Is Kambo, The Amazonian Tree Frog Secretion, Actually A Poison?
SNAKES, SYMBIOSIS, SUNSCREEN & SWISS PHYSICIANS
The world of sacred healing, psychedelics, and many other alternative and traditional medicines, are often misunderstood and misrepresented in these contemporary times of our fast-paced, cheap-tabloid, ease-of-information, scroll-scroll-scroll lifestyle. Cue the whole "war on drugs" saga we're still navigating after almost 50 years.
To cut straight to the chase, firstly, why is Kambo considered a poison?
Kambo is known to produce it’s secretion as a form of predatory defence against snakes, and other amphibian loving animals, just like many other creatures who have their own defence mechanisms. When an animal tries to swallow the frog and it starts experiencing the immediate and classic Kambo sensations, it’s likely to return it’s lunch and think twice before chowing down on this moderately sized amphibian again.
More on this in a moment.
It’s a common misnomer that the human body goes through it’s dramatic purging response after having Kambo applied because it’s trying to expel the poison from it’s system. Not true. We know that the secretion is full of peptides, which were discovered three decades ago by Italian pharmacologist Vittorio Erspamer: the same guy who discovered serotonin and was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize.
He concluded that the secretion was a “fantastic chemical cocktail with potential medical applications, unequalled by any other amphibian.” Since then, pharmaceutical companies have been isolating single peptides from the secretion for various medical pursuits, because, quite obviously, the peptides hold remarkable potential when it comes to benefiting the human body.
Each peptide induces various physiological responses within the body, some of which are common to consciously experience during a Kambo treatment, including tachycardia, vasodilation, blood pressure modulation, gastric acid secretion, and smooth muscle contraction. Then there’s the anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties of the peptides too. When the body starts heating up, when the heart starts racing, when blood pressure changes, when the nausea comes and the purging flows, it’s not due to the body rejecting the “poison” or because the body feels threatened, it’s due to the peptide’s specific actions on the body.
Back to the snakes…
If the peptides are considered beneficial to the human body, (and not only the human body - the secretion / peptides have been applied to dogs, racehorses, and who knows how many other animals, for the numerous benefits) is it possible that the secretion is also beneficial to other animals? It’s claimed that if and when a snake does take the Phyllomedusa Bicolor frog into its mouth, it spits it out. While it might seem obvious that the frog is releasing its secretion to poison its predator, and the relationship stops there, there might be a more complex symbiotic connection at play.
Bea Labate, in her talk, Contemporary Landscapes of Kambô (42:15), states that the Sucuru snake, scientifically known as Bothrops atrox, or more commonly known as the fer-de-lance snake, uses Kambo’s secretion to produce its own venom. While I couldn’t find any further information to validate these claims, it’s an interesting idea. Who’s to say that some form of symbiotic relationship between frog and snake hasn’t evolved over thousands of years in the jungle?
Then we have David Attenborough in this short BBC clip stating that the secretion is used as a form of froggy sun protection. Not necessarily to block UV light, but perhaps acting as a moisturizer so the skin doesn’t dry out.
It’s likely that the secretion is produced for a number of reasons, and whether being froggy sunscreen, poison for predators, or an ally for other creatures, when used appropriately and respectfully, similar to the jungle traditions that have taken place for hundreds if not thousands of years, and taking into consideration the nature of the peptides and the wealth of reports stating the myriad of health benefits gained from Kambo, it’s disingenuous to say that this secretion is poisonous to humans.
When I consider what Swiss physician Paracelsus had to say - “all things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison” - it brings to mind the importance of taking into account the contraindications, cautions and proper preparation protocols, to ensure that the highest safety precautions are met.
It’s also met with reflections on how we can label many things as a poison. Drink enough water and that can be poison. Eat enough Kale and that can be poison. Yet, we don’t habitually call these poisons, because typically, and when approached responsibly, they’re not.
Languaging something as poison gives the impression that the substance is inherently harmful, and is capable of causing illness, injury or death to a living organism when introduced or absorbed into the system.
So, in the context of Kambo, sure, it has the potential to be a poison, just like anything else does, but in the way that we as humans interact with this secretion and its beneficial qualities, I think it’s misleading, and harmful, to label this secretion as a poison. Doing so continues to distort perceptions while perpetuating the misinformation and fear towards many traditional and natural healing options (such as Kambo and other psychedelic substances), as we’ve seen, and as I mentioned, largely due to the war on drugs.
Thankfully this is changing due to the resurgence of scientific research and the medical application of psychedelics as medicine appearing in many mainstream media sources, but we still have a long way to go.
POISONS, TOXINS & VENOMS… LET’S ENTERTAIN THE IDEA THAT KAMBO IS A POISON
Even if we were to entertain the idea and consider Kambo as a poison, despite the associated psycho-emotional conjuring of mayhem and destruction, we must remember that natural poisons, venoms, and toxins have been harnessed by scientists and healers for centuries, to be used as medicine.
There are many venom-derived pharmaceuticals, and alternative traditional modalities, that use bee venom, snake venom, scorpion venom, gila monster saliva, and more, to treat a variety of ailments, such as fighting cancer, treating high blood pressure, heart failure and diabetes-caused kidney problems, killing bacteria, modulating insulin activity, and even serving as potent painkillers.
These substances, while in larger doses have the capacity to kill, in appropriately administered doses, can modulate and strengthen the nervous, immune, endocrine, cardiovascular system etc in beneficial ways. A substance being classified as a poison, yet being used otherwise, doesn’t lend to the viewpoint that it’s inherently negative or should be prohibited and demonized.
This gets me thinking about the semantics of the words poison, venom, toxin, and the meaning contained within them, as there are multiple ways to define and understand these words. Let’s take the words ‘toxin’ and ‘intoxication’ for example. These words contain the same semantic root, but I understand them quite differently. Classic psychedelics like ayahuasca, huachuma and psilocybin are quite clearly intoxicating, but are not toxins, in the sense that the word toxin carries the same connotation as poison, as being something inherently harmful.
Even if we do play semantics and find it hard to take an overall objective stance of whether Kambo is a poison, we must not negate the energetic and spiritual components of how this medicine seems to present itself.
SPIRIT WORLD AGENDAS & PLANETARY HEALING CONSCIOUSNESS
Whether one believes in the spirit world or not, has become somewhat irrelevant to me in my own personal experience. As I deepen down this path of sacred medicines and shamanism, I’ve observed myself becoming more open, receptive, and sensitive to energies from the natural world, both seen, and un-seen.
While my rational mind likes to play devil's advocate and philosophize on the classic questions that psychedelics bring up - whether consciousness is a byproduct of the physical brain, or whether consciousness exists separate to the physical brain, my experiences are compelling enough to place more weight into the latter idea. Once the quieting of the mind occurs, and a clearer connection to heart and soul is cultivated, an inner knowing becomes apparent, that consciousness / spirit resides within all life, and that these energies can be communicated with. This is part of the essence of shamanism.
If we’re to take this on board, we have to continue to take seriously indigenous accounts of where their knowledge and wisdom of the natural world has come from. Ask curanderos in the jungle, and they’ll tell you it came from the plants. Some of the classic myths and legends include interactions with the spirit world, with the knowledge of ayahuasca coming from the spirit of tobacco, and the knowledge of Kambo coming from the spirit of ayahuasca. If you’ve ever partaken in any entheogenic medicines, you might have some idea of why these claims are taken seriously by our indigenous brothers and sisters, and why it might be wise for us to give these experiences the same respectful consideration.
There’s an interesting idea that the spirits of these sacred medicines have their own agenda, which could be tied into the Earth’s agenda of global propagation and distribution, for the purpose of collective healing and awakening. Think of it like as the Earth reaching out to some of its children that have become disoriented along the way with amnesia, allowing its secretions to resurface and spread so that we have the opportunity to return to right relationship to all life on our planet.
From this perspective, and from an experiential knowing of feeling into Kambo’s “spirit wisdom”, we begin to get the sense that this Amazonian medicine isn’t just helpful on the physiological and psycho-emotional level here in this material reality, but on an energetic and spiritual level too, doing it’s part in conjunction with the healing wisdom of our planet, directing us and helping us realign to health, wellness, heart, soul and spirit.
A far stretch? That’s for you to decide.
PURGING FROM SACRED MEDICINES IS “GETTING WELL”, BUT LET’S SKIP THE FROG DISEASE
In the West, we have a cultural hang up when it comes to purging. Vomiting is seen as inherently negative; being sick, ill, or overly intoxicated in a negative way. In other societies and cultures, purgatives are commonly used, and purging, at least in the context of sacred medicines, is perceived as “getting well”.
Humans aren’t the only ones who ingest certain substances to aid the process of purging the system from parasites, toxins and other dense energies. Dense, in the sense, that they’re not compatible with keeping the system in a state of harmony. Other animals consume plant material to help with the cleansing process. Dogs and cats purging after eating grass is a prime example.
On the topic of purging, I’ve been asked why, if Kambo is not a poison, can’t it be ingested, or taken an alternative way outside of the traditional method of burning the top layer of skin? In traditional lore, when Kambo is taken intranasally, and from some reports I’ve come across - taken orally, it can lead to “frog disease”. What this disease is, and if it actually exists, I’m completely unsure, however stories consist of weakening the heart and damaging the brain in some way.
If Kambo could be safely taken as a nasal snuff, or ingested for that matter, in the secretions vast history of usage amongst many different tribes throughout the Amazon basin, it’s likely that this knowledge and means of administration would be passed on and established.
While Kambo-snuffs and Rapeh-containing-Kambo can be found on the online marketplace, other traditional mythologies I’ve come across state that this should be used sparingly, only for those who are healthy and strong, and in conjunction with regular Kambo sessions, so that the action of the peptides through traditional administration, and their anti-microbial/bacterial/viral effects can negate any potential damage from nasal or oral administration, caused by some type of unknown parasite, fungus, bacteria or virus.
If there is truth to this, it begs the question… why doesn’t the traditional method of application result in the same health problems? And, how on Earth did they figure out that this particular frog contained beneficial qualities, and this particular method of application was the safest and most effective means of administration?! Part of the great unknown I suppose. That, or we take the literal meaning when natives say, “the plants told us.”
Either way, still part of the Great Mystery.
In exploring this, one can expand on Paracelsus’ idea that it’s not just the dose that makes the poison, but perhaps the method of ingestion and administration too. When it comes down to it, when taking into consideration the contraindications, cautions, preparation protocols, the safe methods of applying this medicine, the benefits from walking this healing path, and with all the cultural and semantical baggage in the times we currently live in, my stance is that Kambo is not a poison.
I suggest we stick to the word “secretion” to keep a neutral tone conducive to its inherent potential for profound healing, and, if someone wants to argue the poison perspective, the entire exploration above can be used as a foundation to build upon for mature and healthy discussion.
Banner Artwork: Melanie Hava