The first time Tricia Eastman, founder of Psychedelic Journeys (a community that facilitates psychedelics ceremonies) tried kambo, an Amazonian medicine made from the phyllomedusa bicolour 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 the 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.