The Kambo Cleanse: the frog poison ritual used to sharpen the mind
Would you inject yourself with frog poison for this growing alt-wellness trend?
image Jack Hamilton
words Patrick Heardman
In the jungles of the Amazon at night time, a shaman is searching through the darkness, listening intently for a particular sound. He hears it, coming from a nearby tree. He reaches in, rustles the branches, and pulls out a giant monkey frog, pinning its four legs to the ground. He then takes a stick and rubs it along the frog’s back until its waxy secretions – emitted in self-defence – are soaked into the wood. After burning small holes into the arms of native warriors, the shaman rubs the toxins into the open wounds. After vomiting violently, the warriors say they are more alert and ready to hunt.
This ceremony, known as Kambo, has made its way to the Western world as a form of alternative medicine for people looking to rid their body of unwanted toxins and to sharpen their mind. Supposedly, being given a dose of frog poison, which has been described as having the combined effect of a bad flu and food poisoning within minutes of exposure, has remarkable healing powers.
But is there any scientific basis to these theories and why do some people swear by a ritual that often leads to violent vomiting?
One of the most prevalent stories of the beginnings of Kambo originates from the Kaxinawa people in Brazil. The story goes that the forest inhabitants had fallen ill, and a shaman took sacred plant medicine in order to communicate with the forest spirits for advice. Legend has it, he made contact with a spirit who showed him the healing power of the giant monkey frog and taught him how to use it to heal his people.
The practice is thought to have stayed with the people of the forest for thousands of years, and was only brought to the cities of Brazil in the 1990s. Since then, it has spread globally and is becoming increasingly popular among Westerners seeking alternative treatments.
Today, there are readily available Kambo practitioners around the world offering group sessions. There are centres in London, New York, Miami, LA, and, of course, San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, famed for its tech-bro open-minded drug experimentation.
Dr David Rabin, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist in Monterey, California recently told the New York Times that “last year, none of my patients had ever heard of kambo, now I would say 20% to 30% of my new patients already know about it. I have a lot of patients who are like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do kambo this weekend’”.
Jena la Flamme, 42, a sexual empowerment coach based in California who has undertaken the Kambo ritual numbers times says that it gives her a sense of “superpower immunity. You kind of feel invincible from it… I feel like it’s a warrior medicine.”
Meanwhile Andrew Styer, 42, who works for a Silicon Valley tech giant, found the process helpful for treating psychological trauma. “There always felt like there was something physically stuck, a somatic feeling,” he says. “Every time I went back to this memory, I’d feel the physical sensations – the tight chest, the anxiety, the overwhelmed feelings.”
He claims that Kambo helped him to “feel lighter” and that “the emotional weight and attachment” that had formed to his traumatic memory “was no longer overwhelming.”
Despite anecdotal ‘success stories’ and claims of Kambo cleanse benefits, there is little to no scientific evidence that poisoning yourself with frog secretion is beneficial to wellbeing. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary, that it could be harmful.
According to a 2018 report by Jan M Keppel Hesselink, a professor of molecular pharmacology at the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany, there have been several cases where people undergoing a ‘Kambo cleanse’ have been hospitalised, and a few instances of deaths. Although, “some instances may have involved the wrong frog species, an overconsumption of water or pre-existing heart conditions,” according to Alex Williams at the New York Times.
In Australia, the practise has been outlawed by the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) marking Kambo as a “schedule 10 poison” in the category for “substances of such danger to health as to warrant prohibition of sale, supply and use,” a spokesperson said adding that “there were reports of deaths arising from use of Kambo in ceremonies, and therefore it was declared not safe for human use.”
The TGA also found that there was no evidence of medical benefit to the use of Kambo.