku prepares to open the gates during a Kambo ritual
Kaku prepares to create the 'gates' on his son with a glowing ember vine. His son has received Kambo many times previously, as demonstrated by the scarring visible on his skin

Because many practitioners do not have the direct benefit of tribal knowledge, they are often trained to follow safety protocols which teach the proper application of Kambo, including placement and dosage.

The intense cleansing of this "ordeal medicine" can last 30-90 minutes, and recipients benefit from having a trained provider guiding them through the process. This support might involve helping the person to the bathroom, holding them upright if they feel weak, providing emotional encouragement, or simply being present. Most people report feeling purified and renewed after their Kambo, though the process is not always pleasant or easy.

What to expect during a Kambo Ritual or Ceremony

Most ceremonies follow a similar structure. Here is what to expect:

1/ Preparation: The participant abstains from food, drugs, and alcohol for 12 hours prior to receiving Kambo. They remove contact lenses, tight fitting jewelry/watches, belts, and loosen restrictive clothing to feel unconstrained. The participant generally drinks 2-3 liters of water (or traditionally, a drink prepared with fermented cassava) before working with Kambo. Although, some people do participate in Kambo ceremonies without pre-hydration, known as working "dry".

2/ Openings Prepared: The Kambo provider will assess the appropriate amount of Kambo to administer based on the recipient's experience and other factors. The dosage is measured in points, which refers to the number of gates (openings) to be made. A glowing ember vine is used to briefly touch the skin with a dab and a twist, a small round gate appears. If the gate is white, it is ready for Kambo application. If it appears grey, there is still some skin that requires removal, which can simply be scraped off.

3/ Kambo Prepared: If using Kambo from a stick, a drop or two of water is added to reconstitute the dried secretion into a viscous paste that can be applied. This reconstituted Kambo can then be divided into small dots for later application onto the gates. If using Kambo powder, it is typically already fine in texture, but grinding it further until talc-like optimizes potency. This powdered Kambo is then ready to be sprinkled directly onto the moistened gates.

4/ Kambo Applied: Once the Kambo is administered, whether as a paste or powder, the Kambo ceremony truly begins. Tribes like the Katukina offer guidance to keep the Kambo on for 20 minutes, no matter the difficulty.

The effects can be surprisingly immediate and intense, sometimes even overpowering. In some cases, Kambo recipients may momentarily lose consciousness, underscoring the importance of working with a trained provider for appropriate support.

During a ceremony, participants often experience severe vomiting, explosive diarrhea, excessive sweating, emotional release through crying, uncontrollable shaking, or in rare cases, a deep peace and meditative state - although this is less common for newcomers.

It is important to note that vomiting or having a bowel movement is not required for a Kambo ceremony to be effective; there are many ways to purge and release, and they are all equally valid.

5/ Kambo Removed: After 20 minutes have passed or when the participant requests removal, the Kambo is simply wiped off the skin with a damp cloth or tissue. If dried on, gentle scrubbing may be needed to remove residues.

The effects start fading within 1-2 minutes after Kambo removal. At this point, it is ideal to lie down, often wrapped in a blanket, and relax for a prolonged period.

This phase resembles Shavasana in yoga - a time for deep relaxation and reflection.

6/ Post Kambo: After relaxing, it is beneficial to seal the gates with Dragon's Blood, a viscous tree sap that accelerates healing of the openings and the overall healing process. Some claim it also minimizes scarring.

At this point, it is ideal for participants to journal and document any insights gained during their Kambo experience.

In a group setting, there may be an opportunity to share reflections on the ceremony.

A group relaxes after receiving Kambo during a modern Kambo ritual in Topanga, California

Scientific Research on Kambo Benefits

Today it is known that the secretions of Phyllomedusa bicolor are composed of molecules with different biological activities, including antimicrobial peptides such as dermaseptins, and peptides with opioid properties such as dermorphins and deltorphins.

Also known are peptides such as phyllocaerulein (with action on smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal system and analgesic effect), phyllokinin (a bradykinin with hypotensive action), phyllomedusin (a tachykinin with vasodilating action), and sauvagine (a peptide with peripheral vasodilating action).

These peptides have been individually examined for their molecular structure and biological effects. The possible use of some of these peptides, such as cerulein, for therapeutic purposes has been evaluated due to their intrinsic analgesic properties. It's true that the bioactive peptides in Kambo cause a pharmacological response, but there's no research yet to support whether that translates into lasting benefits.

In summary Kambo contains potent antibacterial, antimicrobial, and analgesic compounds that may account for some of its reported health benefits alone.

Research also suggests it acts as a tonic for the immune system by increasing white blood cell production.

So far, human scientific studies specifically on Kambo are limited. More rigorous human studies are needed to fully verify Kambo's long-term mental and physical benefits.

Safety Concerns and Potential Health Risks of Kambo

When administered appropriately under proper supervision, severe side effects from Kambo are rare. However, there are potential health risks that must be carefully considered. It is vital for the Kambo provider to thoroughly screen participants beforehand and exclude anyone with known contraindications. Safety protocols should always be followed to minimize the risks.

People with heart conditions, pregnancy, stroke, epilepsy, or taking medications like antidepressants should avoid Kambo due to possible complications. Potential serious side effects of Kambo intoxication, although extremely rare, can occur and have included acute renal failure, dermatomyositis, esophageal rupture, severe psychosis, toxic hepatitis and sudden death [1]. Also note that independent of Kambo, the overconsumption of water can cause water poisoning, which can also result in death. It is vital to work with an expert practitioner properly trained in Kambo administration protocols to mitigate any risks. However, self-administration is also possible with extensive training to ensure proper preparation, dosage, and set & setting.

Modern Kambo Ceremony
A participant self-applies her own Kambo and works alone. This can be safe when using small amounts of the medicine and with extensive experience and preparation

The Future of Kambo

Kambo remains controversial within the mainstream medical community but continues garnering interest for its potential health applications. Moving forward, comprehensive studies on humans are needed to better understand the mechanisms, efficacy, and safety profile of this traditional medicine. Standardized practice guidelines will also be important for ethical and responsible implementation.

With proper procedures and screening, Kambo may eventually find a place as a complementary treatment. But more evidence is required for it to be widely accepted and regulated within healthcare systems. By continuing to learn from indigenous wisdom while applying modern research, Kambo's role as an alternative medicine could be better defined.

Some final wisdom from the late Fernando Katukina

Fernando Katukina, elder and esteemed leader of the Katukina peoples, was known for his wisdom and generosity of spirit. During a gathering with the author one humid jungle night, he shared an evocative perspective on Kambo that resonates deeply:

I am Kambo.

I hope you respect my Forest; that is my house.

You are my child; you are my strength.

I never harmed anyone, so don't harm anyone.

You and I are connected; my spirit will protect you; please respect me.

From this day on, you are my Shaman.


Kambo Research Citations

[1] Sacco MA, Zibetti A, Bonetta CF, Scalise C, Abenavoli L, Guarna F, Gratteri S, Ricci P, Aquila I. Kambo: Natural drug or potential toxic agent? A literature review of acute poisoning cases. Toxicol Rep. 2022 Apr 15;9:905-913. doi: 10.1016/j.toxrep.2022.04.005. PMID: 35515815; PMCID: PMC9061256.

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